Mullahs vs. Mullahs (Part 1)

THE RETURN OF THE "GROWN-UPS"

The Columbia University controversy provided the mullahs of Iran with the opportunity to stage yet another of their famous Uriah Heep-ish diplomacy theatrics. On the evening of September 25th, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer invited a couple of Iran experts to comment on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University and the U.N. and to generally deconstruct the nature of the Islamic Republic.

One of these experts was Gary Sick, who during the clamor of the 1979 Khomeinist revolution, played a key role as Middle East analyst for the NSC. Sick, who supported the overthrow of the Shah and Khomeini's takeover of Iran, has ever since been one of the more instrumental figures in helping the Islamic regime keep up appearances with the West. Sick's Gulf/2000 Project was in fact established at Columbia's own School of International & Public Affairs in 1993. It has also been mainly financed by the oil industry, and it actively promotes dialogue with Tehran's regime.

For those of us who have been studying the mullahs for a lifetime, Sick, in his interview with Judy Woodruff, bizarrely tipped his hand about which horse he backs inside the regime. Sick vehemently claimed: "(I) suggest that the leadership in Iran - the grown-ups, as I would put it - have every reason to be upset by what he (Ahmadinejad) has done. He has destroyed the image of Iran that had very painfully been built up over years after the death of Khomeini, through Rafsanjani and then Khatami. And Mr. Ahmadinejad has come along and undermined that tremendously."

The grown-ups he is referring to are obviously Rasfanjani and Khatami and their coterie. Are they actually any better than Khamenei, Ahmadinejad & Company?

This is where our story begins.

The 1979 revolution turned the Rafsanjanis from pistachio farmers into moguls. One Rafsanjani brother became the chief of Iran's entire copper mining industry; another one annexed the state-run television. Meanwhile, a brother-in-law became the governor of their home province of Kerman, and one of the cousins became the head of the nearly half-a-billion-dollar a year pistachio business. Rafsanjani's son and one of his nephews got the best possible jobs at the Iranian National Oil Company, while another son took charge of the entire Tehran metro construction project which is said to have cost close to a billion dollars. Conducting business through various non-profit organizations and front companies, the family is known to be running Iran's biggest oil engineering company, a Daewoo automobile assembly plant and Iran's private airline, among others.

Inside Iran, however, Iranians have always parodied Rafsanjani's name in order to describe the man's true nature by referring to him as Rassman-Jani, which means "certainly murderous."

For almost three decades, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been one of the two top authorities inside the Islamic regime's principle pecking order - Khamenei, the supreme leader, is the other. Rafsanjani was Khomeini's eyes and ears until the latter's death in 1989. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who Khomeini assigned to command the war towards its end, continues to have access to many of Iran's state secrets.

He served as president of the Islamic Republic from 1989 to 1997, and he would have remained in that job indefinitely, had he not been implicated in a court case that momentarily strained Germany's diplomatic relations with Iran, leading to a near collapse of European/Iranian geopolitics.

In April 1997, a German court convicted four men in the 1992 massacre of dissident Iranian Kurdish leader Sadegh Sharafkandi and three of his colleagues in Berlin's Mykonos Restaurant. The court found that the killings were ordered by the "highest state levels" of Tehran's regime. The judges convicted two men of murder and two others of being accessories to murder on September 17, 1992. Presiding Judge Frithjof Kubsch said the men had no personal motive but were following orders. Kubsch said the gangland-style murders had been ordered by Iran's Committee for Special Operations, to which Iran's president and spiritual leader belonged. Prosecutors had contended that Iran's powerful spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had personally ordered the killings. Germany said it was expelling four Iranian diplomatic staff. "The participation of Iranian state agencies, as found in the court verdict, represents a flagrant violation of international law," the German foreign ministry said in a statement.

The regime had to do some quick fancy footwork and re-create itself so that it did not lose face with its European allies. Rafsanjani figured he ought to step down and an election was staged. A serious cross section of Iranian society had already shown it's profound animosity towards the mullahs and Islamic rule in general. So in an orchestrated effort, Khamenei announced his candidate, a fossilized, ultra-conservative mullah and the Speaker of Parliament (Majles), Nategh-Nouri, knowing full well that there was no way that the voters would vote for him. However, the dark horse Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohammad Khatami and his administration rode in as bona fide moxie capable enough to reform the regime from within.

Khatami, who loves foreign travel and hobnobbing with the global glitterati, became the toast of western liberal societies. As president, he was to travel the world, smile, discuss Montesquieu and Hannah Arendt, and have everyone buy into his claim that the Islamic republic is progressive and democratic. His western supporters portrayed him and his administration as the "Glasnost Mullahs" who would extend democracy and address the demands of Iranians who would no longer suffer the demagogy of the hardliners.

WHO WAS KHATAMI REALLY?

