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April 3, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 821

Rafsanjani Calls For Dialogue With the U.S.

April 3, 2012 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 821

Introduction

On April 2, 2012, the Iranian website Khabar Online, which is considered close to the circles of Majlis speaker Ali Larijani, featured portions of an interview by Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of the Iranian International Studies Journal.[1] Rafsanjani is considered to have been the right-hand man of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and since the establishment of Iran's Islamic regime in 1979 has held very senior posts in the regime leadership, and in 2005 was described as the regime's No. 2 man. However, his criticism of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's conduct during the unrest that followed the 2009 presidential election severely undermined his status in the regime.

In the interview, Rafsanjani claimed that Iran must maintain a dialogue with the U.S., establish a good relationship with Saudi Arabia, and refrain from pursuing an "adventurous policy" using Hizbullah and Hamas, thus endangering Iran's national interests. He revealed that he had attempted to persuade Khomeini to renew ties with the U.S., and that he had subsequently urged Khamenei to do likewise with Egypt. In addition to his criticism of the policies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and of the conduct of regime officials – policies which have led to direct clashes with Saudi Arabia and other countries – it is clear that Rafsanjani is also critical of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's policy on these issues.

On the nuclear issue, Rafsanjani said in the interview that Iran is not at an impasse, because it has no military nuclear program. He reiterated his 2001 statement that a single nuclear bomb would be enough to destroy Israel and its capabilities, but stressed that his statements were not a threat, and called for the nuclear disarmament of the Middle East.[2]

Immediately after the interview was published, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the daily Kayhan and an associate of Khamenei, and the news agency Fars, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), criticized Rafsanjani's calls for pragmatism and for renewing ties with the U.S. They claimed that there should be no deviation from the ideological lines that Khomeini himself had laid out and had never altered in his lifetime. Several Majlis members also referred to the impact of Rafsanjani's statements on upcoming nuclear talks.

Following are the main points of Rafsanjani's interview, as it appeared in Khabar Online,[3] followed by reactions from his critics.

The Rafsanjani Interview

On Iran-U.S. Relations

Rafsanjani was asked how the foreign policy perception that there are neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, and that the only thing determining relationships are national interests, has been manifested in Iran's ties with the U.S., particularly during his own presidency (1989-97).

Rafsanjani replied: "During Imam [Khomeini's] final years, I wrote him a letter by hand and gave it to him myself because I did not want anyone else to read it. In it, I raised seven issues, and I noted, 'It would be best if you would resolve these while you are still alive, because otherwise they can become stumbling blocks in the state's future path.' I told him that there were complex and difficult [issues] that would be problematic for someone else after him to solve if he did not...

"One of these issues was [Iran's] ties with America. I wrote that our current modus operandi, [i.e.] that we have no talks or ties with America, could not go on forever. America is one of the stronger powers in the world. What is the difference in our approach to Europe and our approach to America? In our approach to China and our approach to America? In our approach to Russia and our approach to America? For if we negotiate with [these countries] why aren't we negotiating with America as well? Negotiating doesn't mean that we are capitulating to them, [but merely] that we are negotiating with them, and if they accept our position or we accept theirs, that's fine."

On Iranian-Saudi Relations

Asked whether his efforts toward rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries had reached an impasse, and if so how to proceed past it, Rafsanjani answered that no such impasse had been reached. He criticized the current Iranian government's policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, particularly what he referred to as ill-considered declarations that were harming relations between the two countries, and explained that the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, wanted channels to Iran, a regional power, to be open. He said: "They [i.e. the Saudis] can, and are inclined to, cooperate with Iran if relations are balanced... I tried to revive the cultural heritage of the Shi'a in Saudi Arabia. All the [Shi'ite] imams had had a presence there, and I wanted to revive their great heritage. When I was in Saudi Arabia, Ayatollah Safi [apparently Golpayegani] wrote me a letter calling on me to do so... We [i.e. I and the Saudis] resolved many issues via dialogue, but when I returned to Iran, they [apparently the Ahmadinejad government or Rafsanjani's opponents in the regime] thought that the conclusions [that we had reached would be credited] to me, and so reneged on everything..."

Rafsanjani explained that Iran-Saudi relations were no small matter, considering Saudi Arabia's religious and economic importance. He said, "The most important issue is oil. If the Saudis had good relations with us, the West could not implement sanctions against us. Only Saudi Arabia can fill in for Iran [in terms of oil production]. All the Saudis have to do is... to produce oil according to the OPEC quota [i.e. not to exceed it, and that will] stop anyone from treating us aggressively, because the world economy cannot exist without our oil. I believe that good relations with the Saudis are still possible, but some here do not want [that]."

Turning to the interviewer, he said, "As international and foreign policy experts, you know how quickly a single ill-considered declaration can reverberate. There have been several harsh declarations on both sides, all unacceptable – and this must be rectified."

On Iran's Relations with Egypt, Central Asia, and the Caucasus

On Iran's relations with Egypt, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, Rafsanjani said: "After Khomeini's death [in 1989], we in the Supreme National Security Council voted to renew ties with Egypt. Some went to [Supreme] Leader [Khamenei] and told him that this contravened the Imam [Khomeini's] order to sever ties with it following the Camp David Accords. [Once], when I visited Turkey, the Egyptian prime minister was also there. He asked me, why don't you have ties with us? I answered that it was because of the Camp David Accords, and he said that the [peace] agreement [with Israel] was dead and nothing remained of it..."

Rafsanjani expressed veiled criticism of the tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan and Iran and the Gulf states, claiming that during his term as president, he had successfully maintained intimate ties with Azerbaijan and had improved relations with the Gulf states.

