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“We need detente and delicacy in our relations with the world,” said a message on his personal website last month.

His family has extensive international ties through university studies in Britain and a vast business network that includes construction companies, an auto assembly plant, real estate holdings and a private airline. In 2003, he was listed among Iran’s “millionaire mullahs” by Forbes magazine.

His image, however, also has darker undertones. He was named by prosecutors in Argentina among Iranian officials suspected of links to a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Some Iranian reformers accused him of a role in the slaying of liberals and dissidents during his presidency.

More goodwill?

In many ways, the presidency is less powerful than his oligarch status. The president has a limited say in critical policy decisions such as the nuclear program or military affairs, which are overseen directly by the theocratic rulers and their protectors. Yet the president is seen as the country’s main international envoy and is often used to set the tone for dealings with the West.

“The discourse of the Iranian leadership would differ” under Mr. Rafsanjani, said Hamid Reza Shokoohi, editor of the pro-reform Mardomsalari newspaper. “Both sides will be able to enter nuclear talks with more goodwill.”

Mr. Rafsanjani has not taken a front-line role in Iran’s showdowns over its nuclear program, which the West and allies fear could lead to nuclear weapons. Iran insists it seeks reactors for energy and medical use only.

Majid Deljou, a political columnist at Tehran’s Hamshahri daily, said the main purpose of Mr. Rafsanjani’s presence at the Nonaligned summit was to show unity among Iranian leaders. This holds especially true for Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Ahmadinejad, who have been in open feud since Mr. Rafsanjani lost the presidential race in 2005.

Mr. Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh, spent a few hours in detention and his younger son, Mahdi, went into self-exile in 2009 over allegations of links to protests after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Mr. Rafsanjani’s older son, Mohsen, was fired from his post as chief of Tehran’s subway last year.

The treatment of his family has left Mr. Rafsanjani a bitter critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his bombastic style. Mr. Rafsanjani, meanwhile, has been quietly promoting his version of political healing, trying to redress claims by reformists that the ruling theocracy has hijacked Iran’s elections.

“Free, transparent and lawful elections could solve a big portion of the country’s problems,” Mr. Rafsanjani told university students last week. “It increases trust among people and supporters of the system while disarming foreign enemies.”