The Search for Iran's "Moderates"

by Eric Hooglund
published in MER144

Revelations about secret talks and arms deals between the United States and Iran have focused attention on the internal politics of the Islamic Republic. The Reagan administration justifies its policy as an 18-month effort to reach out to “moderate elements” in the Iranian government.

The American media has been predictably curious about the alleged factionalism in Iran, conveniently simplified to a power struggle between “moderate” and “radical” groups among the Shi‘i clergy who rule the country in association with key lay politicians. The terms “moderate” and “radical” have a strictly polemical function, equivalent of “good” and “bad.” The sole criterion is whether or not a given person or faction is willing to deal with the US government. The same White House that denounced the same Iranian leaders a year ago as fanatics and extremists now characterizes them as “moderates” without any indication that their internal policies have changed. But they are, for tactical reasons, willing to talk with Washington.

Hojjat ol-Islam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, or Majlis, is one of the principal moderate leaders in a typical media scenario. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the clergyman chosen in November 1985 to be the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, is frequently depicted as the main radical. If we examine the political positions and speeches of Montazeri and Rafsanjani since 1979, both clergymen would appear to be relatively moderate in terms of domestic Iranian politics. The ruling Islamic Republican Party (IRP), of which both are members, has two distinct factions, or wings (janah). One faction, identified with President Ali Khamenei (like Rafsanjani, a cleric of hojjat ol-Islam rank) and Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, advocates strong governmental intervention in the economy. Their position is that the wealth of the nation should be used for the benefit of the entire Islamic community, although they also believe in the sanctity of private property. The opposing faction, which includes several prominent members of the Majlis such as Jalal al-Din Farsi and Nateq Nouri, seeks to limit the role of the government.

Interestingly, neither Montazeri nor Rafsanjani -- nor even Khomeini -- have been identified as solid supporters of either faction. Rafsanjani, as speaker of the Majlis, has functioned as a skilled compromiser in getting legislation enacted that embodies both provisions sought by Mousavi’s government and amendments desired by Majlis deputies. Rafsanjani fills several other politically important roles including: Khomeini’s representative on the Supreme Defense Council, the principal group for formulating strategy in the war with Iraq; vice-chairman of the Council of Experts, the body charged with the selection of Khomeini’s successor; and a member of the Central Committee of the IRP. He is reputed to be adroit at effecting compromises of contentious issues in all of these roles.

Montazeri is not as involved in the institutionalized decision-making structures as is Rafsanjani. Nevertheless, from his base in the theological college center of Qom, Montazeri operates a relatively large bureaucracy that exercises informal political influence in both domestic and foreign policy. Significantly, Montazeri is the head of the loose network of imam jomehs, the official congregational prayer leaders who function as de facto governors in most cities and towns. In his public addresses to imam jomehs and other groups, Montazeri has called for leniency in punishing wrongdoers, a less rigid interpretation of Islamic legal codes, tolerance toward dissenting viewpoints, encouragement of Iranian exiles to return home and contribute their talents to the building of a better society, and a generally less intrusive role of the state in the private lives of the citizens. In terms of contentious economic issues, Montazeri seems to favor the IRP faction advocating greater state intervention, but he also has expressed criticism of certain policies such as property expropriations. His reputation among the politically active clergy is that of a person who listens patiently to all sides of a question and tries to avoid decisions that would antagonize any one faction.

Where Rafsanjani and Montazeri seem to differ is over issues of foreign policy. There are two distinct attitudes toward the conduct of foreign relations in Iran. Since the establishment of complete IRP control of the government in the summer of 1981, there has been an ongoing effort to place all relations with foreign countries and revolutionary groups under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But some individuals are determined to maintain active contacts with Islamic anti-government groups in various countries, free of any supervision by the foreign ministry. These two tendencies reflect a serious debate among Iran’s political leaders over what is the most effective strategy for exporting Islamic revolution, a principle to which all the political elite give at least lip service.

Men such as Rafsanjani, Khamenei, Mousavi and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati tend to believe that Iran can best export its Islamic revolution through example. By educating oppressed peoples about how Iranians rose up against imperialism and tyranny, others will find inspiration and courage to undertake their own movements. Iran should not provide direct assistance, because it is essential that any oppressed population demonstrate its worthiness and readiness for Islamic revolution through its own sacrifices. Since in practical terms Iran exports its revolution through propaganda rather than through subversion, it is possible to conduct relatively normal relations with most foreign governments.

Iranian critics of this approach hold that Islamic revolution can not be exported by rhetoric alone. They acknowledge the importance of the government maintaining diplomatically correct relations with foreign governments, and contend that this is why it is necessary for non-official groups to have their own contacts with Islamic revolutionary movements in other countries. Since they are not part of the government, such groups can provide ideas, training and other support to oppressed peoples to assist them in their struggles against imperialism, thus permitting the government to disavow any official involvement.

