Ever since the mullahs seized power almost 35 years ago, they have regarded the United States with a mixture of fascination and fear—and that mixture has played a crucial role in the power struggle going on within the Khomeinist camp ever since. The mixture is now at work, as the faction led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani tries to recapture the positions it lost during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
Signs of the mullahs’ fascination with the US, dubbed the “Great Satan” by Ayatollah Khomeini, were present from the earliest days of the regime. The first government created under Khomeini and headed by Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister included five naturalized US citizens. Bazargan’s first deputy was later tried as a CIA agent.
Shortly after forming his government in 1979, Bazargan met US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in Algiers to work out a “common strategy” against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
To topple Bazargan, rival factions harped on the fear of the US and provoked the seizure of American diplomats as hostages. Muhammad Beheshti, the ambitious mullah who led the principal anti-Bazargan faction, held secret meetings with US agents to forge an alliance. Beheshti even sent one of his protégés, Ali Khamenei, who is now the “Supreme Leader,” to the occupied Embassy to improve conditions for the captive diplomats. In footage available on the Internet, one sees Khamenei promising the American hostages they would be released soon and that the Islamic Republic would like to resume buying arms form the US.
The rival faction at the time was led by Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Moussavi, who ended up negotiating the release of the hostages. To consolidate his position, Moussavi set up a channel with Washington led by his chief aide, Abbas Mohsen Kangarloo.
With Beheshti assassinated, his two protégés, Khamenei and Rafsanjani, came together to dislodge Moussavi. Rafsanjani became Washington’s chief interlocutor in Tehran and, in time, played the American card to have Khamenei appointed “Supreme Leader” while anointing himself as President.
The Khomeinists’ fascination with the “Great Satan” was such that many regime grandees quietly dispatched their offspring to the US for education. Today, a high percentage of posts in the Khomeinist regime are occupied by the American-educated children of mullahs and their associates. In 2011, a member of the Majlis, the ersatz parliament, leaked a list of over 300 such individuals, many of them holding US Green Cards.
Not surprisingly, the US has been a second home to hundreds of former Khomeinist officials, Revolutionary Guard members, and “fixers” supervising businesses owned by mullahs. Many went to the US on scholarships provided by unknown American sources.
At first glance, the investment that the US has made in maintaining a network of contacts inside the Islamic Republic would appear worthwhile. Today, many members of that network are in key positions in President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. Many others are returning from their sojourn in the US to strengthen the network.
Secretary of State John Kerry argues that once Rouhani’s position is strengthened, his faction would be able to move against the “hardline” factions who remain prisoners to antiquated anti-American ideologies.
For their part, Rouhani and his “American boys” claim they could secure US support for the system, thus improving the Khomeinist regime’s prospects.
Rouhani’s message to Washington is simple: ‘Let us rule Iran and we shall guarantee your interests!’ He calls that a “win–win” game.
However, a closer look at the realities of Iran today might offer a different picture.
Compared with 1979, Iran today is a far more complex society, with many forces shaping its domestic and foreign policies than a few hundred well-placed individuals. Rafsanjani, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and other high-profile players all fish in the same increasingly shallow pond of the revolution. The best estimates, including rates of participation in the regime’s arranged elections, indicate that Khomeinism could still mobilize between 10 and 15 percent of the population. Because the rest of society remains divided by ideology and political memory that 10 or 15 percent is still a strong constituency. The problem is that hatred of America is a key ingredient of the Khomeinist ideology. Thus, when time comes for real change in Tehran’s anti-American stance, the faction playing the American card would not be able to deliver.
Rouhani and his “American boys” would be able to deliver what they promise to Kerry only if they ditch the anti-American ingredient of their deadly ideological cocktail. It is obvious they cannot without losing their Khomeinist constituency.
Of course, Rouhani claims that he could find a broader constituency beyond the Khomeinist one. A majority of Iranians have a good opinion of the US and desire close ties with it. But if Iran gets a chance to return to its traditional alliance with the US, why should it trust such a project to individuals nursed on the hatred of all things American?
During their presidential tenures, Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, another mullah who flirted with the US, showed that when the crunch comes they were unable to jettison their anti-American base. It is not possible to forge an alliance with a power that one regards as ideological enemy.
Rouhani and his “American boys” are unlikely to do any better than did Bazargan, Moussavi, Rafsanjani or Khatami. Despite his real or feigned naiveté, Kerry would do well to remember that Iran’s problem today is not with the US. Iran has a problem with itself, the problem of a split personality in a nation where a majority welcomes alliance with the US while a minority regards hatred of America as its ideological lifeblood.