July 25, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1000

The Struggle Between Khamenei And Rafsanjani Over The Iranian Leadership – Part II: The Conflict Heats Up Over Direct Talks With The U.S. And The Nuclear Issue

July 25, 2013 | By A. Savyon, Yossi Mansharof, and E. Kharrazi*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1000


In recent weeks, there have been signs in Tehran of an intensification in the struggle for leadership between Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the former No. 2 man in Iran's leadership, Hashemi Rafsanjani. This emerging conflict focuses on the question of direct talks with the U.S. and on resolving the nuclear issue.

Since the June 2013 presidential elections, which Rafsanjani sees as his victory,[1] he has been pressuring Khamenei to hold direct talks with the U.S. and to make a decision critical to the survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding compromise on Iran's nuclear program, as demanded by U.S. and the West, in the same way that the Iranian leadership decided in 1988 to end the eight-year war with Iraq when conditions had become so difficult that it could no longer continue to fight.[2]

At this time, Rafsanjani is acting as a parallel leader to Khamenei, and is setting out a path on these issues that is widely divergent from Khamenei's, presenting it to the public on various occasions.

For example, at a July 21, 2013 meeting with academics, Rafsanjani criticized Khamenei's extremist policy, saying: "We cannot be in conflict with the world and [at the same time] be thinking [that there will be] an improvement in [Iran's relationship with the world]. This extremist thought interferes with the people's demands for independence at all stages of the Islamic Revolution [of Iran]... Those who brought the state to its current situation can reconsider their words, their thoughts, and their behavior, in order to help and improve matters in [the] atmosphere of rivalry [that characterizes international relations]. A precondition for doing so is of course [for Khamenei and his associates] to stay away from leveling insults and accusations at those who strive to improve Iran's status [that is, the Rafsanjani camp] because [these actions] do not suit moderate rhetoric."[3]

Khamenei is obstacle to president-elect Rohani in holding direct talks with the U.S. Source: Rooz, July 29, 2013

In order to prevail in his struggle for leadership vis-à-vis Khamenei's extremist policy, Rafsanjani recruits the image of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, describing his policy and his historic decisions – first among them his decision to accept U.N. Resolution 598 and thereby end the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war – as the paradigm of moderateness that should be followed as a model at this time. Khomeini's decision to end the war, which he said was like "drinking the cup of poison" – a term that has since become deeply rooted in Iranian policy as code for an acknowledgement of political defeat and a complete reversal of policy in order to save the regime and the state, even at the cost of relinquishing declared political principles – has become for Rafsanjani a principle to be endorsed now in light of Iran's present situation.

On July 20, 2013, Rafsanjani's office published a special interview with him, on the anniversary of Resolution 598. In the interview, which was titled "[Iran's Acceptance Of U.N.] Resolution [598] Came Because Of The Moderateness Of Imam [Khomeini]: Ayatollah [Rafsanjani] Recounts How [Khomeini Came To The Decision] To Drink The Cup Of Poison," Rafsanjani tells how this decision critical to the fate of the country was made by the Iranian leadership, headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, how Khomeini was persuaded to declare the war over, and what was Rafsanjani’s role in that process.

Rafsanjani explains in detail the moderate and responsible actions taken by Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and Rafsanjani himself during the war – which he says Iran should adopt today in its dealings with the world, particularly with the U.S., in order to guarantee its own interests. He said that it was these moderate decisions that had given Iran its victory and its achievements, and that this is why they should be guiding Iranian policy today. The U.S., he stressed, proved at that time that it was genuinely ready to go to war against Iran, Iran, on its part and under those circumstances, had not responded to the American provocation with force – as it could have done by closing the Strait of Hormuz or striking at American interests or declaring jihad against the U.S. – but had responded moderately and via diplomatic channels and thus had proven that it sought peace, while at the same time preserving its inalienable rights.

