Ever since the 1979 revolution, Hashemi Rafsanjani has raised his misgivings about the US-Iran estrangement at every occasion and through every public position he has held that include Friday prayer gatherings to meetings with other Iranian leaders. This issue may even irk him in his dreams.
From the time when his heartfelt desire for talks between the US and Iran was put on paper in article by his cabinet minister Ataollah Mohajerani and published in Etelaat newspaper to the time when his pursued of the wish through special channels at the ministry of foreign affairs and Iran’s office at the UN in New York, using political, academic and oil lobbies away from media and public scrutiny and political machinations, yielded actual contacts and deals, to the present when he directly and personally makes announcements at massive Friday prayer gatherings where the previous proclaimed preconditions for the US to return Iran’s assets frozen during the initial years of the revolution are missing and where even America is encouraged to drop its preconditions, one can imagine the fruition of this dream in his lifetime.
Still, while “unconditional and direct talks” have been a taboo for the last quarter century, there is no single group or individual in Iran who would be willing to impart this “winning card” – in the public eye – to its political rival. And Rafsanjani is no exception to this rule, and was not even during the reform years [i.e. president Khatami’s era in late 1990s and early 2000s].
Most likely he too is banking on this winning card for the future and wishes to leave a positive legacy not just in Iran’s history but even in the pages of major events of the world. This winning card whose one result when used at the right time is that it could win him the Nobel Peace prize, thus putting Iran and him, once again on the cover of international media and world limelight.
The drive for the realization of this monopolistic event among Iran’s chess players has had one exception: The reform years and the then president of Iran. Seyed Mohammad Khatami who began his presidency on the international scene through a well calculated interview with CNN’s Iranian-American senior correspondent Christian Amanpour with the goal of bridging the walls of mistrust between the US and Iran, lost the marathon right at its initial steps with no accomplishments and was eliminated. Khatami’s fears of the negative measures of the anti-reform movement and the atmospherics created by the hardline media which surfaced through various activities including an attack on an American tourist bus in Tehran and Khatami’s anxiety over the undesired consequences of his defiance of the leader’s unwritten wishes that were manifested in his orders that banned any meeting or direct talks with US President Clinton that even included not appearing for a group photo op of UN leaders along with the president of the US was not something that was hidden from international and domestic observers and the public.
This was a historic step to meet Iran’s national interests, and he did it even at the expense of being scolded by other leaders of the country. The immediate results of this heroic step could have been the failure of the anti-reform onslaught and defeat of the military-party and its leader Ahmadinejad from coming to power, while its long-term consequence would have been the prevention of the country from sliding into political, economic, social, international, and regional crises, and the avoidance of the intensification of tensions, animosities and the return of an anti-Iranian atmosphere that included economic sanctions by the international community led by the US, and the danger of a war and military confrontation that looms greater on the horizon.
But the reform-dominated Majlis and its president could not succeed in this leap. And while Majlis Speaker Karubi consented to be in the proximity of some US Congressmen at the Metropolitan museum in New York when visiting the US and even exchange some words with them – which by international standards and practice may be construed to have been a semi-official contact – he subsequently refrained from following up on the initiative or allowing the Majlis, which was historically one of the most represented legislatures in the country, because of pressures from the opposition that may have even included a negative gestures from the leader of Iran.
As representatives of the nation, progressive reformers of the sixth Majlis (Parliament) never succeeded, as in the past, in overcoming their lack of self confidence and embarking on risky historic measures, and take the extended hand of US Congressmen, such as Senator Joseph Biden, who were willing to meet their Iranian counterparts anywhere in the world, and by holding it firmly create a turning point and breakthrough in Tehran-Washington relations.
But those days and opportunities have gone, and there is no use in crying over spilled milk. What remains are its instructive lessons for the future.
Two years after unsuccessful efforts to resolve the nation’s problems after centralizing power into a single party administration, where sovereignty lies in the hands of one person – the leader – while all others are powerless and yes-men, have left the country in a state where no independent political analyst inside or outside Iran today is optimistic about solving the country’s historic problem of Iran-US relations despite the current limited negotiations going on between the two.
It appears that in this political deadlock, and while there are growing measures to change the highest executive leaders on both sides, it is necessary that reformers inside Iran strike a “grand coalition” among themselves for the upcoming elections. And in addition, at the international level they have no choice but relinquish the goal of monopolistically and unilaterally holding the “winning card”.
What appears to be most needed today is for this heterogeneous group of reformers to self-define itself and its role, and accept the fact that hardliners have pushed them completely aside from the Iranian political scene. It should be clear that hardliners will not share the cake with them. So one of the measures reformers can take is to cut their umbilical cord with the current administration and present a precise definition of the “opposition.” The result of such a move will be nothing other than the creation of a “shadow government” with specific plans and cadres, including those in the foreign policy realm.
Last week when Hashemi Rafsanjani declared at the Friday congregational prayers in Tehran that “unconditional talks” were the “best solution to the problems” between the US and Iran, that the US must choose the right path and accept negotiations as the best option, and that Iran remained ready to talk while the US should take back its humiliating and unacceptable preconditions. As was expected, the pronouncement was immediately picked up by domestically and internationally. But since there was no executive authority behind it, it was soon lost in the heap of other developments. Today, hardly anyone inside or outside Iran fools himself to believe that the words of the president of Iran’s State Expediency Council translated into the words of the regime or the expediency of the state, or that he enjoyed the status of the second or third line in command.
An accurate response came from a US official soon after the remarks. In an international news network he said: “Mr. Rafsanjani no longer has a place in the decision-making forums of Iran, and such talks must take place between officials and the governments. He can, however, be the leader of informal talks, talks between members of Congress.”
In view of the changes in the power structure of Iran, and such expectations from US and even European representatives, it is necessary to create a new front of “anti dictatorship” and “grand coalition of reformers” – parallel to the important upcoming game of elections – and take the foreign policy interactions much more seriously. If they so desire, the Khatami-Karubi-Hashemi triangle – and each one of them independently – can initiate bilateral and direct talks between Iran and the US in the new positive atmosphere that has been created inside and outside Iran at all levels. They can launch this in the capital of either country or even a third one. Mr. Khatami has already had such practices with other countries at different levels. Mr. Rafsanjani on the other hand while active in pronouncements and highly visible in official visits, has not yet tested his new independent position. Is stepping into this field at a time of serious tension and anxiety, not expedient for the country?
This is a new opportunity which should not be lost, like many others in the past.