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During the last month Sheikh Hashemi Rafsanjani issued the seventh part of his memoirs entitled “The Hand of Fate”. The latest volume – just like all other parts of his autobiography that he began releasing several years ago – carries special significance because it addresses a sensitive era (1988-1989). During this time, the Iran-Iraq war came to an end, Ayatollah Khomeini died, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was inaugurated, Saudi-Iranian ties were cut after the famous Hajj incident, and a fatwa was issued to kill Salman Rushdie. Rafsanjani’s memoirs continue to stir up controversy among current and former symbols of the regime. Some have accused the “Sheikh President” of distorting the facts, whilst others consider his memoirs to be an attempt to exonerate himself from some of the “shameful” acts committed by the regime against internal and external opponents, especially the isolation of Ayatollah Montazeri and the death sentence passed against his son in law, in addition to a series of assassinations against intellectuals and journalists that rocked Iran during the late 1990s. There is no doubt that through the publication of these memoirs, Rafsanjani wants to shed light on his role in the Iranian revolution, prove that he was close to Ruhollah Khomeini, and highlight the vital part he played in Ali Khameini’s successful confrontation with the Montazeri movement.

Such a testament is particularly necessary at a time when Rafsanjani’s daughter Faiza and son Mehdi have been arrested – returning from London after an absence of three years – and placed in the notorious Evin Prison.

Rafsanjani has been subjected to marginalization and attacks from President Ahmadinejad’s government, along with a number of mullahs loyal to the Supreme Leader, due to his sympathetic stance with the demonstrations in 2009. For that he was forced to retire from his position in the Assembly of Experts, and his position in the Iranian Expediency Discernment Council remains in the hands of the Supreme Leader, who could dismiss him at any time.

It is true that Rafsanjani has tried to distance himself from the Green Movement over the past two years, has reduced the severity of his criticisms of President Ahmadinejad, and has regained, in a somewhat crude manner, an enthusiasm for the usual Iranian rhetoric against the United States and the West. This is despite the fact that he has been one of the most prominent advocates of reconciliation with America since 1998. Furthermore, Rafsanjani’s silence over the arrests of [Iranian opposition leaders] Mehdi Karroubi and Hossein Mousavi lost him a lot of popularity, and this stance was not even appreciated among the conservative trend that now considers him to be a burdensome remnant, and has begun to target his children judicially.

Some believe that Rafsanjani’s survival is only due to the Supreme Leader being unwilling to appease the conservatives and eliminate him, in order to preserve the current balance. They argue that the Supreme Leader prefers to have Rafsanjani – to whom Khameini is his only hope – at his disposal rather than the latter resorting to revealing the common history between them.

Perhaps what distinguishes the latest volume of his memoirs is that Rafsanjani deliberately talks about Khamenei in a courteous manner, in the way that an eager subordinate would talk about his boss. Despite the criticisms that I already referred to, these memoirs are an important insight into understanding Iranian politics, and the decision making mechanism in the Islamic Republic. Not only that, but they reveal a permanent conflict between the institutions of the state and the (unofficial) networks of the revolutionary bodies.

If we think along the lines of the division described by prominent Iranian writer Amir Taheri, between “Iran the state” and “revolutionary Iran”, we can note that Iran’s foreign policy is infected by “schizophrenia”, if I may call it that. Iran the state, with its historical institutions, wants to reconcile with the outside world, whilst revolutionary Iran wants the country to live in a state of “phobia” and suspicion towards everything beyond its borders, so the activities and exorbitant budgets of the Revolutionary Guards can be justified on the grounds of protecting the state from external aggression.

On the subject of Saudi-Iranian relations, we can note that there are two trends within the official establishment, one of which actually advocates good relations with Saudi Arabia on the grounds that hostility only exposes Iran to regional isolation and prompts the (Sunni) Islamic countries to line up against Iran for sectarian reasons. Most importantly, quarrelling with Saudi Arabia makes cooperation in determining oil prices through OPEC impossible, and likewise the threats towards Saudi Arabia issued by some hardliners in Iran only prompt the former to increase its armament and help other countries – such as Iraq in the 1980s – to contain Iranian expansion.

Furthermore, Rafsanjani’s memoirs reveal that the official government often does not know what is going on with the Revolutionary Guards, which receives its orders directly from the Supreme Leader. With regards to the bulk of operations carried out by the Guards internally or abroad, sometimes the President is only informed after they occur, which puts the government in an embarrassing situation as it is forced to confront diplomatic crises without being fully briefed. We see this with incidents ranging from the strike against a Kuwaiti oil tanker, explosives being sent to Saudi Arabia in bags, or the implementation of a covert operation in Germany.

Here, for the readers’ benefit, I have picked out some of the most important excerpts from Rafsanjani’s most recent memoirs:

18th October 1987: Khameini tells Rafsanjani that one of Gaddafi’s envoys came to visit him in Tehran, proposing that Iran stop its conflict with Iraq and attack Saudi Arabia instead. Rafsanjani reveals that Iran rejected this request.

16th September 1987: Rafsanjani details the time that MP Hosseini Shahroudi came to visit him telling him that he believed Iran was to blame for the 1987 Hajj incident.

27th April 1988: Rafsanjani reveals that Dr. [Ali Akbar] Velayati informed him that Saudi Arabia planned to cut ties with Iran, which would expose the Iranians to great pressure.

2nd October 1987: Dr. Velayati contacts Rafsanjani at night, informing him that he had met Abdel Halim Khaddam in Syria, and that the latter had told him that Saudi Arabia believed Iran was preparing to attack it. Velayati promised his Syrian counterpart a formal response to allay any fears, but Khaddam added that he did not believe this would be a good thing before the upcoming Arab leaders meeting. Rafsanjani asks Velayati to refrain for several days before responding to the Syrians on the matter.

22nd October 1988: Rafsanjani reveals that Ahmad Khomeini had sent a message ordering the Iranian press to stop criticizing Saudi Arabia, after King Fahd had committed to a similar pledge to stop his country’s media criticism of Iran.

4th October 1988: Rafsanjani writes that Seyyed Mostafa Tajzadeh, Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, has warned of propaganda against Saudi Arabia, believing that such propaganda will only ignite sectarian strife. Tajzadeh argues that this would not be in anyone’s interests, even though Saudi Arabia excels in disseminating anti-Iranian propaganda throughout the Muslim world.

So, it is clear that Rafsanjani has many secrets in his locker that are yet to be disclosed. Perhaps if he does so then this will impact severely upon the Supreme Leader, by virtue of their shared history.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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