Alex Vatanka is director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He specializes in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a particular focus on Iran. Vatanka is also a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School at Hurlburt Field and is an adjunct professor at DISAS at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He is the author of The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979 (I. B. Tauris, 2021) as well as Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy and American Influence (I. B. Tauris 2017). Vatanka was born in Tehran, and holds a B.A. in politics from Sheffield University and an M.A. in international relations from Essex University. Diwan interviewed him in early April to discuss The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran and how it relates to events today in Iran.
Michael Young: In 2021, you published The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979. You focus on the relationship between Ayatollahs Ali Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. What is your main argument, and how does this relationship fit into it?
Alex Vatanka: The book is about how foreign policy is made in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It seeks to open up the black box that is policymaking in Tehran. In order to do this, the book throughout focuses on two men—Khamenei and Rafsanjani. Both shaped post-1979 Iran more than anyone else did—even more so than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. The book follows in their footsteps, as their friendship and collaboration ultimately ended and was replaced by an intense rivalry. This rivalry spanned nearly 30 years and only became stronger.
As I write in the book, the “Khamenei-Rafsanjani relationship not only shaped the course of the Islamic Republic at home but was a significant contributing factor in the many twists and turns of Tehran’s interactions with the outside world.” The book’s main argument is that narrow factional interests inside this Islamist system tended to override the national interest of the nation of Iran and the Iranian people. That happened at pivotal junctures since 1979. And this reality has oftentimes involved the Americans, contributing greatly to turning the U.S.-Iran relationship into a tortured history of events. In fact, U.S.-Iran relations are a constant thread throughout the book. Understanding how and why acrimony between the two countries evolved the way it did is a critical prerequisite for any speculation about Iran’s future foreign policy.
The book sets out to demonstrate the impact of factional politics by revisiting key foreign policy moments in the period 1979 to 2021. It does so by bringing to light new sources and interpretations. To do so, the book depends overwhelmingly on Iranian and Persian-language sources. From how the Khomenists ended up seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, to how the Iran-Iraq war came about, to how Tehran and Washington reached a nuclear deal in 2015, the book traces the role of narrow and often petty—but consequential—factional competition for power. And it also shows how the different foreign policy worldviews came about from within the ranks of the Islamic Republic. Again, no two men better exemplify this than Rafsanjani and Khamenei.
MY: How would you describe Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s rise to the position of supreme leader? What were the phases in his accumulation of absolute power, the main instruments allowing this, and the principal methods he has used to retain it?
AV: The book shows that without the support of Rafsanjani, Khamenei would very likely have never reached the political heights that he did. It was Rafsanjani who introduced him to Khomeini, inserting him in that all-important inner circle at the time of the revolution in 1979. It was also Rafsanjani who helped him become president in 1981, and then subsequently supreme leader in 1989.
Rafsanjani was not acting altruistically. He did so because he needed people he could count on to help him with his personal and political agenda. This strategy worked well in 1979–1989, as the book illustrates by showing the close cooperation between the two men. But, still, Rafsanjani was the more powerful of the two until around 1993, something Khamenei always resented and never forgot. After Rafsanjani engineered Khamenei’s rise as supreme leader in 1989, a decision he came to regret, the two men gradually grew apart, to a point where each man personified distinct worldviews.
Again, as I write in the book, “[B]y the end of his life, Rafsanjani had become the torchbearer of political moderation in both domestic and foreign policy realms”, while “Khamenei has by design or accident changed into the patron of the most reactionary of interest groups inside the regime.”
Rafsanjani and Khamenei had different ideas about how to secure power. As he aged, Rafsanjani believed in expanding the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic by focusing on basics such as improving the economy and other bread-and-butter matters that the Iranian public cares about. Khamenei, on the other hand, focused on one thing: preserving and expanding his hard power. This way he could resort to repressing any opposition to his supreme leadership. Instead of appealing to the wishes of the Iranian people, Khamenei over the years gave unprecedented powers to the regime’s security and intelligence establishment—most notably the Revolutionary Guards—to make sure his rule was safe at any cost.
MY: You write that Khamenei’s overriding concern when Mohammed Khatami was in office was to preserve his own power and the Islamic Republic “from a certain downfall if the United States were given a free hand to do as it liked.” In a way, wasn’t Khamenei right? In other words, had the United States been given an opening in Iran, wouldn’t its natural instinct have been to push hard for dynamics leading to the ultimate sidelining of the leadership in Tehran?
AV: This was not limited to just Khamenei’s attitude to Mohammed Khatami. The same kind of jealous instincts–or attempts at self-preservation–were evident in how Khamenei treated presidents that came after Khatami. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was never given space to explore the idea of a diplomatic resolution with the Americans. When he tried, he was warned of the consequences. Khamenei made it clear that no one could go over his head in dealing with Washington.
