Everything about the interview this reporter conducted with Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani 12 years ago was extraordinary — from the gauntlet of Rafsanjani associates who had to give their prior approval to the rigorous security screening before the meeting in the former Iranian president’s office.
On that chilly February evening in 2005, Rafsanjani, who died Jan. 8 of a heart attack at age 82, was planning one of his many political comebacks. He had decided to signal to the world and to his own people that a major plank of his platform would be to seek an end to Iran’s decades-old enmity with the United States — a position he thought would help him win election to a new term as president later that year.
An interview with the diplomatic reporter of USA Today, my job at the time, seemed a good way to accomplish this goal in the view of Rafsanjani’s advisers. “The mere fact that I am sitting here talking to you is an indication that we have no differences with the American people,” the former president said.
Before a formal dialogue with the US government could begin, however, the United States would need to unfreeze Iranian assets still held after Iran released US diplomats held hostage from 1979 to 1981. The Americans, Rafsanjani said, “had to show positive signs for us so we can believe they are sincere.”
One of Rafsanjani’s sons, Mehdi Hashemi, was far more direct and explicit in a meeting prior to the interview with his father. Rafsanjani intended to “solve the American problem,” Hashemi said. “Because if he solves the American problem, he solves all Iranian problems.”
As so often in Iranian history, however, events took an unanticipated turn. Although Rafsanjani led in votes in the first round of presidential elections later that year, he was defeated in the second round by a populist firebrand, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took a far more confrontational approach to the United States and the international community in general. It would take the election of Hassan Rouhani, a Rafsanjani protégé, in 2013 before Iran could sit down for substantive negotiations with the United States and produce a nuclear agreement that included a fragile channel for future bilateral conversations.
Rafsanjani, unlike the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knew the United States in some detail. Before the 1979 revolution, he had visited there, traveling cross-country to visit his brother, Mohammad, then a graduate student at Berkeley.
Mohammad, a fluent English speaker, was one of those who met this reporter before the audience with Rafsanjani was granted. Others in the gauntlet of Rafsanjani associates included Hossein Mousavian, a current Al-Monitor contributor who was then a senior official on Iran’s Supreme Council of National Security, as well as publisher Mohammad Atrianfar, Rouhani and Rafsanjani’s son.
The interview came just a few hours before this reporter was due to leave Iran after postponing a scheduled departure by a few days. Security around Rafsanjani, who nearly died in bombings by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq in the early days of the revolution, was so intense that it took a boisterous argument to get permission to bring a tiny tape recorder into the room.
Once inside, Rafsanjani was expansive, smiling and clearly enjoying a rare encounter with an American journalist. He knew his comments would quickly ricochet back to Iran and mingled his praise for the American people with criticism of US policies.
Just a few days earlier, then-President George W. Bush — who had put Iran on an “Axis of Evil” with North Korea and Iraq in a 2002 speech — had begun his second term with a call for democracy around the world, proclaiming, “As you stand for your liberty, America stands with you.”
Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on her first trip abroad in that job, had called Iran’s human rights record “something to be loathed” and warned Iran against building nuclear weapons.
Rafsanjani dismissed the comments as “nonsense” and “tough talk,” adding that Iran would never use nuclear weapons and “therefore they have no utility for us.”
While he appeared to admire much about US society, the US government was another matter. It was like a “dinosaur,” he said, with a tiny brain and a lumbering body. The implication was that the United States, which had invaded Iraq two years earlier and backed Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, was an inept and dangerous actor that threw its enormous weight around without considering the consequences.
Yet because of US power both militarily and in the international economy, Rafsanjani had long been an advocate of repairing the breach, understanding that Iran could never truly flourish without a better relationship with Washington. He was a key figure in the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-86, when the United States covertly provided arms and spare parts to Iran, as well as in efforts to gain the release of US hostages in Lebanon.
Other elements of the Iranian government, however, saw the United States as an essential foil for Iran, a “Great Satan” that Iran must resist at all cost or lose the essence of its revolution. Khomeini’s successor, in particular, feared dropping the “Death to America” slogan still intoned at government-staged demonstrations. Lacking Khomeini’s stature, Khamenei still sees anti-Americanism as a key prop for the regime.
Rafsanjani was also a flawed vehicle for reconciliation with Washington because of his role in Iranian repression at home and terrorism abroad. A major push he made to ingratiate himself with the administration of George H.W. Bush — by engineering the release of the final US hostages in Lebanon held by Hezbollah militants — fell apart after Iran was implicated in the murder of Iranian dissidents in Europe and in a bombing at the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.
Bruce Riedel, now an Al-Monitor contributor and then a top official on the US National Security Council, told this reporter that an options paper he had developed for US-Iran dialogue was shelved because of these attacks. “I was told to put the options paper on hold. It never got off the ground again,” he said.
Another attack in 1994, which killed 85 people at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, was also tied to Iran and Hezbollah, which were seeking to avenge the Israeli assassination of a Hezbollah leader, Abbas al-Musawi, in 1992.
In part in response to that bombing, as well as a rise in Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorism in Israel, Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, implemented a policy of “dual containment” against both Iraq and Iran. When Rafsanjani persisted in his outreach by offering a lucrative contract to the Conoco oil company, Clinton responded in 1995 with a near-total embargo on US trade with and investment in Iran. A year later, Iran-backed Saudi terrorists blew up a US air force barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans. This coincided with the murder of intellectuals within Iran.
While Rafsanjani’s flawed outreach failed, he put his powerful support behind Reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami in Iran’s 1997 presidential elections. Khatami, without blood on his hands, came into office with a more credible call for a “dialogue of civilizations” including with the United States.
With Rafsanjani gone, the task of safeguarding the nuclear agreement and Iran’s outreach to Washington falls to Rouhani and others groomed by Rafsanjani over the years, including long-time Iranian diplomat and now Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Some Iranian analysts argue that in the short run, Rafsanjani’s death will not impede Rouhani’s re-election this spring and might even boost his chances as Iranians mourn the death of their president’s mentor. In the longer run, however, Rafsanjani’s absence could impede the chances for Rouhani or another pragmatic figure to succeed Khamenei and for Iran to restore normal relations with the United States.
Rebranded as a champion of protest following his support for the opposition Green Movement in 2009, Rafsanjani last year won the most votes for membership in the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member clerical body that must approve the successor to Khamenei. With his deep ties to the clerical establishment, Rafsanjani would have been a powerful mover in the assembly had he survived Khamenei. Now his old rival will no longer have to worry about Rafsanjani manipulating the succession, as Rafsanjani, ironically, did in 1989 in favor of Khamenei after Khomeini’s death.
Much will also depend, as always, on the policies of the United States. Will President Donald Trump maintain the nuclear agreement? Will he seek confrontation with Iran and will Iran seek to provoke a new US administration? Had Rafsanjani lived, he would surely have sought a way to influence events, but now the crafty cleric’s voice is stilled.