What is the significance of this letter, and why is it being released by Rafsanjani now? Is it really an indication that Iran has been trying to acquire nuclear weapons? And will it be used by Bush and the Republicans to build the case for another war?
To understand the letter and its significance, and why it is being released now by Rafsanjani, we need to better understand the political climate in Iran, both as it existed back in 1988, and as it exists today.
1988: The End of the Iran-Iraq War
In 1988, the Iran/Iraq war was winding down. Both countries had lost billions of dollars waging the war, and millions of lives had been sacrificed in what was by far the bloodiest conflict of the second half of the 20th Century. Saddam had the open support of the Reagan administration, while Iran was isolated politically, both in the region itself, and at the United Nations. As a Shi'a Islamic Republic it was seen as a threat by its principal neighbors, which were ruled by authoritarian regimes; either secular dictatorships like Egypt, Iraq and Syria or Sunni based religious fundamentalists like the Saudi monarchy.
On the international stage, Iran had no Superpower sponsor, since its regime was antithetical to both the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union and to the United States, who had long been the primary support for the the Shah's oppressive regime. Indeed, anger at the United States had fueled the Iranian Revolution as much as the Shah's own perfidies. The Iranian Hostage Crisis which played out over the last 15 months of the Carter Administration, led to a formal break in diplomatic relations between the US and Iran that continues to this day. Iran was officially seen as an enemy and a source of instability in the Middle East, a region of critical importance to America and its Western allies.
Although President Reagan was not opposed to the occasional unofficial, "back door" contact with Iran if it served other interests of his foreign policy agenda (see, the Iran-Contra Scandal for details), from early on his administration cultivated a relationship with Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime in Iraq.
Saddam began the Iran-Iraq War when he invaded Iran's territory in an attempt to seize the oil rich region of the Khuzestan and to secure the strategically important Shatt al-Arab waterway, the primary access for both countries to the Persian Gulf. Although the US was officially neutral regarding the conflict, in June of 1982, Reagan shifted US policy toward favoring the Iraqi cause in the war when he caused to be issued a National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) which made it the policy of the United States to take whatever steps were necessary to ensure Iraq did not lose the war. This policy was made more explicit by another NSDD in November, 1983 which, regarding the Iran-Iraq conflict, stated:
"Because of the real and psychological impact of a curtailment in the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf on the international economic system, we must assure our readiness to deal promptly with actions aimed at disrupting that traffic."
This subsequently led to the now infamous Rumsfeld handshake with Saddam Hussein in December, 1983, and to a restoration of formal relations between the US and Iraq in 1984. It also led to assistance in other areas, including a relaxation of regulations on the sale of so-called "dual use" technology and industrial components to Iraq by American companies during the 1980's, and to assistance from the Pentagon with critical battle planning:
A covert American program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program. [...]
Though senior officials of the Reagan administration publicly condemned Iraq's employment of mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents, the American military officers said President Reagan, Vice President George Bush and senior national security aides never withdrew their support for the highly classified program in which more than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for airstrikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq.
As a result, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini was faced with an impossible situation. He could not win the war as long as America supported Saddam Hussein. His government had already been bankrupted by the cost of current military operations, and millions of Iranians had died in the hard fought battles of what was easily the bloodiest military conflict of the latter half of the 20th Century. Saddam's regime had been the aggressor, and he and many of his followers still thirsted for revenge for what they considered an attempt to destroy their revolution. But the facts on the ground left him no choice but to accept the terms for a cessation of hostilities with Iraq set forth in UN Resolution 598 which had been the subject of intensive negotiations by UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in the Summer of 1988.
What Khomeini's Letter meant in 1988
Khomeini's letter was first and foremost a political document. It was written to his most loyal supporters for the purpose of explaining his decision to accept the UN sponsored peace plan established by Security Council Resolution 598, a decision that he knew would be very unpopular among those to whom his letter was directed:
"You my dear ones know that this decision [ceasefire] has been like a killer poison, but I have endured it in the path of God and for the sake of dignity of Islam and the protection of our Islamic Republic."
