Media Watch | Rafsanjani: I Wanted to Reestablish Ties with US, But 'Could Not'
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI
06 Apr 2012 02:46
[ in focus ] In an interview that appears in the spring issue of Faslnaameh Motaale'aat-e Beynolmelali (International Studies Journal, or Quarterly), published in Tehran, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani speaks about several important issues that confront Iran. Rafsanjani, currently chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, presents a critique of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policy and the state's foreign policy, which is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The interview reveals once again the deep fissures within the power elite in Iran at a time when the nation is grappling with major problems domestically and has been isolated internationally.
On relations with the United States
Rafsanjani describes a letter he wrote to the Islamic Republic's first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in the late 1980s in which he argued,
There are difficult passages and if you do not help us pass through them, they will be difficult to pass through after you.... I wrote that, after all, the current policy whereby we neither negotiate with America, nor have any relations with it, cannot be sustained. America is the world's superpower. What are the differences between America and China, Europe, and Russia [with which we have relations]? If we negotiate with them, why should we not negotiate with America? Negotiating does not imply that we submit to them. We talk to them, and if they accept our positions, or we accept theirs, that is done.
I wanted to reestablish ties with Egypt [broken in 1979, after Egypt signed the Camp David Accords], but could not. I wanted to begin negotiations with America, subject to the conditions that I had set, but I could not. Could not is not the same as did not want to.
In 1995, while Rafsanjani was president, he awarded a major oil contract to the U.S. firm Conoco, even though a European firm had entered the highest bid. Not only did the Clinton administration block the deal, it also imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Iran.
On relations with Saudi Arabia
The relationship with Saudi Arabia is not a minor issue for the region. First of all, it is a rich country, and most of the Islamic scholars in Islamic nations have some sort of relations with Saudi Arabia due to the Hajj and other benefits. Secondly, they have interests, [as Saudi Arabia] fixes their mosques, provides them with various possibilities, prints the Qur'an [for them], and provides them with ample opportunities to spread the word of Islam, which is what the Al-Azhar University in Egypt used to do. Nowadays, a major portion of [such] works, even in the academic arena, are controlled by Saudi Arabia.
[But] the most important issue is oil. If Saudi Arabia had good relations with us, could the Western powers sanction us [prevent Iran from selling its oil]? Only Saudi Arabia can compensate for Iran's oil void. Saudi Arabia does not have to do anything [to support us]. All it must do is produce only its OPEC quota [no more], and no one can attack us, because the world's economy cannot work without our oil. I believe that it is still possible to have good relations [with Saudi Arabia]. But there are some here [in Iran] who do not want this. You as the expert in international relations understand this. If one unwise word is uttered it will immediately have consequences. Some of the harsh words by both sides are intolerable, and must be set aside.
Even now Rafsanjani enjoys close relations with many leaders of the Arab nations around the Persian Gulf. Without naming them, Rafsanjani seems to blame Ahmadinejad, and ultimately Khamenei, for the poor relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
On relations with Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas
If we have the right policy throughout the world, then our aid to Lebanon [Hezbollah] and Palestine [Hamas] will not be a problem. If we create the right environment with the world, we can separate the issues. Such things were, and still are, defensible if we do not use them to create problems for others, and they [the two groups] do their own things. If the political system does not wish to be adventurous, then such things are tolerable.
On the nuclear crisis and Israel
We really do not want to make nuclear weapons and a nuclear weapon program. In a sermon during a Friday Prayer [at the University of Tehran in 1999] I advised the occupying regime of Israel that having nuclear weapons is not even in Israel's interest. If there is ever a nuclear confrontation -- Israel is a small country, it will not be able to take even one bomb. It is a small country and can be destroyed easily, although they interpreted my advice as a threat. We deeply believe that nuclear weapons must not exist, and this has been part of our policy.
Rafsanjani is right about the misinterpretation of what he said. I happened to be in Tehran at the time, and listened to his sermon on national television. What he said was that even if Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, it can be destroyed with a nuclear bomb and, therefore, it is not in its interest to have a nuclear arms race with the Islamic world.
On the human rights situation
We tried [during his presidency] to have the minimum number of political prisoners. There were, of course, cases that were out of our control, and certain people were doing such things [arresting and imprisoning dissidents]. I have never been supportive, particularly when I was the president, of imprisoning people for political reasons. We know what jail is. [Rafsanjani was incarcerated on five separate occasions under the Shah.] Shutting down a newspaper was a taboo for me, unless it was out of my control. During the administration of Mr. [Mohammad] Khatami, as well, several newspapers were closed, even though the president did not want it, but there were others [who carried it out]. We always tried to satisfy the religious and ethnic minorities. We all tried, but such things take time. There are some people in any society that act differently [without respect for human rights].
Regarding the United Nations Human Rights Council's appointment last year of Ahmed Shaheed, former Maldives foreign minister, as special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Rafsanjani reflects on one of Shaheed's predecessors in the role.
When [Reynaldo] Galindo Pohl visited Iran, the state [of human rights] was not this bad. [When] they sent Mr. Galindo Pohl, we did not have such difficulties at all, and [those that existed] were being addressed. The human rights problems were being solved.
Rafsanjani is not truthful about Professor Pohl and his mission. Pohl (1918-2012), who was appointed as special rapporteur on human rights in Iran in 1987 and served for eight years, reported very significant human rights violations, particularly regarding the treatment of adherents of the Baha'i faith. In addition, Pohl traveled to Iran after thousands of political prisoners were executed during summer 1988, around the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Furthermore, most of the victims of the infamous Chain Murders were killed during Rafsanjani's presidency. He made no attempt to remove Ali Fallahian, the hardline minister of intelligence and a major culprit in the murders; by contrast, Khatami fired the minister of intelligence that had been imposed on him, Ghorban Ali Dorri Najafabadi, for his links to the killings.
On the state of the economy
Criticizing the administration of Ahmadinejad without naming him, Rafsanjani acknowledges that the economy is in a terrible state and that the government is not adequately serving the people. He adds,
We must find a solution for such issues. If our executive branch had strong scientific and technical qualifications, had employed effective management, had good social relations, had treated people well, and had not created problems with the world, such things would not have happened.
We should not experience these difficulties, given the great income from oil exports and our exports of petrochemical products.... I believe our economic problems and unemployment are abnormal. I believe that, given the huge income from oil exports and the possibilities for creating jobs, the unemployment is unusual. It is a problem of management, and if a powerful management takes control of affairs in the country, it can quickly address the problems.
Interestingly, Ahmadinejad recently took two steps that may be subtle signals of his interest in a rapprochement with Rafsanjani. First, he refused to sign the order for the appointment of Farhad Daneshjoo as chancellor of Islamic Azad University in place of Abdollah Jasbi, who is very close to Rafsanjani. The enormous school system had been been controlled by Rafsanjani and his inner circle for three decades. Then, after Daneshjoo was directly appointed by the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution, Ahmadinejad appointed Jasbi as his adviser.
In reaction to the interview, hardline websites attacked Rafsanjani fiercely, particularly for his views on the need to reestablish ties with the United States. In Raja News, in particular, several articles have recently taken aim at Rafsanjani. Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline managing editor of Kayhan daily, rebuked the ex-president, claiming that Khomeini was opposed to negotiating with the United States and that Rafsanjani had failed to mention this in his interview. Cleric Ali Saeedi, Khamenei's representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- who was recently sanctioned by the European Union for human rights violations -- warned Rafsanjani "not to discuss issues that may provoke the enemy's greed. Such statements are messages, sent abroad from Iran, that are not compatible with national unity and internal authority."
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