Rafsanjani: Why should we not negotiate with the United States?

As reported by Shargh and a number of other Iranian media outlets on 03 April 2012 (15 Farvardin 1390), ex-President and Chairman of the Expediency Council Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has spoken out on a number of the Islamic Republic’s most pressing foreign policy issues in a recent interview with the International Studies Journal. Rafsanjani’s interview, which has garnered considerable media attention, touched on Iran’s relations with the United States, European Union, and Saudi Arabia in addition to the controversy surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.

Speaking on Iran’s contentious relationship with the US, Rafsanjani defended his own track-record of pragmatism, explaining that the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) showed the Islamic Republic’s leadership that it could not operate according to hardline “slogans” alone. He emphasized that differences in opinion should not preclude relations between the US and Iran, stating “Islam does not require us to cut ties or not speak with those who are against our ideas,” only to confront enemies who seek to “make war” or “destroy” the Islamic Republic. These comments appear to be a response to repeated accusations against Rafsanjani by hardliners that he has abandoned the “principles” of the Islamic Revolution because of his advocacy of a pragmatic foreign policy.

Building on the theme of pragmatism, Rafsanjani discussed what he claimed to have been a secret letter he wrote to the founder of the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, during the latter’s final years. Rafsanjani alleges that the letter, which he hand wrote and personally delivered because of its sensitive nature, addressed seven issues which he called dangerous “bends in the road” for the Islamic regime. Rafsanjani indicates that one of these seven issues was relations with US, and asserts that he beseeched Khomeini to solve these issues while he was still alive because “These are bends in the road that if you do not help us get around, after you [pass away] they will be hard to overcome.” Rafsanjani pleaded with Khomeini that a situation in which there was “no talks” and “no relations” with the US was unsustainable “…because America is the world’s leading power.” In the same letter admonished hardliners who resisted the idea of negotiations, emphasizing that “Negotiations do not mean that we shall surrender to them. We will negotiate and if they accept our position, or we accept their position then it is finished.”

Next, he touched on the Islamic Republic’s uneasy relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he linked directly to Iran’s present predicament vis-a-vis sanctions. Rafsanjani noted that Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that could potentially compensate for the loss of Iranian oil from the global market, and that a consequence of poor Saudi-Iran relations today was that the Arab Gulf kingdom was willing use this petroleum clout to back Western sanctions against Iran. He ended this portion of the interview optimistically by saying that “I think that it is still possible to create good relations [with Saudi Arabia], but there are people here that you can see do not want this [referring to Iranian hardliners].”

In another part of the interview with ISJ, Rafsanjani continued his disparagement of hardliners by discussing Iran’s rapidly deteriorating relations with the EU, drawing parallels to EU-Iran relations during his own presidency from 1989-1997. In particular, he raised the episode of the Mykonos restaurant assassinations of Iranian-Kurdish dissidents in Berlin, Germany, on 17 September 1992, which placed serious strains on EU-Iran relations for the remainder of the Rafsanjani presidency. He maintained that “They [EU countries] understood that these [Mykonos assassinations] were not the desire and strategy of the [my] administration”, but rather what he called “rogue” elements of the regime which also existed and created difficulties during the time of Khomeini.

Finally, Rafsanjani addressed Iran’s controversial nuclear program: “We really do not have the intentions to build nuclear weapons and nuclear military systems…we deeply believe that there should not be nuclear weapons in the region and this has and continues to be one of the [core] principles of our policies.”

Shargh finished its account of the ISJ interview with Rafsanjani by quoting him criticizing the Ahmadinejad administration. The elder statesman denounced the executive branch for lacking scientific, technical, and intellectual qualifications and failing to effectively manage the country, saying that if the administration had performed its role properly “…our social relations with the people would be completely good and we would not create problems with the world.”

Editor’s Note: It is curious that Rafsanjani has chosen this critical juncture, when the regime faces a foreign relations crisis, to make these comments despite his own decrease in stature over the last several years. Always a carefully measured politician, what does he hope to achieve with his comments? Interestingly, Rafsanjani does not provide us with Khomeini’s response to his alleged secret letter, leaving us to guess its contents. However, Rafsanjani’s silence leads us to suspect that it may have not necessarily been to his liking. Ultimately, by taking a stand on these issues, the Islamic Republic’s former first citizen has diametrically opposed himself to the positions laid out by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hardliners.