September 23, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1018

The Struggle Between Khamenei And Rafsanjani Over The Iranian Leadership – Part IV: Rafsanjani Calls For Moderation In The Spirit Of 'Islamic Realism'; Khamenei Is Ready For 'Heroic Flexibility' By Iran But Without Compromising Revolutionary Principles

September 23, 2013 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1018


In a continuation of his calls in the past year for engagement with the U.S.,[1] Hashemi Rafsanjani has again called on Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to lead Iran in the spirit of moderation and of "Islamic realism" – that is, updating and adapting the values of the Islamic Revolution to the spirit of the times and to conduct a dialogue with the U.S., instead of leading Iran in an extremist path for the sake of an ossified "false idealism." In an August 8, 2013 interview, Rafsanjani set out the main points of his "Islamic realism," and assured his readers that the approach that he is promoting leads not to secularization but to enhanced revolutionary values. As an example, he presented the rulings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Iranian Revolution, which had been adapted over time, and again praised Khomeini's greatness for accepting U.N. Security Council Resolution 598 and thereby ending the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

To support his position, Rafsanjani said that Ayatollah Khomeini had followed a moderate path – like Rafsanjani's own – and stressed that when Khomeini did take an extreme position, his wisdom in leadership impelled him to heed the opinion of the Expediency Council – which was headed by Rafsanjani himself – even though Khomeini thought differently.

Khamenei has responded in two ways to Rafsanjani's demands during the past year for dialogue with the U.S.: One, in a September 17 speech directly addressing these demands, Khamenei outlined the "heroic flexibility" vis-à-vis the Western enemy that he was willing to implement provided that Iranian officials truly grasped the essence of this enemy. He stressed that "the changes that are taking place today in the world are not a reason to change our ideals, our goals, or our path." With these words, Khamenei expressed his willingness to show some flexibility in technical matters in order to achieve Iran's ultimate nuclear goals.

Second, an editorial in the Kayhan daily, which is close to Khamenei, and an address by Mohammad Mohammadian, who is Khamenei's representative in the universities, both expressed the view that Rafsanjani fails to grasp the essence of the enemy. Kayhan stated that Rafsanjani himself is the extremist because he refuses to acknowledge that there is no solution to the conflict between Iran and the West, and that there can be no Iran-U.S. dialogue; Mohammadian claimed that Rafsanjani understands neither the American enemy nor the values of the revolution.

Following are excerpts from Rafsanjani's August 8 interview and from Khamenei's various responses to the Rafsanjani's demands for dialogue with the U.S.:

Rafsanjani To Khamenei: Ayatollah Khomeini Said, "I Will Heed The Professional Opinion Of [Rafsanjani's Expediency] Council – Even If It Is Contrary To Mine"

Following are excerpts from Rafsanjani's interview, which was titled "What Moderation Aims To Achieve: Islamic Realism; Rafsanjani Shows What The Future Of Moderation Will Look Like":[2]

Question: "What do you think about Iran's future in the coming four years? Will the previous policies [i.e. of Ahmadinejad] remain in force, and will the people encounter all kinds of slogans and promises? Or should society expect something different?"

Rafsanjani: "Undoubtedly, there will be fewer slogans in the future. Grandiose slogans and minimal actions are the most salient feature of extremist groups. Society will advance... toward moderation. The people are learning. Their knowledge and information are increasing. In the future, it will be more difficult [to use] slogans to mobilize the masses for a particular cause. In the future society of Islamic Iran, the transfer of information will be more credible and transparent, in order to maximally persuade the people."

Question: "Won't this be difficult, because of the extremist groups [that operate] under the banner of Islamic slogans?"

Rafsanjani: "These people [i.e. the extremists] confuse 'Islamic realism' with secularization, because the moderation movement [is heading] towards 'rational Islamization.' The goal of moderation is Islamic realism. Because of the increased moderation in society, and the people's maximal support of it, there is no doubt that the deteriorating status of the sanctimonious will continue to diminish. On the other hand, some Islamic scholars, religious seminary [members], and even Hezbollah members [i.e. Iranian regime loyalists] are slowly beginning to sense [and to acknowledge] that some of [Khamenei's] burdensome [policies] yield nothing, and that [eventually] they will have very few supporters in Islamic society."

Question: "Can moderation be a bridge between the ideals [of the revolution] and realism, so that idealism does not lead to illusion?"