In the interview, Rafsanjani was asked a leading question about his view of the ensuing analogy between the crucial 1988 decision to end the war with Iraq the drinking of "the cup of poison," on the one hand, and the current issue of the nuclear crisis, on the other. He avoided giving a concrete answer, claiming that the analogy would be made only later on, but it is clear that in his view there is a need for the same kind of decision regarding the talks with the Americans to resolve the nuclear crisis, and that this decision will be just as significant as the 1988 decision.

Also in the interview, Rafsanjani took the opportunity to emphasize that the issue of the nuclear crisis will be decided jointly between him, Khamenei, and the rest of the wise men of the nation. He also, several times and in various ways, underlined his historic senior status over Khamenei, as the one chosen by Ayatollah Khomeini to command the war, while Khamenei was considered incable for that mission due to a hand injury.

It is clear from his position that Rafsanjani sees himself as the leader who is fit to handle the nuclear crisis – and that he is, in fact, the only one today in Iran who is capable of doing so and of triumphing against the U.S. Furthermore, in his statements about his personal experiences in the decision-making process during the Iran-Iraq war, Rafsanjani creates the clear impression that if Ayatollah Khomeini had been alive now, he would have undoubtedly handed the task of managing the main battle facing Iran today – that is, the nuclear crisis – over to Rafsanjani to carry out in his way – that is, in Khomeini's way.

Supreme Leader Khamenei's response came out the next day. On July 21, his office released a statement regarding these issues, accepting in principle Rafsanjani's view on direct talks with the U.S. Alleging that this had also been his own position in the past, Khamenei said that what needs to be guaranteed is that Iran both knows the true nature of the other side (i.e. the U.S.) and its goals, and does not submit to it (see Appendix).

The following are the main points of the interview with Rafsanjani, as published by his office:[4]

"We Could At That Time Have Taken Much Greater Revenge On The Americans... [But] There Was No Need... We Showed That We Were Peace-Seekers, And Also Insisted On Our Right... That Was the Real Victory"

Q: "Why did Imam [Khomeini] choose you [to command the war against Iraq]?"

A: "With regard to the reason I was chosen, there was an option to choose either me or Ayatollah Khamenei. Imam [Khomeini] said: 'Ayatollah Khamenei's hand was injured [in the July 27, 1981 Mojahedeen-e Khalq assassination attempt against him in Tehran] and he has problems with it. He is also president, and he must run the country.' But I was in the Majlis, and I had to run the Majlis, and I also had two deputies. The Imam said: 'You have two deputies, and if you aren't in the Majlis nothing important will happen. That is the reason.' At the same time, my relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were very sincere, because it was me who established the IRGC..."

Q: "In every war, there is a group that reaches the goal and triumphs, and another that did not reach the goal and is defeated. The question that remains, after eight years of courageous and sacred defense of the regime of the Islamic Republic, is why is there no symbol or sign of our victory in the country?... Why, in your opinion, despite all the solid historical documentation [attesting to Iran's victory in that war] are there no reports of national victory celebrations [in Iran] on the anniversary of Resolution [598] and proof of the justness of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] at the end of the eight years of the war?"

A: "...We acted thus so that the world would see us behave responsibly, and would see that we are not adventurers [but rather] are talking logically and are fighting for our logical statement. They saw our flexibility on issues where they did not think we would show flexibility. Under those same conditions [of that war], we could have created problems for others in the Strait of Hormuz, but we did not do so, and we said 'security for all or for none'... We could at that time have taken much greater revenge on the Americans in many more places, [but] there was no need for us to do so. Imam [Khomeini] guided the affairs. Ultimately, we acted logically. We showed that we were peace-seekers, and also insisted on our right, in addition to reaching the same point that we had to reach. That was the real victory..."

