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EU's WOUNDED HORSE IN IRAN
by Amir Taheri
Arab News
November 4, 2006

Can a decision by a court in Buenos Aires destroy a key element of the European Union's strategy for dealing with Iran?

To answer that question we have to recall what that strategy is.

Ever since the mullahs seized power in 1979, the Europeans have analyzed the Islamist upheaval in terms of classical revolutions, notably the French Revolution of 1789. On that basis, the Khomeinist revolution would pass through various phases, starting with radicalism and terror, and ending with gradual normalization.

The question has always been: Who will lead the Khomeinist regime away from radicalism and toward normalization?

In the mid-1980s the then West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich-Genscher identified one of Ayatollah Khomeini's closest aides as the man to champion normalization in the Islamic republic. The man was Ali Akbar Bahremani, better known under his nom de guerre of Hashemi Rafsanjani.

By 1985 the Reagan administration in Washington had bought the German analysis and established secret links with Rafsanjani. So keen were the Americans to promote Rafsanjani as the "solution" in Iran that they invited his son Mahdi to the White House for a personal tour with one of Reagan's aides as guide.

Rafsanjani has an eventful biography.

He was born into a poor family of pistachio farmers in the village of Bahreman, a backwater in the forlorn province of Kerman. In the 1950s, thanks to donations by villagers, he was able to enroll in the theological seminary at the holy city of Qom to train as a mullah. But, rather than concentrating on religious studies, the young "Brother Hashemi" quickly became involved in agitation inspired by Khomeini.

By mid-1960s, having spent a spell in prison, "Brother Hashemi" decided to try his hand at business, and managed to build a prosperous firm of building contractors.

In 1978 as the revolution gathered pace he re-emerged as a key figure in its leadership. A decade later, he was the Islamic republic's second most powerful figure, after Khomeini. More importantly he was one of only two members of Khomeini's inner circle to be still alive and in power rather than assassinated, exiled, or jailed.

In 1988, Rafsanjani delivered on his promises to the Europeans by persuading Khomeini to end the war with Iraq, a conflict that had claimed more than a million lives in eight years. A year later, Rafsanjani had himself elected president of the Islamic republic, and, having amended the constitution to abolish the post of prime minister, was in full control of the machinery of state.

A key feature of Rafsanjani's strategy was its focus on crushing internal opponents rather than clashing with foreign powers.

He put that strategy into effect by organizing mass executions in which thousands of dissidents, mostly from the People's Mujahedin Organization (MKO), perished. He also endorsed the liquidation of prominent opponents in exile, including the Shah's last Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar who had his head chopped off in a Paris suburb.

At the other end of the spectrum, Iran's trade with the European Union almost quadrupled during Rafsanjani's two-terms as president. He succeeded in driving a wedge between the United States and the European Union and, by cultivating Russia, China and the Arab states of the region, prevented a coalition against the regime.

Rafsanjani's policy of repression at home and opening abroad was always under attack from the more radical Khomeinists, who dreamed of global revolution and conquest in the name of Islam. The more puritanical Khomeinists also resented the fact that, thanks to the revolution, Rafsanjani had become the richest man in Iran.

At the end of Rafsanjani's second term in 1997, the radical Khomeinists tried to capture the presidency but failed.

Rafsanjani managed to propel one of his protŽgŽs, Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, into the presidency and, through him, continued to maintain his hold on power. Under Khatami, the European Union secured a significant say in Iranian decision-making - a fact resented by radical Khomeinists. European Union's influence was strong enough for Khatami to agree to freezing Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Last year, however, Rafsanjani suffered his greatest humiliation in a political career spanning four decades. Trying a comeback as president, he was soundly beaten by a little-known radical named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But even then, and despite the fact that he is now in his mid-70s, Rafsanjani remained the main hope of the Europeans for the return of a more pragmatic leadership in Tehran.

Six months after his defeat by Ahmadinejad, the wily "Brother Hashemi" was back as the leader of malcontents within the regime and the most credible alternative to the maverick president.

Throughout the summer, talking to senior European leaders, we were told that Ahmadinejad was nothing but a nine-day wonder and that Rafsanjani would soon return as Iran's "strongman".

The British appeared especially keen to play the Rafsanjani card, in an attempt at discouraging the "Iran regime change" lobby in Washington. Thanks to contacts, through a number of Iranian and British businessmen and two members of the House of Lords, the Labour government encouraged Rafsanjani to form a new party and try to gain control of the Assembly of Experts and local government councils in elections scheduled for December.

But then came the Argentine judge.

On July 18, 1994, a huge blast reduced the seven-story Jewish-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) community center in Buenos Aires to rubble, killing 85 people and injuring 300 others.

The scale of death and destruction left Argentina's 300,000-strong Jewish community, Latin America's largest, in shock. At first the attack was blamed on local neo-Nazis. Soon, however, the finger of blame was turned to Tehran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, although both deny involvement.

Last November, an Argentine prosecutor claimed that a member of Hezbollah, was behind the attack, and had been identified in a joint effort by Argentine intelligence and the FBI.

Last month, the judge presiding over the final inquest discarded all doubts and issued international arrest warrants for a dozen senior Iranian officials and Hezbollah operatives. Topping the "wanted list" is "Brother Hashemi". As if to hammer the nail in as far as it goes, several other key allies of Rafsanjani are also on the "wanted list", among them former Education Minister Ali-Akbar Parvaresh, former Security Minister Ali Fallahian and former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati.

This is not the first time that such a warrant is issued against Rafsanjani.

In 1999 the Criminal Court in Berlin accused him of having masterminded the assassination of four Iranian Kurdish leaders during their visit to Germany in 1992. One immediate result of the warrant was an end to Rafsanjani's visits outside Iran for fear that he might run into trouble with the Interpol.

In 2004, however, the German government tried to minimize the importance of the Berlin warrant by claming that its execution was optional rather than mandatory. The then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had hoped that the warrant would expire after its seven-year legal limit, and not renewed.

The Argentine warrant would make it more difficult for the Europeans to build Rafsanjani up as a pragmatist alternative to Ahmadinejad. It could also make it harder to bury the Berlin warrant under legalistic waffle.

Needless to say, conspiracy theorists are hard at work in Tehran. Did Washington play a role in persuading the Argentines to issue the warrant, and thus make it harder for the Europeans to play the Rafsanjani card? And, more importantly, what will the European Union do if the only horse it had in the race in Tehran is shot in the leg?

 

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