April 15, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 132

Iran's U.S. Policy After the Fall of Baghdad: Khamenei's Hostility Versus Rafsanjani's Pragmatism

April 15, 2003 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 132

In a Friday sermon following the fall of Baghdad, Iran's Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei focused on recent events in Iraq. His sermon, delivered in Arabic at Tehran University, was apparently directed towards the Iraqi people and the entire Arab world.

While Khamenei continues to make hostile statements about the U.S. – former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who currently heads the powerful conservative Expediency Council, took a realistic view of the new circumstances and showed pragmatism. In an interview, he told the Iranian periodical Rahbord ["Strategy"], published by Iran's Strategic Research Center, that he did not rule out changes in Iran's traditionally hostile attitude towards the U.S. (and Egypt), and noted that although the U.S. was perceived by Iran as a threat – or perhaps precisely because of this – a change in tactics might be a good way to improve Iran's standing.

Apparently, this pragmatic approach regarding the U.S. is the trial balloon for top Iranian conservative officials' reactions to the fall of Baghdad (Iraq, it will be recalled, was the first of the three countries of the "axis of evil"). Rafsanjani's position also apparently emerged as a result of Iran's increasing apprehensions regarding the U.S.'s stance towards its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Even prior to the war, Iranian policy was aimed at preparing for any eventuality[1]– but Rafsanjani's statements went much further than any previous declarations by Iranian leaders regarding the U.S. Although Rafsanjani is best known for his extremist conservative views, he has been the first post-revolutionary Iranian leader to issue pragmatic statements, beginning in 1983.

Rafsanjani on the Future of Relations with the U.S.

"It is true that in the early years after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, the experienced experts of the [Foreign] Ministry fled the country or were dismissed… Then a group of youth took over the affairs of the ministry. But running the affairs of the ministry requires knowledge, expertise, and prudence… We should not be biased. We have lost many opportunities in the past, we have taken inappropriate measures or never made any moves, and we have also delayed decisions."[2]

Rafsanjani mentioned remarks by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini to the effect that the most important religious duties of Iranians could be overlooked whenever the system required it, and applied that principle to contemporary circumstances: "Whenever it comes to our experience, we can solve whatever foreign problem is threatening us from the viewpoint of Islam… Our ideology is flexible. We can choose our expediency on the basis of Islam. Still, to put the country in jeopardy on the grounds that we are acting on an Islamic basis is not at all Islamic."[3]

Rafsanjani added that the problem of relations with the U.S. could be solved in one of two ways. The first is by referendum, with the approval of the Majlis (Parliament) and the Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei, and the second is "referring the problem to the Expediency Council, and we will discuss it and announce what is expedient [i.e. what is in the country's best interest]. Of course, the leader has to approve it, too… When an issue turns into a problem it is referred to the [Expediency] Council to make a decision on that… When we approve an issue, we send it to the [Supreme] Leader, who usually accepts it. If the issue of relations with the U.S. and Egypt is considered a problem, the Council can study it."[4]

Rafsanjani added that Supreme Leader Khamenei did not customarily interfere directly in decision-making regarding the constitution, or even the performance of state institutions, except in very special cases: "It is clear that the problems with the U.S. and Egypt do exist, and we have had these problems from the era of the late founder of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini. However, the Supreme Leader has his own considerations regarding these cases." Rafsanjani added that the Foreign Ministry's decision-making process should be speeded up "when it is obvious what we are about to do."[5]

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project

[1]Iran and the War In Iraq

[2]IRNA, April 12, 2003. Rafsanjani said in an interview that in the past, the Iranian Foreign Ministry would consult with the Supreme Leader when making decisions, but added that this was unnecessary and that the ministry was capable of managing its affairs on its own without transferring them to other bodies.

[3]IRNA, April 12, 2003.

[4]IRNA, April 12, 2003.

[5]IRNA, April 12, 2003.

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