Iran: Khomeini's 'killer poison' returns
Former Iranian president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has published a confidential letter by the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which has stirred a great deal of controversy in Iran, in part because the letter refers to a military commander's call to pursue nuclear weapons to be deployed against Iran's hostile neighbor, Iraq.
The letter's significance, and the critical timing of its disclosure, cannot be overstated. Until now, there had been no official voices in favor of nuclear proliferation and plenty of opposite declarations led by Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has issued a religious decree, a fatwa, against it.
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.
To open a caveat, this author was once told by a Revolutionary Guards commander that the war had so drained the government's purse that in the end very little on the military's procurement list could be purchased. "We showed the list to the Imam and informed him that we had ran out of money."
"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," Khomeini's letter reads in part. The office in charge of Khomeini's texts has openly objected to Rafsanjani's publication of the letter without prior permission by the office. And there has been a spate of commentaries, both pro and against, in the nation's dailies and on the Internet.
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 an interview with a Tehran daily, Rafsanjani has elaborated on the wartime divisions between the regular army and the Revolutionary Guards, implicitly criticizing the latter for some of the setbacks. This was much to the chagrin of the then-head of the Guards, Mohsen Rezai, who has pointed the finger back at Rafsanjani, who was the commander-in-chief of the whole army at the time of the conflict in the 1980s.
But another point conveyed in this heated debate deals with the unprecedented presence of Revolutionary Guards within the present government, which might hurl the country back to the unreconstructed radicalism of the 1980s. For his part, Ahmadinejad has lashed out at the "mythmakers" who vilify the gains of the "sacred defense" during the eight-year war with Iraq. Iran's pluralistic polity has now seemingly split somewhat equally between sharply contrasting camps on the nuclear issue, each trying to draw on the arsenal of Khomeini's legacy to gain the upper hand.
'Imam's line' revisited
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 hardline 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.
No doubt Iran has come a long way since the guns fell silent at the Iran-Iraq border 18 years ago. For one thing, the threat of Saddam and his chemical and nuclear weapons has disappeared. This in turn undermines the rationale suggested by the commander quoted in Khomeini's letter.
Iran is comparatively much stronger now, has refurbished its army, has a more sophisticated network of allies in the region and beyond, has carefully implemented a sphere of influence abroad, and enjoys a measure of oil-based prosperity.
Ahmadinejad's internal detractors are concerned about a military showdown with the US in the not too distant future, which might put the country back several decades, not unlike Lebanon today.
Certainly, Iran might still declare victory after survived a superpower's onslaught, but for a country that has endured a grueling eight-year war with monumental sacrifices, the price may simply be too high to bear. Should Ahmadinejad now drink the "poisonous chalice" of suspension of uranium-enrichment activities? That seems to be the real message intended behind the unexpected publication of the Imam's letter.
Iran is preparing for a possible confrontation - and sanctions - with the US and the United Nations over its persistence not to give up this right to enrichment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in its pursuit of peaceful nuclear technology.
In the context of a revolutionary trapping, there is the perennial problem of selectivity: On what ground may a foreign policy addressing a specific national interest stand back from the abstract rights and ideals? Today, Iran's debate on nuclear diplomacy does not so much deal with the "contending foreign-policy orientations" as with the contrasting interpretation of the revolution's authenticity.
However, the problem is that Khomeini's legacy is not pre-packaged with specific action-issuing guidelines, and the unique constellation of policy-relevant factors in 1988 cannot be mechanically interpreted for the sake of today's nuclear crisis. Ahmadinejad's pattern of self-accelerated change has had certain dividends, for example with respect to enhancing Iran's power projection in its immediate regions. And to his credit he has addressed some of the previous malaise in Iran's foreign policy that had weakened the country. The challenge before him now is how to navigate the ship of Islamic revolution beyond the turbulent waters of the nuclear crisis, without exacting too much from the compound net of Iran's interests.
The Islamic Republic is in the throes of self-traumatizing over the issue of how would the Imam decide had he been alive - would he suspend the enrichment process, and for how long, and under what terms? Would he favor or disfavor nuclear proliferation in the post-September 11, 2001, era marked with the demise of Saddam and the US occupation of two of Iran's neighbors?
The compass of Khomeini's legacy is a firm criterion for deciding in favor of preferences based on Iran-centered needs, which Khomeini cherished - as his late tactical concession to the governmental aspects of national interests clearly showed.
Relearning from Khomeini and following the Imam's "line" might after all prove a timely antidote to the growing political impasse over the nuclear issue, reflected in the rapidity of oscillations with respect to the international incentives package offered by the UN's permanent five plus Germany for Iran to stop enrichment activities.
Without doubt, the long-term policy ramifications of Iran's acceptance of a ceasefire in August 1988 have not run out of steam, and they have now complicated the tough stance of Iran's president. The crux of the problem with his presidency may turn out to be how to avoid the impression of ideological fixity while professing his loyalty and fidelity to the Imam's line.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.