Rafsanjani: "That's what it should be. In principle, the innovative philosophical, historic, and unique [idea] of the Imam [Khomeini,] which was the basis for the establishment of the Expediency Council, was this same issue: [preventing] the Islamic revolution from being sidetracked towards false idealism. The most important characteristic of the Imam's moderation was the special attention he gave to consulting with professionals. I remember a historic quote of his: 'I will heed the professional opinion of [Rafsanjani's Expediency] Council – even if it is contrary to mine' [emphasis added]. History has great lessons because of the Imam's moderation, beginning with dozens of innovative fatwas on such topics as chess and music [which Khomeini permitted], and leading up to his unmatched political move – accepting [U.N.] Resolution [598] which secured the people's interests, promoted Islamic Iran, and also brought about the collapse of Saddam [Hussein]."

Question: "Your explanation on moderation leads to the concept of Islamic realism. Can you elaborate on this topic?"

Rafsanjani: "Under 'Islamic realism,' neither Islam nor ideals are not forgotten. By outlining Islamic realism, our ideals become both more Islamic and more realistic. Just look at the results of the Islamic realism and moderation of Khomeini's decision-making during the historic turning point when he accepted Resolution 598; imagine what would have happened had the regime decided on that matter based on extremist idealism. What a disaster would have befallen Islamic Iran [had the decision been made] out of pure idealism that was completely devoid of realism! We must not forget that throughout the history of Islam, victory and progress were achieved only via moderation and Islamic realism. Extremism has never done anything good for Islamic society, and it never will."

Question: "In your opinion, what is the status of realism in Islamic perception?"

Rafsanjani: "The principle of Islam is that it is realistic. This is clear as day to me. In previous debates on economic issues and standard of living [in Iran], I have said that Islam is realistic, and does not seek to disregard human nature, which was created by God. The nature of the religion means that when we progress, we must change our views as conditions change. This is what the Prophet [Mohammad] and [Shi'ite] imams did. Even the Koran has naskh [the principle that a later Koranic verse nullifies an earlier one]. The foundations of our [religion] are indeed strong... We march forward on the basis of moderation and of adapting Islam to the times. There will always be extremists. Some are not persuaded by moderation, but the nature of [Iranian] society is moving towards moderation."

Question: "Won't moderation and Islamic realism eventually bring about a secular government?"

Rafsanjani: "I am certain that this will not happen, as long as we do not deviate from the outline of Islamic moderation. Moderation means that if the religious establishment and clerics, the most fundamental sector of society, see that the religion and the interests of society are at risk, they will not hesitate; they will criticize or even justifiably attack [the regime that endangers these]. They [Khamenei and his camp] must not forget: The power is in the hands of the clerics, who are now responsible [for running the country], and who therefore must promote the rights of the public even if it means that they are criticized by their opponents, from the mosques to the highest echelons."

Question: "What role do you see Islamic realism playing in the Islamic world of the future?"

Rafsanjani: "In the Islamic world of the future, this Islamic philosophy will have special status. Maybe that is why extremists have never taken a positive view of the [Expediency] Council, from the time it was established, because the Council's opinion has never been taken seriously, except by the circle of Islamic moderation and Islamic realism. But by strengthening the status of Islamic realism within Iran's foreign policy [i.e. the appointment of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif by President Rohani] at a time when most Islamic countries are suffering from extremism, we will surely see the idea of Islamic realism succeed…"

Khamenei Responds Directly To Rafsanjani: "While Even A Professional Wrestler Sometimes Shows Some Flexibility In Technical Matters – He Never Forgets Who His Rival Is And What His Main Goal Is"

On September 17, 2013 Khamenei gave a speech directly addressing Rafsajani's demands that he engage in dialogue with the U.S., in which he set out to both Rafsanjani and President Rohani how Iranian officials should position themselves to tackle the Western enemy. With these words, Khamenei expressed his permission for Iranian officials to show some flexibility in technical matters in order to achieve Iran's ultimate nuclear goals vis-à-vis the West, saying: "The diplomatic arena is an arena of smiles and demands for negotiation – but everything that happens in this [arena] must be perceived as part of the main challenge [between Iran and the West]. I agree to appropriate and reasonable moves in domestic and foreign policy, and agree to the issue that years ago I termed 'heroic flexibility,' because it can be useful, and is highly necessary at certain stages. But it is imperative that we be committed to the primary provision – that is, we must grasp the essence of our rival... While even a professional wrestler sometimes shows some flexibility in technical matters, he never forgets who his rival is and what his main goal is...