Khatami's landslide victory, however, did not stop the wave of murders of journalists and intellectuals that had begun from early on in Rafsanjani's presidency. These became known as the "chain or serial murders." In addition, real opposition magazines and newspapers were banned and forcibly closed down and journalists imprisoned. In spite of the repression of internal dissent, Khatami continued to be courted and invited by the major European powers for state visits.

On the other side of the Atlantic, and during the Clinton years, the mainstream media, left-leaning Washington-insiders and members of the so-called "realist" school of foreign policy also helped to promote the Islamic Republic's propaganda. They did this by repeating and magnifying the big lie about Iran's conservatives, who were now calling themselves "reformists."

In November 2006, Rafsanjani publicized a letter proving the very real discussion of the development of the regime's nuclear ambitions. Throughout both Rafsanjani and Khatami's presidencies the regime's nuclear program was developed, all the while keeping the western powers, the U.N. and the I.A.E.A. at bay. Under Khatami, another slick Hojjat ol-eslam, Hasan Rowhani, averted the attention of the British, Germans and French who were negotiating the nuclear "concerns." In early 2006, Rowhani himself admitted in front of a large group of clerics in Tehran that his job was to dupe the European negotiators while buying time for the further development of the nuclear program.

TERRORISM CHARGES AGAINST RAFSANJANI

Despite all the promotion and open support of people like Sick and others, terrorism charges against Rafsanjani are not going away. Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman formally charged Rafsanjani and 6 other officials from Tehran's regime, five Iranian and one Lebanese - the infamous Lebanese terrorist Imad Mughniyeh - for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. The 1994 explosion destroyed the Argentinian-Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), killing 85 and wounding almost 200, and has been proven to have been ordered by Tehran and carried out by Hezbollah.

The AMIA attack followed a 1992 explosion that destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and killed 29 people. Tehran's regime has refused to cooperate so far and has evaded all attempts by Interpol and the Argentine public prosecutor. Ultimately in his U.N. General Assembly speech, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner asked the international community to cooperate so that "the Islamic Republic of Iran collaborates with the application of international law in order to achieve justice. Nothing more, but nothing less."

THE CURRENT MULLAH POWER STRUGGLE - THREE PARTIES EMERGE

On September 4th of this year, after having lost the presidential race to Ahmadinejad in 2005, Rafsanjani managed to get himself elected as the chair of the Islamic regime's Assembly of Experts, a position which he now holds together with the chairmanship of the Expediency Council. Constitutionally, the Assembly of Experts is considered Iran's highest legal authority, as it reserves the power to appoint, oversee, and if necessary, dismiss the Supreme Leader.

With his victory, Rafsanjani has defined the ground where the next battle between the top mullah factions will be fought: the election of the Supreme Leader who will replace Khamnei. Already three parties have emerged during the first phase of this new political standoff at the top echelon of the Islamic republic. A few ayatollahs in Qom would like to transform the duties of the Supreme Leader to a committee of five or nine mullahs chosen by the Assembly of Experts for a fixed period. Such an idea has been dismissed by both the conservative faction, led by Rafsanjani, and by the radical faction, led by Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor. The former wants a weak Supreme Leader who would perform ceremonial functions, leaving the real business of government in the hands of the "strongman," that is to say Rafsanjani himself. The latter wants the role of the Supreme Leader reinterpreted to create a clear demarcation between the sacred and the temporal. That would mean abandoning Khomeinism and returning to classical Shiite doctrine according to which men cannot create perfect governments in the absence of the Hidden Imam.

THE RETURN OF KHATAMI AND A POSSIBLE MULLAH GANG WAR

To counteract the threat posed by the radical faction, Rafsanjani is once again openly promoting his protégé, former President Muhammad Khatami, as the future Supreme Leader when, and if, a vacancy occurs. Khatami has the advantage of not having a political base of his own. He has always been loyal to Rafsanjani. Clearly, Rafsanjani's intention is to repeat the same operation so brilliantly engineered in 1997. Khatami as Supreme Leader would ease the tension between Iran and the West, possibly inducing a lifting of the sanctions and allowing the mullah-businessman Rafsanjani to continue expanding his personal fortune while maneuvering the political process from behind the scenes.

Ahmadinejad, Messbah-Yazdi and their faction are not going to take all that lying down. They schemed and plotted for too many years to give their positions up with out a battle royal. Rumors of Khamenei's ill health persists, and if he dies a three-sided gangland war will explode in Tehran involving Ahmadinezhad's radicals, Rafsanjani's conservatives-cum-reformists, and the doctrinaire mullahs in Qom.

More about Rafsanjani and Khatami to come. Next week: Ahmadinejad, Messbah-Yazdi and the radicals.

Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, a native of Iran, is an activist and writer. Elio Bonazzi is an Italian-born political scientist. Husband and wife, they are based in New York.

BONUS VIDEO FROM SEPTEMBER 2006: