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Iran’s “Moderates” By: Dan Rabkin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 28, 2008

With US Vice President Dick Cheney wrapping up his 10-day trip to the Middle East, made in part to allay regional fears of a growing Iranian influence, the Iranians themselves are busy preparing for the second round of parliamentary elections to be held in April (the first round was held on March 14th).  The results, of course, have been known for a while:  the conservatives will continue with their stranglehold on power.  But there are still two very important reasons to follow this race.  The first is the fact that the conservative faction has undergone a schism recently, breaking into “pro-Ahmadinejad” and “anti-Ahmadinejad” factions.  Second, is the effect this split will have on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election campaign in 2009. 

To be a candidate for a seat in the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament), you first have to pass the Guardian Council.  A body of 12 unelected members (mostly clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), the Guardian Council vets every candidate for “loyalty to the revolution” and “practical adherence to Islam”.  This time around the GC initially barred 2,200 candidates, mostly reformists whose fidelity to the Islamic system was in question.  After various appeals, a few hundred disqualified contenders were reinstated, but all in all the reformists were only able to place themselves on the ballot in 110 of the 290 districts.  The conservatives, or as they like to be called in Iran, osulgaran or “principlists”, essentially had a monopoly on the other 180 seats.  But a split among the osulgaran, brought on by Ahmadinejad himself, could have some interesting implications for the world in the years to come. 

Ahmadinejad ascended to the presidency with promises of “happiness and comfort” for Iranians, especially the poor.  He promised to spread the Islamic Republic’s oil wealth to every corner of the country.  Three years later, the situation in Iran is far from rosy.  These days, with housing and food prices spiraling out of control, inflation is at about 20% a year and unemployment is rising to upwards of 20%. There have been heating oil shortages this winter.  Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, was even forced to implement a gas rationing scheme last summer which led to violent protests and rioting all over the nation.  Ahmadinejad’s answer to the economic crises?  Take your pick:  hosting Holocaust denial conferences, giving belligerent speeches about America and Israel, flying out to New York and telling the audience at Columbia that “in Iran we don’t have homosexuals”, clamping down on “moral vices”, and executing hundreds of “adulterers”, homosexuals, Kurds, and journalists. At the same time, his peers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have continued to shower billions of dollars on their terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, and Afghanistan (recent reports have announced that Hezbollah’s funding from Tehran has more than doubled from $400 million US a year to $1 billion).  And that’s not even getting into Ahmadinejad’s steadfast support for Tehran’s nuclear weapons program which brought on a third round of UN Security Council sanctions a few weeks ago. 

These actions have led to a crack in his conservative alliance.  The “principlists” are now split into the pro-Ahmadinejad, hard-line United Front of Principlists and their more “pragmatic” rivals, the Inclusive Coalition of Principlists, also known as the Broad and Popular Coalition of Principlists.  If the reformists and the pragmatic wing of the principlists can claim enough seats in the Majlis, the chances of Ahmadinejad getting re-elected next year will be considerably diminished.  That’s fantastic, right?   Think again. 

Arguably, the most powerful member of this so called reformist/pragmatic conservative camp is former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.  Mr. Rafsanjani, a 73 year old religious leader and businessman (who Forbes at one time included in their wealthiest people list) is currently chairman of the Assembly of Experts (a body of 86 Islamic scholars that choose and supervise the Supreme Leader) and of the Expediency Council (an administrative assembly that resolves differences between the Majlis and the Guardian Council).  He advocates better relations with the West and frequently laments about Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric.  Western media regard him as a “moderate”, “centrist”, and a fellow the West “could work with”.  A Washington Post headline referred to him as a “Voice of Moderation”.  But much like the late terrorist, Noble Peace Prize winner, and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, he has a knack for speaking out of both sides of his mouth. 

