IranPolitik Historical Archive: Rafsanjani’s message to a young IRGC in 1988 may still have relevance today

Context & overview

History, and the materials that document it, often help shed light on the events and personalities of the past. However, they can also help us better understand the present. Two videos ( 12 ) recently posted on the website of ex-president and current Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani certainly fall into this category of valuable historical material. The videos, which are collectively 53:19 long, cover a single speech by Hashemi-Rafsanjani to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders in 1988. The speech came at one of the vital turning points in the Islamic Republic’s history when the country’s domestic and foreign policy situation was undergoing profound change, what Hashemi-Rafsanjani in the speech calls a time which is “…sensitive, full of questions, and doubts…”

Domestically, the speech was followed the next year by the death of the regime’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ascension of current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to power, and the fifth presidential election, all in 1989. Abroad, Iran had recently concluded the ceasefire that would end the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and the Soviet Union would soon begin its descent into oblivion, ending the bi-polar global power structure which shaped international relations for more than four decades.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s speech gives us critical insight into the regime’s transition from its first decade of revolution and war into unknown thermidorian waters. However, by posting the videos on his website at the current turning point in the regime’s history, with a presidential election and possible nuclear negotiations on the horizon in 2013, Hashemi-Rafsanjani may also be sending a message to the IRGC and its hard line allies as well as Iranian society. The speech is in Farsi and has not been translated here. However, two of the most important themes, the regime leadership’s decision to end the war and the future of the IRGC, have been summarized below.

At the time of the speech in 1988, Hashemi-Rafsanjani was in many ways the second most important figure in the young Islamic Republic after Khomeini. His positions included speaker of the parliament and deputy commander in chief of the armed forces. It is in the latter capacity that Hashemi-Rafsanjani addressed the IRGC commanders in 1988. He was there to speak to them “honestly and clearly” about the decision to end the war and the future of the IRGC, two issues which had generated significant consternation among the organization’s commanders and membership.

Decision to end the war

On 20 July 1988, Khomeini publicly acknowledged to the Iranian people his acceptance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 calling for an end to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), a decision he compared to “drinking from a poisoned chalice”. This action by Khomeini came as a surprise to many given the regime’s discourse and rhetoric which had constantly called for an outright military victory over Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist regime. Among other things, it raised serious questions about what the past eight years of immense sacrifice in blood and treasure had been for. Most importantly, was the regime abandoning its principals? Early in the speech, Hashemi-Rafsanjani answers this question with a resounding no. He strongly asserts that, despite the claims of “foreign analysts”, Khomeini’s acceptance of UNSCR 598 was not a retreat on the part of the Islamic Republic. Rather, it was a pragmatic decision based on a realistic assessment of the circumstances faced by the country, which highlighted as a sign of Khomeini’s courage and political wisdom.

He then compared Iraq and Iran’s positions at the end of the war. What key war aims had Iraq been able to achieve? What did Saddam have to show for his invasion of Iran, and how could he justify the ceasefire to his people? The answer, according to Hashemi-Rafsanjani, was nothing; Iraq’s decision to start and end the war had been dictated by foreign powers and, in the end, had all been for naught. He then starkly contrasted Iran’s position at the end of the war with that of Iraq’s. Iran did not start the war, but had achieved its central war aim of repulsing the invader and not surrendering a single inch of its soil. Hashemi-Rafsanjani insisted that although the regime had introduced some rhetoric and slogans calling for the destruction of the enemy, this by no means tied its hand when expediency called for a change in tactics to achieve this goal. Both sides remained antagonistic toward one another, but Khomeini and the regime’s senior political leadership had deemed it expedient that the conflict should be carried on through other, non-military, means. For those who saw the decision to end the war as a sign of weakness and retreat, Hashemi-Rafsanjani had this to say: “…the idea that we have said something and shall not turn back from it, is disliked in the Quran.”

Future of the IRGC

Toward the second half of his speech, Hashemi-Rafsanjani began discussing the questions surrounding the IRGC’s future. An entire generation of young Iranian men had forsaken their youth, civilian lives, professions and risked life and limb to defend their country on the frontlines of a brutal war. For many of these young men, the IRGC had become like their home and school, framing their entire lives up to that point. With the end of the war, would the IRGC be demobilized?

To the contrary, Hashemi-Rafsanjani contended that the IRGC was the main backbone of the regime, rescuing it at key moments during the revolution and war. While acknowledging the role of the regular military, police, revolutionary committees, and other forces in consolidating the revolution and defending the country in wartime, he emphasized that “…the main element, the trustworthy support base, and the real arm of the Imam Khomeini has been undoubtedly the IRGC.” [This sentiment was reflected Khomeini’s remark that “If there was no IRGC, there would be no Revolution”]. While the IRGC might not expand during the peacetime to come, he claimed that it would certainly not shrink. He drove this point home, saying that: “The IRGC, because of the role it has had in strengthening the revolution, is not a thing that the Islamic Republic or any decision-maker in this regime can ignore…take for granted and mistreat, deprive the right of this immense complex of human force, and imagine a future devoid of this immense force.”

He took this one step further, stating that:  “This complex is not a thing that one imagines can be ignored with a [simple] political decision or neglect…or that anyone would allow themselves to weaken this reservoir and support base of the revolution. This thought must not cross the mind of anyone in the IRGC. Neither Islam allows us to take [the IRGC] for granted, nor analysis and logic permits the regime to undermine its own base of support.”

With these statements, Hashemi-Rafsanjani was acknowledging the central place the IRGC would be given in the regime in the years to come, though he made clear that the force would need to make changes such as professionalization of its members.

Conclusion

Besides the historical value of these videos, their dissemination on Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s website today also appears to be sending a message to the IRGC and its hardline allies as well as Iranian society. The speech strongly highlights the roots of the IRGC and their origin as the praetorian guard of the Islamic Revolution. The rise of the IRGC to the center of political power in the Islamic Republic today has not struck like lightning from a clear blue sky. Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s speech in 1988 shows the extent to which Iran’s political elite in that era counted on the IRGC as a key pillar of their regime, and how this in turn helped systematically lay the foundations of the IRGC’s power today.

The speech also emphasizes the pragmatism and realism behind Khomeini’s decision to “drink from a poison chalice” and end the war, potentially signalling to regime hardliners that compromise is well within the confines of the Islamic Republic’s history. Just as the regime could renounce its wartime slogans of overthrowing Saddam’s regime and make peace with Iraq in 1988, it can forgo its slogans such as “nuclear energy is our fundamental right” and compromise to end the nuclear crisis today. During the war, as in the present, Iran was under enormous pressure including severe economic pressure. The parallels between the war and the nuclear crisis today raised by these videos is unlikely to be missed by thoughtful observers.