In an in-depth interview Rafsanjani talks politics, past and present (PART TWO)

Hashemi Rafsanjani

Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani elaborates on ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Chairman of the Expediency Council Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has said although President Rouhani’s administration is in conditions tougher than those of his own government that took office after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the performance of the Rouhani administration is satisfactory.

The following is part two of the translation of an exclusive interview Arman-e Emrooz daily’s Hossein Abdollahi conducted with the top councilor. The interview was published by the newspaper on March 15.

In the past you leveled criticisms at Iran’s Syria policy. Are those criticisms still in place or they are gone thanks to recent developments?

They date back to the time when terrorism was not an issue. People would pour onto the streets after Friday prayers to voice their demands. I said the government shouldn’t overreact. I think people have the final say. I know about that region. I knew that Israel and the US, which were not satisfied with the Syrian stance, would not sit idly by. The Syrian government should have gotten along with people from the start.

Then terrorists found their way to Syria and resorted to violent acts; up to 300,000 people were killed, millions were displaced, the Syrian economy was left in tatters and parts of Syria were captured by ISIL. Conditions now are different from back then.

In Libya, a military man who had staged a coup was running the country. He was a dictator but his people had welfare. When he was toppled, everything was sent tumbling down. What did happen to Libya? Terrorists splintered the country.

People in Egypt – a country with an ancient, advanced civilization – launched a revolution, but terrorists made people regret what they did. […] Now things have changed because of terrorists. I was suggesting back then that Mr. Assad meet people’s demands such as political freedom.

Arab Awakening did not end as expected.

Awakening is a fact. It is a fact that thanks to information superhighway people can learn about what happens elsewhere in the world. The youth, especially in Islamic nations, have woken up; unlike the old, young people are not content.

In Tunisia, a street vendor acted as a catalyst for a big revolution which toppled the government, and then the same process spilled over [into other countries]. The domino started to fall afterward. People were all ready and what followed was the result of [their] awareness.

What they call Arab Spring is described as “Islamic Awakening” here. The difference in terms is not important; what matters is the fact that Muslim people, especially the youth, were unhappy with their governments. Arab nationalism, which was also evident in their measures, was on the fast-track. Right there some people dropped their middle-of-the-road approach and went too far, and this set the stage for terrorists. In fact extremism was quite uncalled for.

Terrorists fished in troubled waters, taking up arms and sabotaging things. Like what happened in Iran following the victory of the revolution; members of several armed groups that were serving time in prison, such as MKO and Fadaian [caused trouble in the country]. They wreaked havoc for two years and Iran paid a heavy price.

If we had not acted properly, some places such as Kurdistan, Turkmen Sahra, Baluchestan and even Khuzestan would have seceded from Iran. In those tough two years we had the Imam who would put out a fire with a single sentence.

Other countries in which [Arab Spring] revolutions took place, did not have a leader like the late Imam to take charge of the affairs. Of course, before the establishment of a new system, disorder is the order of the day after every revolution. There are people within a revolution who have acquisitive demands. […] The country’s production decreases following every revolution; so do foreign arrivals, like what happened in Egypt. Foreigners, the Americans included, instigated [disorder] because they didn’t want to see the collapse of a despot.

Despotism and colonialism always work together. The former cannot live on without the support of the latter. Colonialism cannot stay in a country without the help of despotic elements. People cannot remain indifferent to foreign forces which plunder their wealth. […] A despot was toppled and the US saw the overfunded Palestinian peace plan slip through its fingers.

Things lasted a few days, revolutionaries were imprisoned and the military men returned [to power]. Trials were held, [former dictator Hosni] Mubarak was freed and President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was put in jail together with thousands of people.

This is the problem the Islamic Awakening is faced with. This is a real problem. Despotism, colonialism and terrorism – three lines of a triangle – pose the gravest threat to revolutions. This is a lesson the youth should be taught. They should know they shouldn’t turn full circle.

Over the past 35 years, you got a name for yourself supporting friendly ties with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has always tried to create problems for Iran. In the past, it armed Saddam against Iran; now it is interfering with the nuclear case, and supports regional hostility toward Iran and killing Shiites in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places. What’s your plan for changing the Saudi enmity to cooperation in the region, something which could be acceptable to the critics of Iran-Saudi ties?

Before the revolution, most of the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf were Iran’s protégés. They would act the way the Iranian government and royal court wanted them to. The Islamic Revolution put an end to this. In the early days of the revolution, different people made stern comments which frightened the Arab countries. They tried to take revenge and the result was the [Iran-Iraq] war. Although Saddam waged the war, they funded his war machine which was too costly for Iraq to sustain.

[Before the revolution] Iran was a paradise and a safe haven for colonial governments. Government officials and their families would come to Iran and do whatever they wished. […] They would buy Iran’s oil, deposit the money in an account and then sell arms to Iran. Part of that money is still overdue.

After the revolution, we learned that Iran had inked key arms and non-arms deals with Germany, France, Britain and Russia. These countries were opposed to the Islamic nature and slogans of Iran and didn’t want to let Iran become independent, let alone become a rival for them in science and technology.

They [colonial states] had a hostile attitude [toward Iran] and the Arabs did not want Iran to worry them. They waged the war, thinking that even if they fail to crush the revolution, they can at least take Khuzestan and that would not allow Iran to breathe easily.