So why did Khomeini feel the need to mention his top commander's comments about acquiring nuclear weapons in a letter explaining his decision to end the war with Iraq? The answer is a simple one. It was to show to them why, despite every desire for vengeance that he shared with his followers, he felt compelled to endure the "killer poison" of peace:
In his letter to political leaders, dated 1988, Khomeini does not make any judgment on the commander's position, which he mentions in passing in a narrative devoted to explaining the underlying reasons for his fateful decision to accept a United Nations resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War. These were the government's financial inability to persecute the war, failures in the battlefield, Saddam Hussein's backing by the United States, the increasing Americanization of the war, etc.
Khomeini's letter sets out the requirements of military commanders if they are to continue fighting against Iraq. It mentions more aircraft, helicopters, men and weapons, and also quotes the top commander saying that Iran would - within five years - need laser-guided and atomic weapons if it were to win the war.
Khomeini is telling his supporters that victory over Iraq is impossible. America supports Saddam, and there is no money to finance the current cost of the war. And then, he notes, in passing, that in order to win Iran will need battle field nuclear weapons within 5 years. It may seem odd to you that he did so, and perhaps evidence of eccentricity (at best) or insanity (at worse), but I don't think so. I think he included specific mention of nuclear weapons for a very good reason.
Put aside for a moment the obvious barriers to accomplishing that feat, both financial and technological. Consider this: Isn't Khomeini really asking his followers a moral question? Isn't he saying to them: Do we really want to go down this path, a path that may lead to the slaughter of millions of our fellow Muslims, the vast majority of them practicing Shi'ites like the Muslims in Iran. In the face of the million plus deaths the Iran-Iraq war had already generated, I believe that was precisely the question he was raising.
And despite making no judgment regarding the commander's comment that nukes will be needed to win the war, he is implicitly saying to them "this also is why I accepted the bitter pill of an unjust peace." I believe that, because he saw nuclear weapons as essentially immoral, he wanted nothing to do with them, not even to win a war against a hated and reviled enemy whom he no doubt believed was an agent of Satan sent to destroy his Revolution. And I believe he expected that implicit call to a higher morality to appeal to many of his supporters, if not to all.
In support of my argument (for that is what it is, an argument about what Khomeini meant), I think it is important to note that IRNA, the official Iranian government news agency has made reference to a fatwa issued by Khomeini's successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei which prohibits the production, stock piling and/or use of nuclear weapons:
The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that Iran shall never acquire these weapons, IRNA quoted from the statement.
Now I am not naive enough to assume that the Iranian government has never considered acquiring nuclear weapons merely because of the alleged existence of this fatwa. However, it is clear that the official face Iran's government wants to show to the world is that of a nation which is not a threat to acquire or use nuclear weapons. Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, after all, and has never claimed a desire publicly to obtain nuclear arms. I suspect a large part of that has to do with the ideology of their Revolution, a revolution which is fundamentally based on their interpretation of Islamic law.
Furthermore, it would be equally as naive to believe that Iran's policy toward acquiring nuclear power/nuclear weapons is monolithic and universal. There are many political factions within Iran, and not all of them agree with the hard-liners who support President Ahmadinejad. Former President Rafsanjani is one of those voices, and I think my argument as to why Ayatollah Khomeini referred to nuclear weapons in his 1988 letter is augmented by the express reason for for its release claimed by Mr. Rafsanjani.
2006: Why Rafsanjani Made Khomeini's 1988 Letter Public
Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani is someone who passes for a moderate by Iranian standards. He is a leader among those who consider themselves "pragmatic conservatives." He is also the man whose lost the most recent Presidential election in Iran to his far more extremist opponent, President Ahmadinejad.
