Rafsanjani's next move
18 Jun 2009 17:00
Differences over foreign policy are central to the crisis in Tehran
By GARETH SMYTH in Beirut
TEHRAN BUREAU | The clearest sign of the bitter division within Iran's political class -- at least before the post-election crackdown -- was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's attack on Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani during a televised election debate.
Mr Rafsanjani was prompted to write a more-or-less open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, after Mr Ahmadinejad accused him of corruption and called him the "puppet master" behind his main challenger, Mir-Hossein Musavi.
"If the system cannot or does not want to confront such ugly and sin-infected phenomena as insults, lies and false allegations," wrote Mr Rafsanjani, "how can we consider ourselves followers of the sacred Islamic system?"
Mr Ahmadinejad's criticism of Mr Rafsanjani go back to the start of his 2005 presidential campaign, when he was the mayor of Tehran and barely known across the country.
These attacks have centered not just on Mr Rafsanjani's alleged opulence but on his foreign policy outlook, and this suggests that current events in Iran will affect the prospects for president Barack Obama's policy of engagement.
Washington has long understood that to talk with Iran, it must deal with Ayatollah Khamenei. But while Ayatollah Khamenei is pre-eminent in the leadership group, the events of the last week do not suggest he is about to curb the growing influence of Mr Ahmadinejad.
Mr Rafsanjani has prided himself on his realism since he emerged in the revolutionary movement against the Shah. He played a key role in talks with the US leading to the release of western hostages in Lebanon two decades ago, and he portrayed himself in his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2005 as the person best placed to deliver an agreement with Washington.
For Mr Ahmadinejad, in contrast, principles are preferable to compromise. One of his early acts in office was a cull of ambassadors and officials linked to Mr Rafsanjani, especially those who conducted the 2003-5 talks with the European Union over the nuclear program. Hossein Musavian, the former negotiator with the EU, even faced spying charges.
During the recent election, Mr Ahmadinejad explicitly criticized the talks with the EU, despite the fact they were endorsed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Are talks with the US so different?
Although Ayatollah Khamenei in March backed talking to Washington at least in principle, an influential group of fundamentalists -- whose views are clearly expressed by Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of Kayhan -- oppose any dalliance with the Great Satan.
This group is deeply concerned over US intervention in Iran, either through support for armed groups among ethnic minorities or attempts to foster a "velvet revolution" modeled on Ukraine.
Hence, while Iran's political class shares a commitment to the country's nuclear program and its "right" to be treated as an international power, there is clear evidence of differences over engagement with the US.
Officials from reformist and pragmatic conservative camps have for years floated a possible compromise on the nuclear program that would see Iran limit its activities and return to full UN inspection under the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.
The Iranian team during the 2003-5 negotiations with the EU believed a sustainable agreement was possible. I was told by an Iranian involved in the process that Hassan Rowhani, who led the Iranian side, in 2004 asked the leadership to back an agreement for capping uranium enrichment, a proposal he seems to have believed Europe would come to accept.
But most European diplomats at the time believed Mr Rowhani was merely playing the good cop when he warned them that failure to agree would lead to a shift to the right in Tehran. The rightward shift came with Ahmadinejad's 2005 election win and is now accelerating.
The president is well aware that the coalition opposing him -- including not just Mr Rafsanjani and Mr M0usavi, but former president Mohammed Khatami and former speaker Mehdi Karrubi -- came together largely in fear that Mr Ahmadinejad was damaging Iran's international position.
Both sides in the fractured political class understand their differences are intrinsically linked to foreign policy. Even if Mr Obama can find a clear route to Ayatollah Khamenei, he can hardly relish dealing with an Iranian leader facing an internal crisis and a possible power struggle.
Mr Rafsanjani, meanwhile, can be expected to resist both his own political demise and what he sees as the undermining of the Islamic system by Mr Ahmadinejad's recklessness.
Unlike many of his reformist allies, Mr Rafsanjani holds two important state positions as the head of both the Expediency Council and the Experts Assembly, which has a constitutional responsibility to supervise the supreme leader.
Various reports and rumors are swirling that Mr Rafsanjani is in Qom trying to co-ordinate clerical opposition to Ahmadinejad, or even that he plans to call an extraordinary meeting of the Experts Assembly.
A reformist journalist once compared the relationship between Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Rafsanjani to a married couple who quarreled but could not live apart.
I start to wonder if either party might now be thinking of divorce.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau