A written correspondence between the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the then commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Mohsen Rezai, has given some insight into why Iran accepted a ceasefire with Iraq in 1988. The correspondence has caused much debate and speculation inside and outside Iran. Published by the office of former Iranian president Rafsanjani last week, it reveals that Khomeini had been advised by Rezai that the war was not winnable. While Western observers have focused on a single sentence in the letter referring to nuclear weapons, the letter has sparked fierce debate inside Iran for a very different reason.
“ No victories are in sight for the next five years,” Rezai’s letter to Khomeini reads. “If we become able to organize 350 infantry brigades, purchase 2,500 tanks, 3,000 cannons, and 300 war planes, and be able to manufacture laser and nuclear weapons which are nowadays among the necessities of modern warfare, then, God willing, we can think of offensive war activities.”
Western media attention has focused on the segment insinuating the IRGC commander’s desire to obtain a nuclear weapon. By doing so, Western audiences have missed critical nuances that are emerging from Iran’s internal debate on the nuclear issue.
Inside Iran, little attention has been paid to the letter’s reference to nuclear weapons. Some attribute this to Iran’s invisible red lines on discussing topics that could jeopardize Iran’s negotiating position in the current nuclear stand-off. Another and perhaps more probable explanation is that the Iranian public generally understands that the late Ayatollah did not take Rezai’s desire for more advanced weapons seriously. Rezai’s statements seem to be treated as hyperbole by the Ayatollah. “We need to double the military and increase the IRGC seven fold, and even evict the Americans from the Persian Gulf (which we cannot) [in order to defeat the Iraqis]; nonetheless, we have to continue the war,” Rezai wrote. Khomeini’s comments were brief but conclusive. “This is nothing but sloganeering,” he responded.
Government-imposed censorship has prevented a public debate on the war to determine why it was permitted to drag on for over eight years. The issue was raised by both reformers and journalists like Akbar Ganji during the tenure of President Khatami, but their efforts to address the issue were blocked. The publication of the letter occurred as the blame game once again was flaring. The purported differences between Mohsen Rezai and Rafsanjani seem to contribute to this altercation.
Arch conservatives in Iran have accused Rafsanjani of “illegal disclosure of the country’s secrets,” going as far as accusing him of “treason.” President Ahmadinejad, whose hostility to Rafsanjani is well known, commented on the letter by saying that “some people” were trying to endear themselves to foreigners. This view enjoys support even among reformists, who found the timing of the publication self-serving.
Rafsanjani, who Khomeini assigned to command the war towards its end, continues to have access to many of Iran’s state secrets. Publicizing the letter, his critics argue, serves many of the former president’s interests. On the one hand, the letter reveals that Rezai was responsible for putting an end to the war and not Rafsanjani. (Rafsanjani has on many occasions been criticized by Iranian war veterans for having ended the war in Iran’s disfavor.) On the other hand, some argue the letter is a publicity stunt aimed at raising Rafsanjani’s profile in the wake of his likely candidacy to the Assembly of Experts. A highly contested election, the Assembly of Experts is in charge of electing and supervising Iran’s Supreme Leader. The arch conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a key supporter of President Ahmadinejad, is rumored to be seeking to take control of this body. As such, the publication of the letter may be part of the ongoing rivalry between the arch-conservatives and the pragmatists around Rafsanjani.
Yet a more salient interpretation, suggested by some observers inside Iran, is that Rafsanjani publicized the letter to warn firebrands in the Iranian government not to take the risk for a US-Iran war lightly. The letter shows that the leader of the Iranian revolution succumbed to the realities of war and peace and chose to compromise in order to avert an even greater disaster. As such, the letter sends a clear signal to Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad – who may feel they have invested too much of their prestige in developing nuclear technology – that the war machine can be stopped if Iranian leaders recognize Iran’s limitations and seek a compromise with the West.
Abbas Abdi, a leading reformer echoed this view. “If the war against Saddam needed such a large sum of weapons and equipment, just imagine how much logistics, weaponry, and [what size] economy are needed to fight those who defeated Saddam in [less than] a month,” he wrote. (Abdi, Abbas, Chand nokteh hashiei dar bareh nameh emam). Seyyed Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former adviser to President Khatami and outspoken critic of the policies of President Ahmadinejad, sought to turn attention to the message of the letter rather than its publication. “The courage to accept the reality is no less than the courage of fighting a war,” he wrote of Rafsanjani’s message in publicizing the letter. “Let’s discuss Imam [Khomeini’s] realistic [turn about] rather than why a secret of the state has been revealed.” (Abtahi, Seyyed Mohammad Ali, Dar bareh enteshar nameh emam tavassot Hashemi).
At a minimum, the revelation of the correspondence has paved the way for a debate on this most critical issue as it reveals Iran’s diversity of views on the nuclear issue. The publication of the letter by a former president and by Iran’s media is highly significant. It demonstrates that there is a whole segment of Iran’s leadership structure at the highest levels and within the population that may oppose engulfing Iran in a conflict with the US. Absent direct talks between the US and Iran, it will likely remain difficult for the United States to understand these Iranian dynamics and it will delay Washington’s ability to influence Iran’s internal debates.
Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development at Strayer University in Virginia. He contributes to various news agencies, including the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. Visit rnafisi.com