October 5, 2006 -- IRAN'S President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to vehemently deny the Islamic Republic's desire to develop nuclear weapons. But last week, his rival for power came out with sensational revelations that paint a completely different picture - pointing to the military reasons why Iran revived its nuclear program in 1988.
The rival is businessman/mullah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989-'97 but lost to Ahmadinejad last year. His revelations relate to 1988, when he was speaker of the Majlis (parliament) and also commander-in-chief of the armed forces (acting on behalf of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini). They center on two letters written during the horrible Iran-Iraq War - an exchange between Brig.-Gen. Mohsen Rezai, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Khomeini.
Reza'i, whose forces had just suffered terrible losses from Iraqi chemical attacks, informs Khomeini that, without a range of new weapons, his forces can't achieve the goals set for them - goals that include defeating Saddam Hussein and installing a Khomeinist regime in Baghdad, then proceeding to "liberate" Jerusalem and wipe Israel off the map. He asks for 300 new fighter-bombers, 2,500 tanks, 300 attack helicopters - and laser-guided missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Khomeini's reply endorses Reza'i's analysis and evokes the possibility of ending the war by accepting U.N. Resolution 598 (which Iran had previously rejected as a "Zionist-Crusader" concoction).
In fact, shortly after this exchange, Khomeini announced that he was accepting a cease-fire with Saddam - ending the eight-year war in August 1988.
At the same time, Iran also began seeking a nuclear deterrent. The Iranian Atomic Energy Commission - closed on Khomeini's orders in 1979 - resumed work in October 1988. The next February, Tehran hosted a seminar on nuclear technology - its first since 1977.
In 1993, the new National Defense Doctrine, compiled on Rafsanjani's orders, identified a nuclear deterrent as one of the three pillars of Iran's military strategy. (The other two pillars: A massive army of millions, plus the largest stockpile of missiles in the Middle East.)
"Iran hands" also recall the other event, late in the war, that rendered Reza'i's analysis irrefutable: the crushing defeat of Iran's Navy by a U.S. task force.
Late in the war, Iran had started attacking Kuwaiti oil tankers (on the grounds that Kuwaiti money was funding Saddam's war machine). It continued the attacks even after the tankers were put under U.S. flag.
With Iran ignoring diplomatic warnings (sent via the Swiss) - and even preparing to expand the conflict with air raids on Saudi oil installations - President Ronald Reagan sent a U.S. Navy task force to the Gulf. The resulting series of engagements in 1987 ended with the sinking of half of Iran's navy and the dismantling of Iranian missile batteries on 16 islands - plus billions of dollars of damages to Iranian offshore oil installations. (Khomeini got the message and immediately halted his "oil attacks.")
Why is Rafsanjani bringing up this history by publishing two top-secret letters?
First, he needs to refute charges of "collusion" with the United States. Ahmadinejad and his entourage have accused Rafsanjani of persuading Khomeini to stop the war against Saddam when Iran was on the verge of winning - and moving on to destroy Israel.
Ahmadinejad's spiritual master (Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi) has claimed that, sometime in 1988, the Hidden Imam (a messiah-like figure in Shi'ite lore) was preparing to return and lead the Islamic forces to final victory in Jerusalem. Thus, Rafsanjani, by supposedly persuading Khomeini to end the war prematurely, let Saddam remain in power for 15 more years and prolonged the life of the "Zionist stain of shame" in the heart of the Muslim world.
Ahmadinejad & Co. claim that Rafsanjani made a secret deal with the Americans (in the secret talks later revealed in the "Irangate" scandal), with the Americans promising to back Rafsanjani's bid for Iran's presidency in exchange for his persuading Khomeini to end the war with Iraq. The letters refute this, showing that Khomeini ended the war on the advice of his military commanders.
Rafsanjani also plainly means to discredit Ahmadinejad's apparent strategy of deliberately provoking a conflict with America - one that Iran can't hope to win unless it first acquires a nuclear deterrent.
Rafsanjani's message now is simple: The Islamic Republic needs a sophisticated strategy to counter "regime change" moves by the United States and its allies, and this should include a nuclear deterrent. But success here requires leaders who with great deal of tact, experience and realism - things that Ahmadinejdad lacks, but Rafsanjani has in abundance.
Always a fighter, Rafsanjani seems intent on a comeback. But he probably can't wait 30 months for the next presidential election. Instead, he hopes to lead an anti-Ahmadinejad coalition in next December's elections for the Assembly of Experts - the body that can choose or dismiss the "Supreme Guide," the Islamic Republic's true leader.
If Rafsanjani wins control of the assembly, he could force incumbent Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei to use his virtually unlimited constitutional powers to turn Ahmadinejad into a lame duck - and if Khamenei refuses to cooperate, Rafsanjani could engineer his dismissal.
All this would be of little concern to the outside world - were it not for two facts. The first is that the Islamic Republic has had a secret nuclear program for almost two decades while taking the International Atomic Energy Agency for a ride. The second is that the leaders of the Islamic Republic - who felt no discomfort in discussing the use of nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction two decades ago - don't seem to have abandoned their strategy for reshaping the Middle East.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.