Iran – US entente: a backgrounder
By Saeed Naqvi
In its dialogue with Teheran, which began in Geneva, the international community led by Washington will have to proceed cautiously to be able to retain the support of that faction of the Iranian establishment opposed to the Supreme leader Ali Khameini and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The presence of this pressure group has the potential of moderating the course of dialogue.
For Teheran the opening of the newly declared reprocessing plant at QOM for inspection is serving its purpose: the Iranian Government is already looking reasonable. This has the potential of denying the Iranian opposition, led by Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mir Hussein Mousavi, the exclusiveness of the moderate image.
A triangular format is emerging.
To understand the implications of this triangle, it may be useful to take the narrative back to the mid 70s for reasons which will presently become clear.
Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia had all been lost to communism. Berlinguer, Marchais, and Corrilo were powerful in Italy, France and Spain. Even Henry Kissinger feared a Marxist Western Europe in the next fifteen years.
At that stage, give or take a few years, the Shah in Iran, Daud in Afghanistan, Zia ul Haq in Pakistan, Morarji Desai in India, J.R. Jayawardene in Sri Lanka offered comfort to a west in retreat elsewhere. These were all pro west regimes.
But in the space of a few years, Daud was killed, the Shah ousted and Indira Gandhi was back in power. Only Zia ul Haq stayed on, after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s judicial murder, to wage “Jehad” for the west, the consequence of which the region is bearing to this day.
Daud’s murder was the result of a botched up plan by the Shah’s notorious secret Service, Savak, to eliminate the “Left” from around Daud. The plan leaked and a pre-emptive strike by Khalq and Parcham, the two communist parties of Afghanistan, brought a somewhat unprepared Noor Mohammad Taraki, to power in Kabul as the country’s first Communist President. He was followed by the more ruthless Hafizullah Amin, then Babrak Karmal and finally the hapless Najibullah, lynched by the Afghan Mujahideen in Kabul’s UN compound. The Afghan “Jehad” against Communists and Sovietism was by now at an advanced stage, resulting in Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
A decade earlier, the Savak inspired plan to eliminate the Left around Daud boomeranged, as I have explained earlier. But why was such a plan hatched in the 70s? To forestall communist takeover in the region on the pattern of Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia. It may be added here, in parenthesis, that it was in the wobbly 70s that Communism also took the electoral route to power – it was, ofcourse, snuffed out in Chile but remains in the gaddi in West Bengal to this day.
Political parties that were underground during the Shah’s rule came out into the open in the first anti Shah flush of the Islamic revolution. Once the Shah was out of the way, the revolution turned upon Tudeh, the Communist Party of Iran and the Leftist Mujahideen-e-Khalq. Elimination of the Left was fine by the West. But the 444 day siege of the US embassy soured relations. Shaitaan-e-Buzurg hoardings went up. The US was the “Senior Satan”. The consolidation of the Ayatullahs had gone woefully wrong for the US.
In 1986, at the peak of President Reagan’s counter offensive after Western retreat elsewhere in the previous decade, surfaced Irangate also known as the Iran – Contra affair. This is when Hashemi Rafsanjani first surfaced as the West’s preferred Iranian. In the Obama administration the person most conversant with this phase of US diplomacy is Defence Secretary, Robert Gates. Gates was deputy to CIA Director William Casey during the Reagan Years. And Casey was in the thick of the Iran Contra affair, as he was in Afghanistan.
The US made clandestine contacts with the Iranian regime. It all began as an operation to improve US-Iran relations, wherein Israel would ship weapons to a “moderate” and politically influential group of Iranians. The US would then resupply Israel and receive Israeli payment. The whole affair erupted as a major scandal. Reagan himself admitted that “what began as a strategic opening to Iran” deteriorated into trading arms for hostages and financing the Contras.
Reagan’s National Security Adviser, Admiral Poindexter told his cabinet colleagues that “high level contacts” in Iran had been secured. One of these contacts was Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the all powerful Speaker of the Majlis. The President of Iran at that stage was the present spiritual leader, Ali Khameini. It is interesting that Khameini and Rafsanjani are on opposite sides in the current stand-off.
Was Rafsanjani’s 1986 contact with the US (indirectly with Israel too) authorized by Ayatullah Ali Khamenei then President of the Islamic Republic? White House documents, now in the public domain, do mention Rafsanjani as a “contact”. Atleast Poindexter is quite clear on this one. Remember Rafsanjani played a key role in securing release of US hostages in Lebanon. His role was also central during the TWA hijack in Beirut, when he traveled to Damascus to secure release of the TWA plane.
In 1989 Rafsanani became President and Ali Khameini the Wali-Faqih or spiritual leader. His second term as President ended in 1997. Despite his image outside Iran as a “moderate”, Rafsanjani was not able to improve relations with the West during his two terms.
Quite possibly he had to play down suspicions aroused during Irangate. Moreover, in Iran’s complex web of checks and balances, it is not possible to bring about shifts in foreign policy on a solo basis.
By the time President Mohammad Khatami’s second term ended in 2005, the US was neck deep in trouble in both Iraq as well as Afghanistan. The US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, kept the Khatami establishment on board during the early Afghan operations for which he was rewarded by being made ambassador to the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Khalilzad had obtained a mandate from the Bush administration to open a dialogue with Teheran. Washington neo cons, however, pulled him back, insisting that the Iranians be engaged only on their role in Iraq. This the Iranians rejected.
After Khatami’s term ended Rafsanjani once again contrived a candidacy for himself for the June 2005 elections. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was much the underdog in that race.
That Rafsanjani was the preferred candidate of the US became clear after Christianne Amanpour did a high profile interview with him for the CNN. This was the kiss of death at a time when President George W Bush was history’s most hated President, particularly in the Muslim world. The Baseej, or the religious militia put all their strength against Hussein Mousavi and Rafsanjani. Supported by spiritual leader Ali Khameini, Ahmedinejad became the President.
By contrast, the US factor today has been a positive element since the June 2009 Iranian elections. President Obama, by his persona and speeches has softened the Muslim world. This key fact must be recognized. The success of the continuing demonstration against the election results in Iran is a function of a large section of the Iranian public drawing sustenance from the Obama image. A pity, the US media is not playing up this fact.
Bush’s unstated approval of Rafsanjani’s candidature cost Rafsanjani the election in 2005. Even though there has been no overt preference for a candidate by Obama, the international community’s (therefore Obama’s) doubts on the veracity of the results has helped the agitation led by Mousavi and Rafsanjani. Even more important is the split in the ranks of the Iranian clergy in the 16th century Theological University at QOM.
President Obama therefore has support in an influential section of the Iranian establishment. As the dialogue with Iran proceeds, this segment can be moulded into a credible lobby provided, in the process Iranian nationalism is not touched on the raw. Because in that case everyone in Iran will close ranks. Such is the nature of the Iranian people.
Internal to Iran is an important drama proceeding in parallel. For Rafsanjani this could well be a fight to the finish, now that members of his family have been detained on corruption charges. Taking sides in this quarrel will not help. In fact the West may well have to take a call soon on Rafsanjani’s expendability in the interest of a larger purpose, which includes tactful management of the nuclear issue.
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