Q: "With your permission, let us turn in greater depth to [the period between] July 1987 and July 1988. Mr. Rafsanjani, you said that your strategy was clear and that you knew exactly which point you wanted to reach… It seems that you acted with the support of Imam [Khomeini], on a path that did not please the extremists inside and outside Iran… and who wanted to completely thwart the diplomatic track that you were promoting.

"In 1987 and 1988, there were two completely obvious pieces of evidence for this. One involved the [September 1987] American helicopter attack on a chartered Iranian vessel. The IRGC commander asked [for permission to carry out] a bloody retaliation against the Americans; when the Imam heard of this, he asked you [Rafsanjani] to prevent operations of this kind.

"The second was in July 1988, when the Americans committed a crime by attacking the [Iranian passenger] Airbus, and effectively paved the way to diplomatic failure and the creation of a new war. The day after the American warship attacked the Airbus, Ayatollah Montazeri sent a condolence message to Imam [Khomeini] in which he asked [him] to declare jihad against American interests. The Imam thanked him for his letter and said, 'On this issue, you [all] must stand behind Rafsanjani'…

"These clear-cut pieces of evidence attest to the unanimity between you and the Imam on the issue of the political [management] of the war – that is, that you were promoting the same line of thought as the Imam? had you no done sot, these two incidents could have changed this [diplomatic] track.

"What is your opinion on these two responses of the Imam…? What would have been the implications for [our] diplomatic track had we reacted [with force and Jihad to the American provocations]?"

A: "[The implications would have been that we would have] launched ourselves perhaps into a war against the Americans – Iraq would have been extremely pleased, and the Arabs would have been too, and a new front would have been opened [against Iran] that neither the Imam nor I desired. Of course we did this to some extent in the Persian Gulf – that is, when the Americans insisted on flying their flags on Kuwaiti ships, or escorted their [i.e. the Kuwaitis'] oil [tanker] convoys, it was a kind of war against us, and we showed the Americans – though not overtly or in a declared manner – that they could not do this. They had to either explicitly enter the battlefield, or [stop flying their flags on Arab vessels].

"In this part [of the war], we completely defeated the Americans, and this brought shame upon their status in the region. Their policy was to pressure Iran in a number of aspects: In the economic aspect, they sought to cut off our oil [exports]. In the military aspect, they gave Saddam means that exceeded their military plans. In addition, America showed that it was prepared to go to war against us…"

Khomeini Chose To Drink "The Cup Of Poison" In The Interest Of The Iranian Regime

Q: "Mr. Hashemi, in that letter [in which he declares that Iran agrees to end the war] Imam [Khomeini] uses key words, one after the other. One [such term]is 'the cup of poison' and the other is 'identifying what is in the [regime's] interest'... Both these key terms have been given extremist interpretations. Today's young people do not have the proper perception regarding the concept of 'the cup of poison' and of 'identifying what is in the [regime's] interest" as set out by the Imam. Could you discuss the Imam's use of these two terms in that letter?"

A: "At one particular meeting, we were five men who came to Imam [Khomeini] in order to tell him how the war was going [and to discuss] whether we wanted to continue or not. I gave my firm opinion that I don't see [that it was in] the interest [of the regime to continue the war]. Under those conditions at that time, it was difficult for the Imam to sign and accept this...

"Our meeting continued into the night. Ways of action were proposed. He [Khomeini] said, 'We told the people that even if the war continued for 20 years, we would stand fast, and that the war would continue until victory and until the removal of the [threat of] fitna [by Iraq]. If now we come and do this [that is, declare that the war is over] suddenly, what answer will we give to the people and the fighters? It will break their hearts.

"At that same meeting, we discussed these issues. We accepted [Khomeini's] view and did not argue, but [continued to] discuss the issue of whether it was now in the interest [of the regime] to continue [the war] in this way. We discussed it [further].

"The Imam became convinced that we had to do this [i.e. end the war] now, and reached the conclusion that it was in our interest to agree to do so. But the question of how to do it also came up for discussion. I suggested, 'If it is hard for you to declare it, I will solve the problem. [It is already established that] I am your second [in command of the armed forces] and I have the right to sign on this issue. I will go and accept [U.N. Resolution 598 to end the war]. Perhaps afterwards you can immediately say that he [that is, I, Rafsanjani] exceeded [my authority] and should have gotten permission from me [i.e. Khomeini] as the commander in chief of the armed forces. You will then be able to put me on trial. It is better to sacrifice one man than to end up with all these problems.' He looked at me fondly and said, 'No, that's no good.' He himself put forth a proposal that [deeply] shook us. We did not accept it, and we said that it was wrong [to accept it]."

Q: "Hadn't you mentioned this proposal before?"

A: "No, I'd never mentioned it anywhere."

Q:"Who are the five men who attended that meeting?"

A: "The heads of the [three] branches: The Majlis speaker [Rafsanjani himself], the president [Khamenei], the head of the judiciary [Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili], the prime minister [Mir-Hossein Mousavi] and Ahmad [Khomeini, son of the Imam], who usually attended our meetings."

Q: "Aside from you, did others have any suggestions?"

A: "I don't remember. Imam [Khomeini] made a suggestion, but we rejected it. After that, there was a third suggestion. The Imam said: 'Now that we must agree [to end the war], go and invite the leaders amongst the people from around the country and tell them exactly what was said here. Tell them and explain this to them in a special meeting that will not be publicized. They will be convinced and later will defend our actions...'

"The president [Khamenei] held that meeting to explain [why we agreed to end the war]. We invited several people. Ahmad [Khomeini] also said that the Imam had personally written a letter and that he would announce [the decision]. We did not even expect that. Afterwards, we found out about the contents of the letter.

"The Imam [Khomeini] acted while taking into account the interest [of the regime]. He made his decision after one long meeting and after negotiating with the heads of the [three] branches, whom he trusted completely. We told [him] about the [deteriorating] economic situation, the situation of the oil exports, and the situation on the battlefield, and the situation of the dedicated forces that we could not properly manage. We told him of the problem of the families of these [fighters], and of the problem of the prisoners [of war], and other problems. After we explained all this, he agreed [to end the war].

"Moreover, the [biggest] danger was Iraq's use of chemical weapons against big cities. I said that if, for example, Tabriz were to be hit [by chemical weapons] tomorrow, like Halabja [in Iraq] – what could we do? What would happen? They can easily [use chemical weapons to] hit Tabriz, Urmia, or even Tehran.

"We examined all of this. We all knew that the West and the Russians were willing to give [Iraq] anything to scare us into agreeing [to end the war].

"Under those conditions, the [regime's] interest was clear. The matter of agreeing or refusing [to end the war] was very bitter for the Imam, bitter as a cup of poison. The question of how to announce it to the people is already tied to the next issue. It was very bitter for the Imam to tell this to the fighters on the front lines and to the families of the martyrs and the wounded, since it would take time for the [positive] outcome of this action to become clear.

"The issue of the interest of the [regime] is always conducted in this manner. This means that when someone does something contrary to the regular path for the sake of the [regime's] interest, there are problems at that particular moment. Many are disgruntled, and some are happy, so we see that after the announcement of Resolution [598], groups went to the frontlines on the Imam's orders, with his letter in hand, to explain it to the fighters.

"In his wisdom, the Imam properly used the term 'I drink the cup of poison.' This means, 'I chose to drink.' No one forced him to do so; there was a situation in which he chose to do so, for the sake of the interest of the regime. In my opinion, he used this phrase ['I drink the cup of poison'] thoughtfully and with foresight. He obeyed the interest [of the regime] and also showed the people his displeasure [at having to make this decision], which he did not want..."

Khomeini's Decision Was Like The Truce Of Hudaybiyya; "If One Day This Matter Is Discussed, The Discussion Should Be Between Me, The Leader [Khamenei], And The Wise Men Of The Nation"

Q: "...Do you think that the Imam [Khomeini] would, in today's climate, task the [Expediency] Council [headed by Rafsanjani] with making this decision and taking responsibility for it...?"

A: "... The difference of opinion began with the very Council of that time. There were those who did not agree [to accept the resolution], but at that meeting with [Khomeini], all five of us agreed unanimously [to end the war]... When Imam [Khomeini's] letter was read at the meeting, some wept aloud, because they were not aware of all the related matters...

"Should we want to do the same thing now, there will be [again] disagreements. It would be possible to do this only if the policy is that the leader [Khamenei] or the Imam [Khomeini] want to fully transfer [this burden] to someone else's shoulders and to say that a legal institution decided this, then it is possible. But that was not the case back then, and at that time, it was the commander in chief who took responsibility…"

Q:"[Was this decision] like the Truce of Hudaybiyya?"[5]

A: "It was very similar. Here it was the same thing. The peace treaty of Imam Hassan[6] was also the same... Imam [Khomeini] is the commander in chief of all armed forces, and it is his responsibility to declare war and peace. I was his second in command. Others also had opinions and gave advice... The Imam knew exactly what was happening in the war at minute by minute..."

Q: "I wish to hear your opinion regarding the analogy between the two issues – the Iran-Iraq war and the nuclear [issue] –both dealing with the inalienable right of the people and of the regime. If we weigh them on a scale, what similarities and differences do you see between the two? Can we learn a lesson from the Iran-Iraq war [and apply it] to the nuclear issue?"

A: "I do not wish to discuss this, because at this time, the field of decision-making is on fire. If we say that there is a similarity between the case of the Iran-Iraq war and the case of the nuclear issue, it would be prejudicial. If one day this matter is discussed, the discussion should be between me, the leader [Khamenei], and the wise men of the nation, so that the regime can make any decision it wants. But right now, there is no connection between these two issues [i.e. the Iran-Iraq war and the nuclear issue]..."

Appendix: Khamenei's Position On Direct Talks With The U.S.

In response to the pressure applied by Rafsanjani, Supreme Leader Khamenei issued his own position on the matter of direct nuclear talks with the U.S.:[7]

"We have always believed in interaction with the world, but the main issue in dealing with the world is that any interaction must be based on a proper recognition of the 'other side' and on understanding their goals, because if we do not recognize them properly they will step on us...

"Early this year, I also said that I am not optimistic about negotiating with the U.S., although in years past I have not rejected negotiating with it on certain issues such as Iraq...[The] Americans are unreliable, unreasonable, and dishonest...

"Within the last few months, the American officials took a stand which once again underlined that there should be no optimism regarding [negotiating] with them... When interacting with the world, the art is to continue on your own path without letting the 'other side' [i.e. the U.S.] obstruct your forward motion. If interaction with the world makes you retreat, that is a loss. If the meaning of an agreement and mutual understanding is [that the other side] tells you 'you must to back down from your path,' and you say, 'Very well,' that is a loss. Our officials and politicians must take note of this."

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project at MEMRI; Y. Mansharof and E. Kharrazi are Research Fellows at MEMRI.


[2] See similar calls by Rafsanjani in recent months for negotiating with the U.S. and for Iran to compromise on the nuclear issue: MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 821, Rafsanjani Calls For Dialogue With the U.S. , April 4, 2012 and MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5105, Iranian Daily Calls On Regime To Compromise In Nuclear Talks, December 25, 2012.

[3], July 21, 2013.

[5] The Truce of Hudaybiyya is a 10-year armistice agreement signed by the Prophet Muhammad and the people of Mecca in 628 CE. This set the precedent in Islamic tradition for making agreements with infidels.

[6] A treaty signed by the second imam, Hassan the son of 'Ali, with the Umayyad leader Mu'awiyah that was to be temporary.

[7], July 21, 2013.

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