So, in the face of internal conflict among various political factions in Iran regarding what policy to pursue with respect to Iran's nuclear program (i.e., negotiate a compromise or stand firm against US and international pressure), it comes as no surprise that Rafsanjani would take the opportunity to claim that his position to resolve the crisis diplomatically is one which Ayatollah Khomeini himself would have supported, were he alive. And how does he do this? By releasing Khomeini's letter to the public, of course:
From the vantage point of Rafsanjani and his pragmatic moderate camp, Khomeini's letter is a timely reminder of the 1979 revolution's founding father's political wisdom in setting a precedent for principled compromises and flexibilities for the sake of what Khomeini and other religious leaders such as Jamal al-din Assadabadi called hobbe vatan, love of the country.
Does the same principle now call for a similar compromise with regard to the nuclear crisis? Rafsanjani and his circle of policymakers, which includes the former chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, appear to think so, as they have been openly critical of the hard line adopted by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his foreign-policy team. Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani in the latter's 2005 re-election bid.
In short, Rafsanjani thinks the letter helps his, more moderate or (to use a now overly familiar word) nuanced position on the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. Otherwise why would he release it now during the height of the negotiations between Iran and the Europeans? Ironically it is this same letter which Bush hard-liners may attempt to use as evidence that Iran has been working on the bomb all along.
Somehow I think Rafsanjani may have a better idea as to why Khomeini made that nuclear reference in his letter than any of our Neocon Republican warmongers are likely to put forward, and it had nothing to do with Iran's attempt to acquire nukes. What is more, the hard-liners in Iran seem to agree with him. Why else would they be so critical of Rafsanjani's actions in making this letter public, unless they to felt that is weakens their own recalcitrant stance on negotiations?
The mere fact that current leaders have resorted to the emphatic memory of Khomeini in defense of their nuclear and foreign-policy positions, as well as his sanctioning of the moderate and hard-line factions as legitimate factions of the state, is a vivid reminder of the futility of so many analyses who have heralded a "post-Khomeini" order in Iran.
To many, Ahmadinejad reminds them of the crusading militancy of the 1980s, instead of the "pragmatic" turns of the 1990s. Yet Khomeini's letter poses the norm-testing question: To what extent is there a Khomeinist mimetic rationality at work on the part of Ahmadinejad? Can Ahmadinejad's stated reverence for the "Imam's line" reduce itself to a mere attitude of affirming it as a legitimating device while degrading its validity as an epistemic device, above all criteria for nuclear decision-making?
Obviously not, which makes the president's job of rationalizing his seemingly inflexible position on the nuclear issue somewhat difficult, in light of the present reminder to the Iranian public of the Imam's directives through the controversy swirling around Khomeini's letter.
Nice to know that the Iranians, far from being single minded terrorist supporters, Israel wipe-off-the-mappers, and the smoking mushroom clouds of Republican fever dreams are just as conflicted about the current crisis as we are in America. It also argues for allowing diplomacy time to do its job. There is no imminent threat of an Iranian bomb, and pretending that there is with overheated rhetoric and chest thumping is behavior worthy only of a drunken lunatic. Sadly, I'm not sure the lunatics in charge of our asylum have any intention of giving peace a chance:
The United States and the United Kingdom said on Tuesday Iran could soon face sanctions because it showed no sign of halting sensitive nuclear work, while the European Union said the latest talks had been helpful but had brought no breakthrough.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Saudi Arabia there was no evidence Iran would halt enrichment.
"Should it not, then the only choice for the international community is to live up to the terms of resolution 1696 ... and that means to bring sanctions," she said.
A senior British official, who declined to be named, said world powers were preparing to draft UN sanctions against Iran as talks had failed so far to yield a deal. He said Solana had reported back that Larijani gave a clear "No" to suspension.
"We are intensifying preparatory efforts for what should be in a resolution," the British official said.
And the only option left when the UN Security Council won't go along with US demands for sanctions is ...?
Front paged at Booman Tribune