Rafsanjani: The West is playing for time

In a recent speech to seminary students in the holy city of Qom, chairman of the Expediency Council Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani attacked his domestic political enemies and made some revealing comments on Iran’s negotiations with the West over its controversial nuclear program.

The poor state of the domestic economy and politics

He began by expressing concern over the state of politics in Iran, saying that everyone acts according to their preference and not principal in violation of  Islam and the revolution:

“After three decades it is not good that from the labours and struggles of the people and those who serve the country, values such as purity, honesty, and justice have been replaced by deception, self-promotion, lying, slander, and injustice.”

In comments appearing to be directed at his opponents, he said that both the ruling Shiite clergy in Iran and lay officials alike should be respected, and that discrediting either group could cause people to lose faith in the regime. He asserted that many media networks were attacking and attempting to destroy public figures (likely referring to his own predicament), and that this was worsening because these attacks were being directed by certain centres of power that “are not bound by morals and beliefs and with their feeling of immunity answer to no one”

He also criticized the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the wretched condition of the economy, which he contended suffers from “unlimited inflation” and crumbling foundations as well as a lack of social justice, saying that “justice remains mere words and injustice spreads.”

The Moscow round of talks between Iran and the P5+1

It was however his comments on Iran’s relations with the West and the recent talks over Iran’s controversial nuclear program in Moscow that were of particular interest. Rafsanjani, who is considered a moderate in the Islamic Republic’s political establishment, took an uncharacteristically harsh tone with the West blaming it for the failure of the talks in Moscow. He commented that these negotiations showed that the Western side is not accustomed to compromise, is dishonest, and based their strategy on the use of force in order to achieve their goals.

He also attacked the West for being “arrogant”, insisting that in the face of such arrogance the Islamic Republic must increase the unity between the people, officials, and political currents inside the regime:

“We must become so domestically united that foreign enemies cannot covet the resources of our nation and people.”

Editor’s note: Rafsanjani’s comments on the domestic economy and politics are not surprising and appear to be consistent with his opposition to President Ahmadinejad and regime hardliners. His comments on foreign relations however may reveal a new strategy in how Rafsanjani is trying to navigate Iran’s perilous politics.

Rafsanjani, an elder statesman who has been deputy commander-in-chief, speaker of the parliament, president, and chairman of the Assembly of Experts, had dismissed the hope that Iran would be able to resolve its issues with the West in recent talks “false optimism”. This may stem as much from his “pragmatism” as from his desire that hardliners not be the faction in Iranian politics to resolve the decades long issues between Iran and the US and reestablish ties. The faction that can achieve this momentous task would gain enormous prestige inside Iran.

Rafsanjani’s condemnation of the West’s negotiation tactics also goes beyond domestic factionalism and may be an expression of the regime’s frustration with the US and its allies. Just as the US, Israel, and others accuse Iran of using negotiations to buy time for its nuclear program, some Iranians are now also speculating whether the West is using negotiations to buy time as well. The conventional media narrative on this has been that the Obama administration, boxed in by the pressures of the 2012 presidential election campaign, has prolonged negotiations in order to maintain an open line to Tehran which he can use to reach a settlement after he wins a second term.

Rafsanjani, among others, is now challenging this narrative and whether the US and its allies are negotiating in good faith. The Leverett’s, a US scholarly duo with ties to the Islamic Republic, have suggested the US is engaging in these protracted negotiations to exhaust diplomatic options in order to ultimately justify a policy of regime-change against Iran.

With the prospect of tougher sanctions and greater isolation on the horizon, Rafsanjani’s call for unity may be a sign that regime elders see the need for concerted action in order to withstand a foreign onslaught and preserve the regime. In addition to this, a call for unity may be an olive branch by Rafsanjani to his hardline rivals led by Khamenei. This would open space for the Pragmatists and moderate Principalists who support Rafsanjani to operate more freely in Iranian politics and create a measure of domestic political stability by creating a kind of “unity government”.

As the EU oil embargo comes into effect in July, the US prepares a new potential round of sanctions against Iran, and Iran heads into the 2013 presidential election campaign, more will be revealed.