As Iran gears up for important elections in December, members of the country's political elite are focusing on domestic politics. Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, perhaps Iran's wiliest politician, has thrown President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative allies on the defensive with a well-coordinated campaign to discredit the country's Revolutionary Guards.
Rafsanjani's campaign is designed not only to frustrate the neo-conservatives' goal of tightening their control over Iran's political and religious institutions, but also to dispel the widely held international perception that Iran's political leadership is monolithic. By putting distance between himself and Ahmadinejad's administration, Rafsanjani is trying to present a leadership alternative that could have important implications in the ongoing controversy over Iran's nuclear program.
Nuclear talks between Iran and the five-plus-one group -- comprising the permanent members of the United Nations Security, along with Germany -- appear at an impasse. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The European Union's lead negotiator, Javier Solana, said October 16 that the door "remains open" for nuclear discussions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Meanwhile, the United States remains intent on pushing for UN sanctions if Iranian leaders continue to shun negotiations.
Movement on Iran's part toward a nuclear compromise is likely to be halting at best in the coming months, as political leaders in Tehran increasingly concentrate on the December 15 local elections. The same day Iranians will vote for a new Assembly of Experts, an oversight body that monitors the office of the Supreme Leader.
The votes offer the first major electoral test for Ahmadinejad and his neo-conservative supporters since the 2005 presidential vote, in which Rafsanjani was the losing candidate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Political analysts in Tehran say that Iranian neo-conservatives strive to use the elections, especially the Assembly of Experts vote, to cement their hold on power. Rafsanjani, who has seized the leadership of a nascent anti-Ahmadinejad coalition -- consisting of disgruntled conservatives, pragmatist and reformists -- appears intent on preventing the neo-conservatives from dominating Iranian politics.
On September 25, not long after the annual commemoration of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Rafsanjani fired the first shot in what promises to be a hotly-contested political campaign. In an interview published by the newspaper Hamshahri, Rafsanjani revealed details about the last stages of the Iran-Iraq war that painted the country's Revolutionary Guards in an unflattering light.
Four days later, on September 29, he backed up his startling charges against the Revolutionary Guards by making public the contents of a letter dated July 16, 1988, in which Iran's late leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, set forth his reasons for accepting a ceasefire. The letter cited a report by the Guards' top commander at the time, Mohsen Rezai, who described the military situation as "grim." Ayatollah Khomeini went on to write that, given the situation, he had no choice but agree to the ceasefire, which he also likened to "drinking [from] a poisoned chalice."
"The commander [Rezai] says that his forces must be increased five times ... and of course the United States must be evicted from the Persian Gulf," the ayatollah wrote in the letter. "Still, after all this, he repeats that the war must go on, which is nothing but sloganeering."
Among the improvements that Rezai indicated were necessary in order to give Iran a chance at achieving a military victory were: 350 more infantry brigades, 2,500 tanks, 600 airplanes and helicopters and "the ability to make nuclear weapons and laser-guided munitions."
In showing that it was the country's military leaders, instead of the politicians, who pushed for an Iran-Iraq ceasefire, the letter's contents considerably damaged the Revolutionary Guards' image. The guards have always portrayed themselves as an elite fighting force and have cultivated an aura of invincibility. The revelation also has potentially profound political implications, given the Revolutionary Guards' strong ties to the Ahmadinejad administration.
Rafsanjani reportedly publicized the classified letter without prior approval from other parties involved. In taking such action, political analysts believe Rafsanjani is trying to disable perhaps the most important component of Ahmadinejad's power base. The guards' vigorous support for Ahmadinejad is believed to have made the difference in the outcome of the 2005 race, and Rafsanjani wants to make sure that history doesn't repeat itself in the 2006 voting.
The Assembly of Experts could have a crucial impact on Iran's political future, observers say. Since the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979, the assembly has largely remained outside of politics. However, some believe that if neo-conservatives can dominate the body, they will strive to use it to eliminate their political opponents. The Assembly of Experts is the only Iranian institution that has the power to remove the Supreme Leader. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Rafsanjani, a close political associate of Ayatollah Khomeini's, served as Iranian president from 1989-97. As such he was privy to information that he could now use to damage his political enemies.
After the initial publication of Ayatollah Khomeini's letter on September 29, all subsequent newspaper and news agency reports deleted references to nuclear and laser-guided weapons. This omission is likely linked to the country's present nuclear row, political analysts believe.
There is an additional subtext to the letter's publication connected to the nuclear controversy. Some experts believe Rafsanjani was trying to send a signal to the international community that he is a more reliable interlocutor on nuclear issues than is Ahmadinejad. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Predictably, the publication of the classified letter touched off a political firestorm in Tehran. Ahmadinejad lashed out at his political foes. "Some people in this nation are under the impression that through the injection of artificial problems or by seizing on selective portions of the facts surrounding this country's pride history -- or by making unnecessary hue and a cry -- they can sow discord among the unified fronts of Iranian people," Ahmadinejad said recently. "I want to tell them that they are mistaken."
Political analysts believe Rafsanjani wouldn't have released the letter unless he could count on the support of a critical mass of Iranian political factions and power centers. Rafsanjani, for example, is thought to have the backing of a sizable portion of the country's clerical establishment, as many mullahs resent having been marginalized over the past year by neo-conservative forces. In addition, mainstream conservative leaders, such as Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, are said to oppose neo-conservatives' efforts to gain greater influence over the shaping of foreign policy. In recent days, Ahmadinejad's uncompromising stance on the nuclear issue has appeared to undermine Larijani's negotiating authority.
Hussain Marashi, a relative of Rafsanjani who is the spokesman for the pro-Rafsanjani Executives of Construction Party, suggested that the Iranian neo-conservative movement's confrontational policies could end up damaging the country's national interests. "Today, there is a strong concern among the country's politicians that we should not fall into a perilous trap set for us by world arrogance," Marashi warned in comments published October 2 in the party's newspaper, Kargozaran.
"Those muddying the waters and setting themselves against the publication of this letter are essentially those who believe moderation and a pragmatic-minded orientation cannot satisfy their emotions and self-pride," Marashi added.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.