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Over the last few months the Iranian political system has raged over the publication of a series of memoirs by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's former president, who currently serves as chairman of the regime's Assembly of Experts and of the Expediency Council of Iran.
Considered one of Iran's most influential politicians, he recently published the seventh volume of his memoirs, Towards Destiny.
Rafsanjani, one of Ayatollah Khomeini's closest confidants during the 1980s, wrote in his memoirs that in 1984, a member of the Iranian parliament (Majlis) approached him and proposed dropping the slogan "Death to America, death to the Soviet Union." Rafsanjani responded that both he and Khomeini were in favor of dropping the slogan, but that they should wait for the appropriate time.
Rafsanjani said Khomeini would probably agree to drop the slogan once Iranian troops were victorious in a major battle with Iraqi forces that was taking place at the time (Baztab news agency, August 16, 2007).
Rafsanjani's memoirs prompted sharp criticism in ultra-conservative circles. They claimed that his recollections did not reflect Khomeini's positions and strayed from his path. Hussein Shariatmadari, editor of the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, sharply criticized Rafsanjani's reference to Khomeini in a special editorial, insisting that Khomeini had labeled the United States as the "Great Satan" and regarded opposition to the US as one of the basic principles of Iranian strategy. It was inconceivable, therefore, that Khomeini had agreed to drop it, he wrote.
While acknowledging that Rafsanjani was one of the main pillars of the Islamic Revolution, Shariatmadari drew his attention to Khomeini's political will, in which he wrote that after his death it was forbidden to believe what others attributed to him, unless it was said in his own voice or written and signed by him ( Kayhan, August 18, 2007).
The debate over Rafsanjani's memoirs has not taken place in a vacuum. Over the past year, a profound dispute has been taking place over the issue of Iran's participation in negotiations with the US. Following Iran's agreement to enter direct discussions with the US on the Iraqi crisis, ultraconservatives raised their objections, contending that such discussions would only serve American interests and propaganda.
Shariatmadari, Kayhan's editor, even labeled the negotiations with the US as "giving a hand to the devil and dancing with wolves" ( Kayhan, May 9, 2007). On the other hand, reformists, as well as some of the leading traditional-conservatives, including Rafsanjani, supported the discussions. Rafsanjani even declared at a Friday prayer at Teheran University that talks without preconditions with the US were the best way to solve the region's problems ( Iran Daily, August 12, 2007).
This is not the first time that the "Khomeini legacy" has been used as a tool in the internal political power struggles in Iran. Last year, Rafsanjani caused a political uproar after he publicized a letter Khomeini sent on July 16, 1987, in which Khomeini explained his decision to adopt UN Resolution 598 ending the eight-year war with Iraq. Khomeini rejected the proposal of Mohsen Reza'i, then commander of the Revolutionary Guards, to allocate far greater resources to the Guards so that Iran could win the war in a few years' time. Khomeini noted that since Iran's economic situation was "worse than zero," it was impossible to produce those resources, and therefore he had no choice but to accept the cease-fire to safeguard the Islamic religion and regime (Mehr News Agency, September 29, 2006).
The publication of the letter was regarded by many to be an attempt by Rafsanjani, following his defeat by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential elections, to prove to his political rivals that he still maintained power and might use his political experience, close relations with the late leader and access to sensitive documents to harm his opponents should the need arise. The message was particularly significant amidst the struggle between Rafsanjani and his ultra-conservative rivals, headed by Ayatollah Mahmoud-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, on the eve of elections to the Assembly of Experts in December 2006.
The publication also reflected indirect criticism of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy over the nuclear issue. Over the past two years Rafsanjani has come out against the uncompromising and confrontationist approach practiced by Ahmadinejad. Khomeini's letter may have strengthened Rafsanjani's claim that, as in 1987, today, too, it was preferable to place economic and political interests above the continued conflict with the West, which could ultimately hurt Iran.
The "Khomeini legacy" has also been used to support differing perspectives in the discourse over the nature of the Islamic Republic.
In early 2006, Hojjat ul-Islam Mohsen Gharavian, one of Yazdi's disciples, called to replace the term "Islamic Republic" ( Jomhuri-ye Islami) with the term "Islamic Government" ( Hokumat-e Islami). He argued that Khomeini never intended to create a "Republic" in Iran according to its Western definition, as he never believed in a republican system (ILNA news agency, December 8, 2005). Gharavian's message, echoing his mentor Yazdi's ideas, implied that the Islamic government drew its legitimacy only from God, and not from the people, as the term republic implied.
Consequently it drew sharp criticism from clerics and politicians who utilized the Khomeini legacy to make a counterargument. Former president Muhammad Khatami, for one, declared that the most important characteristic of the Islamic Revolution was the participation of the nation in establishing religious institutions, and that Khomeini believed the nation had to fulfill a central role in the Islamic system as stipulated in the constitution (ISNA, January 8, 2006; ILNA, January 27, 2006).
The continuous appropriation of Khomeini's legacy to justify different and even contradictory worldviews is likely to remain a constant of Iranian political discourse, as long as the debate between various factions over the nature of the Islamic Republic rages. It reflects a certain weakness of the current political camps, which lack the stature and legitimacy to set their own course and need to rely on Khomeini, who has become, like Lenin in the Soviet Union, not only an icon, but a source of legitimacy. The future of the Islamic Republic may be murky, but its founder continues to be more relevant than ever.
Raz Zimmt is a research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies and a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Historical Studies at Tel Aviv University. Reprinted with permission of the Center for Iranian Studies at TAU.
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