When we launched Operation Karbala-5 in Faw, they were all concerned that Iran could defeat Iraq. It was a great job to cross Arvand Rud. […] During the operation, Iranian forces managed to break the Iraqi defense lines and capture the island. They realized that Iran’s ground power is much stronger than Iraq’s. Then they broadened their support [for Iraq].

Gradually the conditions on the battlefield and behind the frontlines led Iran to accept Resolution 598. Iran’s acceptance of the resolution was not out of weakness. Iraq thought it showed Iran’s weakness, so it re-launched attacks on Iran. MKO [terrorists] targeted Iran from the north and the Iraqis from the south. The MKO had designs on Tehran, and Iraqis were mounting attacks on Khuzestan.

The defense the Iranians put up defeated them all. They realized that military power is not the only thing that mattered. If Iran senses a danger, all Iranians will turn up [for defense]. As for the resolution, we all behaved in a way that was a sign of political wisdom. When the resolution took effect, Iran’s international might was put on display. Iran didn’t have many supporters at the UN. What happened that they [the UN] identified Iraq as the aggressor? They were supporting Iraq in the war, but Iran was the winner from political and military angles. […]

After the resolution, the Arabs were afraid.  

Arab countries thought Iran would take revenge. Iran was put to the test in the Kuwaiti war, something which took the Arabs by surprise. How much did the Kuwaitis help Saddam? When Saddam attacked Kuwait, they saw Saddam’s true colors! What did we do? Iran opened its borders to the Kuwaitis who were escaping the war. Around 10,000 cars full of Kuwaitis came to Iran and were treated kindly. This proved Iran was not about to take revenge.

There were people in parliament who said that Iran had to fight alongside the Iraqis against the US. This was the result of the war-related grudges they held. […] Thanks to the situation created after the formation of the postwar government, Iran overcame the hurdles and they turned into our friends.

How is the situation now? The Arabs saw Iran’s good intentions and started to have interaction with Iran. The interaction, which was initiated in part by your government, continued later. Now Saudi Arabia is interfering with Iran’s efforts in some cases. Is there an integrated view in the establishment to help solve the issue Iran has with Saudi Arabia? Or the worries are still in place?

In Ahmadinejad’s government, certain issues made them [Saudis] concerned. At that time, I had a trip to Saudi Arabia to take part in an Islamic conference which opened with my speech. Before my departure, people representing the Supreme National Security Council came to me and asked me to solve the issues Iran had with Riyadh. They [the government] felt that it was necessary.

During my meetings there, including lengthy talks with King Abdullah and several people of his inner circle, such as Prince Muqrin, who is now the crown prince, and Saud bin Faisal, I – accompanied by Mr. Nouri Shahroudi who was a one-time ambassador to Riyadh – worked out a good solution.

We decided to set up seven committees for domestic issues as well as ideological questions over which we had differences. I told them, ‘You are under the pressure of Wahhabism and hardliners, and we have problems of our own. The Shiites too have issues to raise. Let us form a committee of clerics – those who hold sway among people – to solve these issues’. We decided to form committees for areas we had differences over, for example, one for Syria, one for Lebanon, one for Iraq, one for Afghanistan; there were seven joint committees.

We wanted to settle the existing issues. They welcomed it and the differences were solved despite marginal issues. I brought those proposals and agreements to Tehran, but the government was the first one which started to show opposition.

Mr. Mottaki, who was foreign minister then, made a trip to Saudi Arabia after me and told reporters, ‘Mr. Reyshahri, the Leader’s representative, has been mistreated at the airport’. I heard his words on the radio on my way to the office. I was shocked.

I asked Mr. Reyshahri about the incident and he said that he had been treated very respectfully [in Saudi Arabia]. I asked him to deny the report and he did so. Part of his denial was broadcast by IRIB. This showed that they [government officials] didn’t want to see Iran and Saudi Arabia have good ties.

King Abdullah had said, ‘Do not make me deal with that man (Mr. Ahmadinejad). Let me deal with the leader. Our foreign ministers can implement it [what we have decided] and we will become personally involved, if necessary.’

The Supreme Leader did not accept it. He said that it was the job of the government and that he would not bypass the government. The Leader was right, but they [the Saudis] knew about the then Iranian government. Following my trip, Saud bin Faisal came to Iran and held meetings with Mr. Velayati, but political obstructionism stood in the way.

Did you tell the Supreme Leader about those committees? If yes, did he accept the formation of those committees?

No the leader had not told me anything on that before. The Supreme National Security Council had asked me to do that and I reported to it. The council said that it could be implemented, but it is up to the government to take care of it. The council did not want to meddle in the areas the government was responsible.

Now the eleventh government is trying to pursue the committees. Haven’t you stepped forward to do something in this regard?

They [the Saudis] have no problem with the Rouhani administration. Mr. Rouhani had a trip to Saudi Arabia where he held hours-long talks with [Prince] Nayef and inked an agreement. The Iranian president has been treated well. He was respectfully treated during the trips he accompanied me to Saudi Arabia.

This time around, it seems, the Iranian government has taken a step and they [the Saudis] have rejected the offer. For instance, Mr. Rouhani was to write a letter, but they said the letter should be submitted by the Iranian forging minister to his Saudi counterpart, not to the king. They thought that Iran was likely to be under pressure. Anyway, the Iranian government sought to take a step forward and put forth some proposals, but they did not welcome it.

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