For decades, relations between the United States and Iran have been marked by attempts to make a deal at the eleventh hour. This started in 1978, even before the mullahs seized power. Recent revelations show that leading Khomeinist figures, notably Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, regarded as the Islamic Republic’s “strongman” until his assassination in 1981, held secret meetings with a range of US diplomats and CIA agents.
According to accounts of those meetings which have just been published, the mullahs demanded US support by arguing that if they didn’t come to power, Iran could fall into the hands of pro-Soviet communists. President Jimmy Carter bought that bill of goods, and sent the Deputy Commander of NATO, a certain General Huyser, to Tehran to persuade the Iranian military to declare “neutrality” and let the mullahs to stroll into power.
In 1984 the mullahs used the same tactic again by persuading President Ronald Reagan that the Islamic Republic’s defeat in the war against Iraq would mean seizure of power by more radical factions, while a victorious Saddam Hussein might move against Israel.
With Israel acting as intermediary, Reagan agreed to rush weapons to Iran to help Khomeini turn the tide of the war. Amiram Nir, then Mossad’s rising star, supervised the shipments. Hashemi Rafsanjani chaperoned the secret contacts, and his protégé Hassan Rouhani was one of the foot soldiers in shady maneuvers that led to the “Irangate” scandal.
Today, having captured the presidency of the Islamic Republic, the same faction is using the same tactic to clinch a deal with President Barack Obama, who is desperate for a “success” to conceal the mess he has made of American foreign policy.
The Rafsanjani faction claims that unless the US endorses a deal on the nuclear issue, hardliners in Tehran would win two key upcoming elections. If a deal is made, the Rafsanjani faction would be able to start “capturing other levers of power,” with the ultimate aim of closing the chapter of the revolution and making Iran a “normal country.”
Rafsanjani and his clique believe they could trigger Iran’s Thermidor, in other words to bring Iran out of its revolutionary fever, by winning the Speakership of the Assembly of Experts next March. This post, vacant since the death of Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani in October, is important because the 86-man organ selects the “Supreme Guide.” The current “Supreme Guide,” Ali Khamenei, is trying to move one of his pawns, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, into the vacant chair. However, Rafsanjani has indicated his intention to throw his turban into the ring. If he wins, he would be holding the Sword of Damocles above Khamenei’s head.
If Rafsanjani wins the Speakership next March, his faction would be in a strong position to secure a majority in the next election for the assembly.
The faction’s next target is to win a majority in the Islamic Consultative Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament. With its current control of the Interior Ministry, which organizes the elections, the faction has a good chance of arranging the outcome provided it controls the Council of Guardians, or at least bribes and/or browbeats enough of its members to endorse the results.
Political mullahs always follow winners in any power struggle. Thus, if the Rafsanjani faction wins enough power within the establishment, it would have little difficulty persuading many mullahs to switch sides.
Some members of the faction are already talking of the “golden day” when Rafsanjani himself becomes “Supreme Guide,” perhaps also absorbing the post of the President of the Republic.
The beauty of all this history is that successive US administrations have fallen for the same trick. They have ended up backing one faction against another in a power struggle that has marked the Khomeinist era from the start. The problem, however, is that none of the factions involved have the power to deliver what the US wants, that is to say a friendly Iran that does not try to stir up trouble in the Middle East in the name of Islam and revolution.
The reason is that people like Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and others are influential players only in the context of the Khomeinist movement. Outside that context they are nothing, because the majority of Iranians are disillusioned with Khomeinism.
This has led to a Catch-22 situation: Rafsanjani must distance himself from the revolution to win American support, but to wield influence within the revolution he has to be, or at least pretend to be, anti-American.
In recent years, a new complication has been added to the mix: the rising power of the military-security institutions that, at least as far as the younger generation is concerned, owe little or nothing to mullahs.
Today, Iran’s military elite consists of thousands of young, highly educated individuals with experience in a range of domains. In contrast, the political mullahs lose on both scores. Active in politics they have not had enough time to develop proper clerical careers and thus cannot claim legitimacy or respect on religious grounds. At the same time, they are shunned by the genuine theological elite in Najaf and Qom.
For decades the US, and other democracies, played the “hawks-and-doves” game in the context of policy on the Soviet Union. Western policy-makers did not understand that not even the most dovish of Soviet doves could deliver the real thing: an end to the USSR as enemy of Western democracies. During the so-called détente, some “doves,” notably Leonid Brezhnev, pretended to be changing course. But, having realized that outside the context of the Communist Party‘s monopoly on political power they were nothing, and failed to deliver. Mikhail Gorbachev, the “dove” that tried to change the context, ended up presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
A year later when he stood for election as president of post-Soviet Russia, he collected less than one per cent of the vote. In other words, outside the context of the Soviet system, he was a nobody.
Iran’s problem is not Khamenei. Even if Rafsanjani manages to get rid of Khamenei, which is doubtful because the “Supreme Guide” is more popular among Khomeinists than Rafsanjani could ever be, the existing context does not allow Iran to become a normal country.
The solution is not a change of personnel but change of system.
And that is not in Rafsanjani’s gift.