On December 14th, 2001, just three months after the heinous acts of 9/11, Rafsanjani delivered a speech to mark “International Day of Quds (Jerusalem)” in which he stated “The establishment of Israel is the most hideous occurrence in history. The Islamic world will not tolerate the continued existence of Israel in the region, and will vomit it out from its midst.”  Later on in the speech, he commended Islamic terrorists for their important work and concluded by openly advocating the use of atomic bombs against the Jewish State: "The Jihad operations against Israel must continue unrelentingly until victory is achieved … when the Islamic world acquires atomic weapons, the strategy of the West will hit a dead-end — since the use of a single atomic bomb has the power to destroy Israel completely, while it will only cause partial damage to the Islamic world.”  He has also attacked America on numerous occasions, accusing it of “doing evil”, committing “atrocities”, and even threatened the US by saying that their opposition to Tehran’s nuclear program will be “America’s suicide”.  Sounds a lot like Ahmadinejad - except for one thing:  Rafsanjani currently has an international warrant out for his arrest due to his involvement in terrorism. 

On July 18, 1994, a Renault Traffic van loaded with 275 kg of explosives was detonated in front of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The bombing killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more.  Argentine prosecutors investigating the terrorist attack pinpointed Hezbollah as the group responsible, with direct orders coming from Tehran.  Rafsanjani, president at the time, is alleged to have ordered Hezbollah arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyah (who was thankfully put out of commission in Syria last month) to orchestrate the attack.  On October 25, 2006 Hezbollah and Iran were formally charged and arrest warrants were issued for Rafsanjani and six others.  Also, in 1992, Sadiq Sharafkindi, an Iranian-Kurdish leader, and three of his associates were gunned down in Berlin while eating at a Greek restaurant.  German prosecutors trying the case, pinpointed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Rafsanjani as personally ordering the murders. 

Other members of the pragmatic conservative faction include the three main leaders of the Inclusive Coalition: General Mohsen Rezai, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and Ali Larijani.   

Mr. Rezai was Chief Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from 1981 until he retired to join the Expediency Council in 1997.  He was also one of the other Iranians charged with Rafsanjani with planning the AMIA bombing.  According to The Wall Street Journal, in 1998 Ahmad Rezai, Mohsen’s son, told US officials that Rafsanjani and his top deputies were the ones that made the decision to attack the AMIA building and the Israeli embassy in Argentina (in 1992 the embassy was car bombed killing 29 and injuring 250; no one was ever charged with the attack although numerous sources point to the same Iran/Hezbollah nexus).  Ahmad even confessed to accompanying Mohsen to Lebanon where he witnessed his father’s IRGC training the Hezbollah bombers. 

Mohammad Qalibaf is also a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and a police chief.  In 1999 he was part of a group of IRGC officers that threatened former reformist president Mohammad Khatami with a coup if he did not take a harder line on student protests gripping the nation.  Known for his violent ways, Qalibaf and his police force routinely brutalized and arrested people:  raiding homes in search of satellite dishes, seeking out web-bloggers who criticized the Supreme Leader, and putting down student protests.  Many student leaders and activists have “disappeared” because of Qalibaf and his forces. For this and other reasons he is frequently met with jeers of “killer of the dorms” on the campaign trail.  Currently, the mayor of Tehran, he is likely to be one of Ahmadinejad’s biggest rivals for the presidency next year.  

Prior to being replaced by Ahmadinejad last year Ali Larijani was best known for being Iran’s top nuclear negotiator.  Before that he was a commander in the Revolutionary Guards, followed by a decade as head of the nation’s state-run radio and television network.  The International Herald Tribune writes that Larijani used national radio and TV “as a weapon to suppress democratic reform” and routinely brought political activists and student leaders on the air to, under duress, confess to “harming national security”.  Larijani was also quoted as saying that he has no ideological differences with Ahmadinejad, only “differences in style”.  Currently a member of the Supreme National Security Council (a council that sets policy on matters related to defense and national security), Larijani is rumored to be the incoming Speaker of the new parliament and another of Ahmadinejad’s rivals in 2009. 

If these are the types of “pragmatists” the West can look forward to dealing with when the Ahmadinejad era in Iran is over, the solution is simple:  give the Iranian people what they truly want and deserve, regime change.

Dan Rabkin is a Middle Eastern Affairs and National Security analyst based in Toronto, Canada.  He was Canada’s 2005 Governor General’s Medalist.  He can be reached at rabkin.dan@gmail.com.

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