"The enemy... is in retreat, and is weakened; in this match, the future belongs to the one who advances according to his own calculations... The shining future of the Islamic revolution is certain, but its actualization ultimately depends on the outcome of the actions of the nation and its officials. If we remain united, strong, and determined, this future will be actualized sooner; if we are lazy, selfish, or distracted by other problems, it will be actualized later..."[3]

Khamenei Responds To Rafsanjani Via 'Kayhan' And Mohammadian

"Our Main Problem With The U.S. Is The Issue Of The Identity Of The [Islamic] Revolution – The Essence [Of The Revolution] Is The Struggle Against The Rule Of Oppressors And Idol Worshipers [The U.S.]; Khomeini Rejected Dialogue With The U.S. And Said: 'The Highest Goal Of The Islamic Revolution Is To Implement The Global Rule Of Islam'"

At an August 31 national student conference in Iran, Mohammad Mohammadian, Khamenei's representative in the universities, responded to Rafsanjani's demand for dialogue with the U.S., harshly criticizing Rafsanjani's views and claiming that he did not truly understand either the American enemy or the values of the Islamic Revolution.

Regarding Rafsanjani's demand that Iran must "drink the cup of poison" as Khomeini did in accepting U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, and engage in direct talks with the U.S., Mohammadian said: "Since the inception of the [Islamic] revolution, [Iran] has had two approaches to negotiations with the U.S. The first [approach was supported by] those who wished to cooperate with the U.S. in the early days of the Islamic revolution. [Even] in the government of [interim prime minister Mehdi] Bazargan, there were those who wished to conduct relations with the U.S. This group had two factions: The first [the reformists] saw the U.S. as the world's ruler, and was West-struck. The second [led by Rafsanjani] did not trust the U.S. and did not agree with the injustices that it perpetrated – however, it thought that there must be a relationship with it in order to protect [Iran] from its oppression...

"Recently, several people [i.e. Rafsanjani] said that the cup of poison that we must drink is [that we must conduct] relations with the U.S. On this matter, the second [approach, which] objected to relations with the U.S., was headed by Imam [Khomeini] and Leader [Khamenei]. With regard to religion, the U.S. is clear proof that there is idol worship... Our problem with the U.S. is unique. Our main problem is the issue of the identity of the [Islamic] revolution – the essence [of the revolution] is the struggle against the rule of oppressors and idol worshipers.

"The minimum demanded by the revolution is not to accept the rule of the oppressors. The highest value of the revolution is the struggle against those who thirst for power. In diplomatic language, dialogue means reaching a deal. If that be so, what are we supposed to give in a deal with the U.S. [?] What we can give the U.S. in a deal is abandoning the Palestinian cause, and abandoning our support for the resistance front. In exchange, the U.S. will smile upon us and will tone down its vulgar rhetoric [regarding Iran]. In the four decades of the American presence in Pahlavi Iran, they gave Iran nothing; even Egypt, its ally, received nothing from it. When [Iranian president] Mohammad Khatami wanted to win American hearts and raised the [concept] of 'a dialogue between cultures,' the American president [Bush] declared that Iran was the axis of evil.

"... There is a reason for the U.S.'s [desire] for dialogue with Iran. The U.S. wants to tell the countries of the resistance that they have no choice but to play on its own terms, since Iran also agreed that it has no option but to do so. The U.S. fears the impact of our revolution on the hearts of the world's oppressed and freedom-seekers. It is not concerned about [Iran's] nuclear energy, but about [Iran's] influence on the hearts of the people in the world, and it [therefore] wants to drag Iran to negotiations in order to eliminate this concern."

Responding to Rafsanjani's call for Iran to reenact the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, and to negotiate with the U.S., Mohammadian said: "Several people have said: 'Why don't we conduct dialogue with the enemy, like the Prophet [Muhammad] himself?'[4] I say in response that Iran did not sever relations with the U.S., but that the U.S. severed relations with us. In addition, we have no faith in the U.S., for several reasons. On top of that, we see no need for relations with it. In the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, the Prophet [Muhammad] had the upper hand and he was certain he would conquer Mecca. He agreed to the treaty to prove that he was right, and prepare the ground for a victory without bloodshed.

"At the time that the Imam Ali accepted arbitration [in the Battle of Siffin in 657 CE[5]], he was facing internal conflict; he removed this grave danger from the lands of Islam by agreeing to arbitration. [On the other hand,] the Islamic Republic today is not in the same circumstances under which the Treaty of Hudaybiyya or the Battle of Siffin took place, since Iranian society remains unified. Today our people support the rule of its jurisprudent [i.e. Khamenei]."

Mohammadian also spoke of the letter that Rafsanjani sent Khomeini just before he died, requesting that he resolve the issue of relations with the U.S.: "Some regime officials [i.e. Rafsanjani] say: 'In the first decade of the revolution, we sent a letter to the Imam [Khomeini] specifically asking him to resolve the issue of relations with the U.S. while he was still alive.' But the Imam did not do so, and at that time he said: ''The highest goal of the Islamic Revolution is to implement the global rule of Islam – and as long as there is idol worship and unbelief, the struggle continues – and as long as the struggle exists, we exist.'

"[These] officials must know that our revolution is not limited to Iran [only] – but rather that it is the starting point of the global revolution of Islam, led by the Hidden Imam."[6]

Kayhan: It Is Extremism To Fail To Learn The Lessons Of History

Following are excerpts from the August 27, 2013 Kayhan editorial, which responded to Rafsanjani's demand for dialogue with the U.S.:

On Rafsanjani's demand that Iran "drink the cup of poison" and conduct direct dialogue with the U.S. to reach a deal, Kayhan said: "Can we reach a compromise and agreement with the U.S.? Can we find common interests with this regime and make a deal with it? ... Those who support compromise with the U.S. are divided into two camps... The first camp [the reformists] is very sympathetic to the U.S. and believes that we can conduct a strategic friendship with it. The second camp [led by Rafsanjani] says: We agree [with the claim] that we cannot be friends with the U.S. but because of the threats that exist, we must reach an agreement with this power and temper the threats [we face] so as to pave the way to alleviate the situation in the country [due to the sanctions].

"The first camp has a pattern of suicidal behavior... Even those [Iranians] who do not trust the [regime of] the Islamic Republic but who love their homeland have no doubt regarding the evil and treachery of the U.S.... Here we must recall that the actions of a number of statesmen [such as Rafsanjani] who claim to be pragmatists [only] increase the threats significantly... They send the enemy a false message. The worst situation on the battlefield or in a game is when your opponent reads your mind or senses that you have already lost. Such an assessment emboldens your opponent and causes him to increase his demands and to make you pay a heavier price...

"It is important we understand the degree of our challenge vis-à-vis the U.S.: Can this conflict be resolved? Or do the Americans have a problem with our very existence? Did the Americans only have a problem with the previous Iranian president [Ahmadinejad] and are [not] now hostile to the new president [Rohani]? That is, [is this] a personal issue, and in the two months since Rohani replaced Ahmadinejad have the U.S. administration and Senate sent special signs, such as new hostile sanctions? Does this mean that we should close our eyes to this reality and say that we must compromise with the enemy who strives for peace?"

Referring to Rafsanjani's letter to Khomeini before he died, in which he asked him to resolve the issue of relations with the U.S. and calling to refrain from "adventurous policies," Kayhan added: "Mr. Rafsanjani... What kind of adventures did officials in your government and the Mohammad Khatami government undertake, that we should be dragged by the U.S. and Europe into the corner of the wrestling mat... ? Was scientific advancement [i.e. Iran's nuclear program] an adventure – or an attempt to achieve control over nuclear technology? Why during those 16 years [when Rafsanjani and Khatami served as presidents] were the sanctions made progressively harsher? What is it that is considered adventurous and to be stopped, and on what issues can we reach an agreement [with the U.S.]? Is there a limit where the U.S. and the West stop their demands? Is enriching [uranium] to 20%, or to 3.5%, considered adventurous?

"A decade or two ago, we did not enrich [uranium] at all. What was their excuse [for actions against us] back then? When it was decided [by the Khatami government] to back down, the enemy did not settle for one or two concessions... Had Hizbullah not stopped the Zionist occupiers, we would have had to fight them on our soil today. In the eyes of the arrogant [West led by the U.S.], the essence of the Iranian nation's rebellion [i.e. the Islamic Revolution] following [Mohammad Mosaddegh's] move to nationalize Iran's oil resources [in 1953] and the constitutional movement [1905-6] were adventurous acts requiring punishment – and one of the pioneers of these adventures was Mr. Rafsanjani [himself].

"We can never compare Rafsanjani to Mohammad Mosaddegh. Rafsanjani is a cleric who has had a taste of prison and torture. It was he who said in a Friday sermon that the Americans dissect issues like a cow. Mossadegh did not don religious garb and did not call people to Islam. He wore [Western] neckties and uttered national and secular slogans as a sign of modernity [and despite this, the Americans toppled him]... [What happened with] both of these groups [that called for dialogue with the U.S.] proves that their optimism and sympathy regarding any compromise with the U.S. has set back the Iranian nation 25 years... It is extremism to fail to learn the lessons of history."

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


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 821, Rafsanjani Calls For Dialogue With the U.S., April 4, 2012.

[3], September 17, 2013.

[5] The Battle of Siffin (675 CE) marks the division of Islam into Sunni and Shi'a.

[6] Fars (Iran), August 31, 2013.

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