Asked about any strategic errors he had made during his eight years as Iran's president, Rafsanjani replied: "I wanted to renew relations with Egypt, but I did not succeed. I wanted to initiate negotiations with the Americans under the conditions I set, but I did not succeed. I did not succeed, but this does not mean I did not want to."

On Iran's Relations with Hamas, Hizbullah

Asked whether Tehran's support for Hamas and Hizbullah was not counter to Iran's national interests, he said that if Iran implemented "proper policy, there would be no contradiction between the two. The Palestinians have the right to a homeland and are fighting for it. This must not called terrorism, but resistance. They are defending their right, which is officially recognized in the world... The help we give them has not created a problem, and does not create one. If we are to rectify our relations with the world, we must distinguish between the two issues [i.e. national interests versus aiding Hamas].

"The same is true regarding Hizbullah, which is Shi'ite and a major part of the Lebanese nation... They have the right to defend [themselves], provided that we [i.e. Iran] do not use them to disturb others. They will do their own work. When the [Iranian] regime no longer wants to act adventurously in the world, such issues [i.e. Tehran's support for Hamas and Hizbullah] will be tolerated [in the international arena]."

On Iran's Nuclear Issue

The interviewer went on to ask Rafsanjani how he proposed to break through the deadlock in Iran's nuclear issue, to which he responded: "We have no intention of producing nuclear weapons, and we have no military nuclear program. I myself once, in a Friday [December 14, 2001] sermon, advised the occupying Israeli regime that a nuclear bomb doesn't benefit Israel either. If at some point a nuclear conflict breaks out – Israel is a small country, and it cannot withstand [even a single] nuclear bomb. It is a small country and its capabilities are very easy to destroy. Nevertheless, they interpreted my advice as a threat.

"We sincerely believe that there is no need for nuclear weapons in the region; this was and remains one of the principles of our policy. I had no part in the [nuclear] decisions and negotiations of recent years, [but] in my opinion, there is no impasse."

On Iran's Harsh Economic Reality

In response to questions regarding Iran's economic difficulties, particularly in the areas of unemployment, youth problems, and the devaluation of its national currency, Rafsanjani claimed that the source of all Iran's economic problems was poor handling by the Ahmadinejad government, which he said lacked all professional and ideological competence. The current situation, he said, would never have happened if the Iranian government had maintained good relations with the world and with the Iranian people. "Considering Iran's enormous oil revenues... we should not now have to deal with such extraordinary unemployment. It is merely a question of [poor] management, and this can be solved very quickly..."

Rafsanjani concluded the interview by saying that that the Iranian regime could flourish if it worked together with the people, not against it.

Khamenei Associates: "Relations or Negotiations With the U.S. Were Among the Imam [Khomeini's] Red Lines"

In response to Rafsanjani's statements in the interview, Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who is close to Khamenei, stressed that "negotiations and relations with the U.S. were among the Imam [Khomeini's] red lines" and that his speeches left no doubt about his resolute opposition in the matter. Shariatmadari called Rafsanjani's failure to mention Khomeini's response to his suggestion in his letter to him – which he said would almost certainly have been negative – a manipulation by Rafsanjani, and went on to stress Supreme Leader Khamenei opposed negotiating with the U.S.. He added that there was nothing to be gained from dialogue with the Americans because "the root of the conflict between Iran and the U.S. is the two countries' [opposing] natures."

Shariatmadari dismissed Rafsanjani's statements to the effect that "America is the strongest power in the world," and clarified to him that the U.S. was plotting to undermine Iran's status as the region's leader of the resistance movement by engaging it in pointless discussion. He said that contrary to Rafsanjani's claims, negotiations with China, Russia, or the U.K. differed from negotiations with the U.S. because "Iran's primary conflict has been and remains with America." Iran, he said, could engage these other countries in dialogue while still protecting its national interests, but could not do the same if it engaged in dialogue with the U.S.[4]

The Fars news agency, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), expressed sorrow over Rafsanjani's statements, claiming that they "contravened statements by senior regime officials, and by the people, that relations with the U.S. will yield nothing." Fars added that Rafsanjani's "panicked words [had come] at a time when Islamic awakening and anti-American sentiment in the region are at their peak," and while the U.S. was preparing to escalate the sanctions against Iran.

Fars dismissed Rafsanjani's claim that the regime was distanced from the Iranian people, saying that he himself was distanced from the people, and from the revolutionary Islamic ideology and revolutionary movements sweeping the region. It said that his statements "show that he is incapable of [properly] analyzing [Iran's] domestic issues or international developments."[5]

Several Majlis members, most prominently Majlis National Security Committee chairman Ala Al-Din Boroujerdi, discussed how Rafsanjani's statements might impact the upcoming nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 countries, noting that his calls for negotiations with the U.S. would not undermine Iran's status. They emphasized that it was Supreme Leader Khamenei, not Rafsanjani, who determined the country's policy, and that in light of Khamenei's opposition to renewing ties with the U.S., Rafsanjani's statements would have no impact at all on Iran's position in the talks.[6]

* A. Savyon is director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] The periodical's website, isj.ir, does not include articles from the print edition.

[2] For Rafsanjani's 2001 statements, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No.325, "Former Iranian President Rafsanjani on Using a Nuclear Bomb Against Israel," January 3, 2002, Former Iranian President Rafsanjani on Using a Nuclear Bomb Against Israel.

[3] Khabaronline.com (Iran), April 2, 2012.

[4] Kayhan (Iran), April 4, 2012.

[5] Fars (Iran), April 3, 2012.

[6] Mehr (Iran), April 4, 2012.

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