(Repeats adding pix and TV to slug)
By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
DUBAI Jan 10 Tens of thousands of Iranians
massed in central Tehran on Tuesday for the funeral of former
president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in a show of unity to honour
the Islamic Republic's polarising pragmatist.
Rafsanjani, who died on Sunday aged 82, will be buried in
the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the
country's Islamic revolution in 1979 and founded the country's
system of theocratic rule.
Rafsanjani's pragmatic policies of economic liberalisation
and better relations with the West attracted fierce supporters
and equally fierce critics during his life, but his funeral
brought both sides together in a show of solidarity and unity.
Popularly known as a "pillar of the Revolution", he wielded
wide influence in core decision-making bodies of Iran.
In a move seen at the time as power-sharing, he played a
significant role in 1989 to appoint Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to
succeed Khomeini as new supreme leader of Iran.
Rafsanjani was elected as new president a few months later.
However, their friendship gradually turned into rivalry as
the pragmatist president sided with reformists who promoted
freedoms, while Khamenei followed a conservative interpretation
of the core values of the Islamic Republic.
In his condolence message, Khamenei said political
differences could never "entirely break up" his nearly 60 years
of friendship with Rafsanjani.
Streets were filled overnight with billboards that showed a
picture of the two men smiling and chatting as close friends.
"No one would be like Hashemi for me," the billboards quoted
Khamenei as saying, using Rafsanjani's first family name.
Iranians usually have two family names.
"Ayatollah Hashemi tried all his life to save the Islamic
Revolution ... He wanted to preserve the unity of Iran," his son
Mohsen was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA at the
An eyewitness told Reuters on the phone from Tehran that
"some were chanting slogans asking political prisoners to be
released, some hardliners were shouting Death to America. But
they didn't clash. Everyone were respectful."
Khamenei said the final prayer over Rafsanjani's body in the
University of Tehran courtyard where the late president
delivered many of his speeches during Friday prayers.
Politicians, military commanders and religious figures from
all camps stood behind him.
The president, head of parliament, head of the judiciary and
senior Khamenei advisors stood in the first line at the service,
while cabinet ministers and the deceased leader's relatives
filled the rows behind them.
Rafsanjani's body, sealed in a metal coffin with his white
turban on top, was then brought in procession down Revolution
Street in central Tehran, where tens of thousands of people came
out in cold winter weather to pay tribute.
State television channels broadcast the funeral live from
early hours in the morning, highlighting the massive outpouring
of public respect for the former president.
Among those attending were Revolutionary Guards Commander
Qassem Soleimani, leading Iranian Sunni cleric Molavi
Abdolhamid, several grandsons of Khomeini and even some movie
stars, showing how Rafsanjani enjoyed respect from opposing
figures in Iran.
Mohamad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president and reformist
cleric, said on Twitter that "it is difficult to imagine Iran
without Hashemi Rafsanjani. He had different opponents in
different eras, but they all believed in his greatness and the
role he was playing to resolve issues."
Rafsanjani's death ahead of May's presidential election was
a blow to moderate president Hassan Rouhani, who allied himself
with him to win the 2013 election and went on to resolve Iran's
long standoff with the West over its nuclear programme.
Rafsanjani was a member of the Assembly of Experts, the
clerical body that selects the supreme leader, Iran's most
powerful figure. His absence from that debate, whenever it
happens, means the chances of a pragmatist emerging as the next
supreme leader are reduced.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Tom Heneghan)