Montazeri has been consistently identified as a supporter of this more activist approach. Until October, he maintained an Office for Islamic Liberation as a part of his extensive bureaucracy in Qom. This office had its own contacts with a variety of revolutionary groups -- both Islamic and secularist -- in several African and Asian countries. The Office for Islamic Liberation reputedly has especially good relations with some of the leaders of the Lebanese Hizballah movement, and sponsored the trip of Hizballah representatives to Iran in the summer of 1986.

The brother of Montazeri’s son-in-law, Sayyid Mehdi Hashemi, was the director of the Office for Islamic Liberation. Hashemi is a flamboyant personality who has been involved in theological controversies since the early 1970s. His close political ally was Montazeri’s son, Muhammad, who was assassinated in 1981. Hashemi was implicated before the revolution in the murder of Ayatollah Shamsabadi, a rival of Montazeri, and after the revolution Hashemi was one of Montazeri’s bodyguards. The exact nature of Hashemi’s relationship with the elder Montazeri is unclear. Some claim that Montazeri regarded him as a son and had a close relationship with him; others allege that the two saw each other only occasionally and only for business purposes. In any case, Montazeri is perceived as a patron of Hashemi and Hashemi’s arrest in October must have distressed Montazeri.

Hashemi’s arrest proved to be the loose thread that caused the secret talks between Iran and the United States to unravel. His associates, who knew some (but apparently not all) of the details, provided the information to the Beirut weekly al-Shira‘ soon after Hashemi had been detained and Khomeini had publicly approved of his arrest. The leak probably was intended to embarrass the government into releasing Hashemi -- which has not happened -- but it also exposed the debate among the leaders over the concept of exporting revolution. Hashemi has been in verbal conflict with foreign ministry officials for several years. Career diplomats regarded Hashemi’s Office for Islamic Liberation as a loose cannon. Following Hashemi’s arrest, the government announced that it had closed this office down. Whether or not it remains closed, it appears that those who want to export revolution in deeds as well as in words have lost a major round. One key question is this: How has the demise of personalities and political positions long associated with Montazeri affected Montazeri’s position as the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini as faqih, or supreme jurist and spiritual guide of the Islamic Republic? It appears that Montazeri has not suffered any eclipse of his authority among the political elite because of Hashemi’s arrest. On the contrary, Montazeri has been unusually visible in the official media since early November. Prominent politicians, including Rafsanjani, Khamenei and Mousavi, have gone out of their way on several occasions to stress that they consider Montazeri to be the most qualified person to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini.

Montazeri initially did not speak directly about the arrest of Hashemi and his colleagues, but rather emphasized the need for the country to put aside personal disputes and unify behind the government policies. Following Hashemi’s televised confession of his “deviation from Islam” on December 10, Montazeri issued a statement disassociating himself from Hashemi and urging the authorities to investigate the charges against him.

Montazeri has been far less cautious in expressing his views about McFarlane’s visit to Tehran. He was one of the first political leaders to say that it is appropriate for Tehran to negotiate with the Americans, and even went on record as advocating a restoration of relations with the United States, provided Washington “comes to its senses.” Subsequently other Iranian leaders, including Rafsanjani, Khamenei and Mousavi, have expressed this same position.

There are no grounds for concluding that Montazeri has been intimidated into a change of heart regarding the policy of exporting revolution. While the Office for Islamic Liberation had been a part of his non-official bureaucracy, and while Montazeri has obviously defended extra-governmental contacts with revolutionary movements in the past, he has also advocated normal diplomatic relations with other countries, including the United States, since at least 1983. Since Montazeri was not part of the government bureaucracy, he could support the export of revolution by both word and deed without having to confront the inherent contradictions such a position posed for the Foreign Ministry.

In October he was forced to face the contradictions, when the government decided to curtail the independent activities of those advocating substantive support for revolutionary movements. It seems plausible that Montazeri became convinced that this was an acceptable, if not necessarily pleasant, course for the good of the revolution at home. This would not be an uncharacteristic position for Montazeri. His primary concern has been the creation of an Islamic society and government within Iran. On the issues of exporting revolution and relations with the United States, Montazeri, Rafsanjani and other key members of the political elite share similar views.

What does all this mean in terms of US-Iran relations? It is unlikely that there will be any immediate normalization. Iran’s top leadership is still very suspicious of the United States, as much for its cultural influences as for its political malevolence. Nevertheless, these same leaders seem willing to deal with the United States on terms that the Islamic Republic will set. Their goals of obtaining American-made weapons and isolating the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein internationally were certainly important incentives behind the willingness to have discussions with representatives of Washington in 1985 and 1986. Beyond the immediate interest in meeting some war-related objectives, Iranian leaders seem to have decided that Iran shares enough similar interests with the United States -- Afghanistan, international petroleum prices, and especially hostility to the Soviet Union -- to warrant some form of truce and dialogue.

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