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While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to vehemently deny the Islamic Republic's desire to develop nuclear weapons, his defeated rival in last year's presidential election has come out with sensational revelations that portray a completely different picture.
The defeated rival in question is Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-cum-mullah who occupied the presidential chair for two consecutive four-year terms between 1989 and 1997. However, the revelations he made last week relate to 1988, when he was Speaker of the Islamic Majlis (parliament) while also acting as the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Republic's armed forces on behalf of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini.
The centerpiece of the revelations consists of two letters. One, written by Brig.-Gen. Mohsen Rezai, then commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is addressed to Khomeini. The other is Khomeini's reply.
In his letter, Rezai, whose forces had just suffered terrible losses as a result of chemical attacks against them by the Iraqis, informs Khomeini that unless supplied with a range of new weapons, his forces would not achieve the goals set for them. These goals included defeating Saddam Hussein, installing a Khomeinist regime in Baghdad, proceeding to "liberate" Jerusalem and wiping Israel off the map.
Rezai asks Khomeini to provide his forces with 300 new fighter-bombers, 2,500 tanks, 300 attack helicopters and, last but not least, laser-guided missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
In his reply, Khomeini endorses Rezai's analysis and evokes the possibility of ending the war by accepting United Nations Resolution 598, which the Islamic Republic had systematically rejected as a "Zionist-Crusader" concoction. In fact, shortly after the exchange of letters, Khomeini announced that he was "drinking the poison chalice" by accepting a cease-fire with Saddam Hussein, thus ending the eight-year war in August 1988.
The fact that Rezai's analysis carried weight with Khomeini was not solely due to the brigadier-general's status as a war hero. The event that rendered the analysis irrefutable was the battle that a US task force, ordered into the Gulf by president Ronald Reagan, had fought with the Islamic Republic's navy over the control of the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran had started attacking Kuwaiti oil tankers with the claim that Kuwaiti oil money was financing Saddam Hussein's war machine. The Reagan administration had tried to protect the tankers by putting them under the American flag. That, however, had not stopped attacks by the Islamic Republic. Washington had tried to reason with Teheran by sending a series of warnings to Khomeini through the Swiss embassy in the Iranian capital. Soon, it became clear that Khomeini would ignore the warnings while seeking to expand the conflict by ordering air raids on Saudi oil installations.
Reagan decided to send the US task force into battle. That led to a series of engagements in 1987 that ended with the sinking of half of Iran's navy, the dismantling of Iranian missile batteries on 16 islands, and billions of dollars of damage to Iranian offshore oil installations. Khomeini got the message and immediately halted attacks on Kuwaiti tankers and Saudi oil installations.
THE QUESTION is: Why did Rafsanjani decided to publish the two top-secret letters?
The immediate answer is that he wants to refute claims of "cowardice" and "collusion" with the US, made against him by Ahmadinejad. The current president and his entourage have accused Rafsanjani of having persuaded Khomeini to stop the war against Saddam at a time when the Islamic Republic was on the verge of conquering Iraq and moving on to destroying Israel. Ahmadinejad's spiritual master, Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, has claimed that sometime in 1988 the Hidden Imam, a messiah-like figure in Shi'ite lore, was getting ready to return and lead the Islamic forces to final victory in Jerusalem. Thus Rafsanjani, by persuading Khomeini to end the war prematurely, allowed Saddam to remain in power for another 15 years while prolonging the life of the "Zionist stain of shame" in the heart of the Muslim world.
Ahmadinejad and his entourage claim that Rafsanjani had made a deal with the Americans in the context of secret talks that were later revealed in the Irangate scandal. Rafsanjani's eldest son, Mahdi, had visited the White House in Washington in 1986 for talks with members of the Reagan national security team, notably Lt.-Col. Oliver North. According to Ahmadinejad's entourage, the Americans had promised to back Rafsanjani's bid for presidency in Iran in exchange for his persuading Khomeini to end the war with Iraq.
Rafsanjani now wants to do two things. First, he wants to make it clear that the decision to end the war was made by Khomeini on the advice of his military commanders, and had nothing to do with any alleged secret deal between Rafsanjani and the Americans. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Rafsanjani wishes to discredit what he sees as Ahmadinejad's strategy of deliberately provoking a conflict with the US that the Islamic Republic cannot hope to win without first acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
The revelation that Iran began seeking a nuclear deterrent as early as 1988 is nothing new to seasoned Iran-watchers. The Iranian Atomic Energy Commission, which had been closed on Khomeini's orders in March 1979, resumed work in October 1988 under an assistant to the president of the Islamic Republic. In February 1989, Teheran hosted a seminar on nuclear technology. In 1993, the new national defense doctrine, compiled on Rafsanjani's orders, identified a nuclear deterrent as one of the three pillars of Iran's military strategy - the other two being a massive land army and the largest stockpile of missiles in the Mideast.
Rafsanjani's message is simple: the Islamic Republic needs a sophisticated strategy to counter regime change moves against it by the US and its allies. Such a strategy should include a nuclear deterrent. But for it to be pursued successfully a great deal of tact, experience and realism would be needed - something that Ahmadinejad singularly lacks while Rafsanjani has in abundance.
Always a fighter, Rafsanjani seems to have absorbed the shock of his defeat in last year's presidential election and is planning a comeback.
But can he wait another 30 months before taking on Ahmadinejad in a second presidential election? The answer is probably no. Rafsanjani hopes to lead an anti-Ahmadinejad coalition in next December's elections for the Assembly of Experts, the body that can choose or dismiss the "Supreme Guide." If Rafsanjani wins control of the Assembly, he would be able to control the incumbent Supreme Guide Ali Khamenehi, and use his virtually unlimited constitutional powers to turn Ahmadinejad into a lame duck. And if Khamenehi refuses to cooperate with the new majority, Rafsanjani could engineer his dismissal in the assembly.
All this might have been of little or no concern to the outside world were it not for two facts: The Islamic Republic has had a secret nuclear program for almost two decades while taking the International Atomic Energy Agency for a ride. Secondly, Iranian leaders who felt no discomfort in discussing the use of nuclear warheads two decades ago do not seem to have abandoned their strategy of reshaping the Middle East after their fashion.
The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.