For Khamenei, this matter is not a foreign policy issue but very much something he sees as critical to his ability to remain in power. And the same limitations were imposed on president Hassan Rouhani. The same limitations are in place today, even though President Ebrahim Raisi is entirely devoid of any impulse to take new initiatives in the domestic or foreign policy realms. One can argue that the only president since 1989—when Khamenei became supreme leader—who could have pursued a separate policy vis-à-vis the Americans and could have ignored Khamenei’s misgivings was Rafsanjani, when he served in 1989–1997. But for various reasons, and the Americans are not entirely innocent in this context, it never happened. Today, no one in the Islamic Republic can challenge Khamenei’s diktats on the American question.
That said, there are more and more voices within the political order in Tehran that ask how long Iran can maintain this costly enmity toward the United States. Take the case of Ali Motahari, a relatively independent political rebel, but still someone who originally comes from the hardline camp. He is among those in Tehran with impeccable Islamist revolutionary credentials who has been highly explicit in his analysis about the need for Iran to accept the reality of American power. As he has put it, “Iran has to stop this illusion that it can or will destroy America.” Motahari has also claimed that anti-American voices in Iran are distorting the aim and message of the Iranian revolution. He has stated, “Iran did not have a revolution in 1979 to destroy America or be enemies with America forever, but to create a model Islamic state that can be a source of hope for other Muslims, such as Palestinians.”
Do American policymakers have anything to answer for? From an American perspective, the answer depends on whether you believe diplomacy with the Islamic Republic is worth a shot, or whether Washington’s efforts should be aimed at regime change through whatever avenue possible. To this day, it is not a settled issue in Washington.
Going back to the 1990s, president Bill Clinton’s second administration did want to look for a diplomatic path with Iran. But Washington’s mistake—an unforgiveable sin, if you ask Khamenei—was that it thought it could go around Iran’s supreme leader and deal with Khatami directly. In 2000, then secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously divided the Iranian system into one of “good mullahs” and “bad mullahs.” Khamenei knew what Washington meant and saw this as an attempt to sideline him by mobilizing part of the Iranian political system against him.
No one should have been surprised that Khamenei then proceeded to block Khatami and his “dialogue of civilization” campaign. It was not until Barack Obama became president and began to send letters to Khamenei, starting in 2009, that Washington began to give Khamenei the attention and respect that he believed he was owed. In short, in the Iranian system the president does not have the power to make decisions involving the Americans.
MY: You mention what was known as the “grand bargain” of 2003, and describe it as a missed opportunity. Can you describe briefly what happened and why you believe it was a missed opportunity. Most importantly, what motivated the Iranians to embark on such an initiative?
AV: Both the Americans and the Iranians will say there have been plenty of missed opportunities to patch up relations since 1979. The Iranians, and definitely Khamenei, do not think the Americans are serious about “détente” with Tehran while the Khomeinists are in power. Khamenei has made it clear that he believes the Americans will come in through the window if the door is closed to them and their hopes of returning to Iran. The Americans, in turn, like to say that leaders in Tehran “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The truth lies somewhere in between.
Iran’s 2003 offer of a broad dialogue with the United states came following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. President George W. Bush had already labelled Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” in 2002. The Iranians feared they might be the next target and very cryptically sent out an offer to meet the Americans halfway on some key issues of concern to Washington. Meanwhile, in late 2002 Iran’s nuclear program had suddenly been exposed by an Iranian opposition group, the Mojahedeen Khalq (MEK). The MEK very likely had been given the information by the U.S. intelligence services.
In Tehran, the whole thing looked like a pretext for the United States to take military action against Iran. That is why they made the offer in 2003. It included various assurances, including that Iran’s nuclear program would remain peaceful as well as an Iranian pledge not to act as a spoiler in the Arab-Israeli peace process. However, the Iranians never made this explicit. The offer was so cryptic that no senior official in Tehran would stand by it. Khamenei never did so and the Americans, not surprisingly, never responded. They did not know whether to take it seriously or not. To shake up U.S.-Iran relations, moving it in a different direction, requires bold political leadership. Khamenei has never been willing to take the risk, and successive American presidents have not been better.
In fact, some Iranian sources to this day claim that Khamenei himself did not know the details of the offer. However, he almost certainly would have known about it before it was sent to Washington. But Khamenei was not willing to stick his neck out and publicly articulate the need for a new approach toward the Americans. And when the Americans did not respond, Khamenei turned his attention to making sure that the United States would be entrapped in its Iraqi project, so that it would have little capacity left to turn against Iran.
MY: What are Iran’s main vulnerabilities as it continues to spread its influence throughout the Arab countries? Specifically, would a revival of the nuclear deal give Tehran added momentum to strengthen its regional agenda?
AV: Iran’s strategy toward the Arab world since the Arab revolutions of 2011 is still very much defended by Khamenei and the top brass in the Revolutionary Guards. Their logic is simple: Iran is better off fighting its adversaries–the Saudis, the Americans, or the Israelis–in Arab countries such as Syria and Yemen rather than on Iranian soil. This “forward defence” strategy argues that the ultimate aim of the enemies of the Islamic Republic is regime change in Tehran. By taking the fight to its rivals, however, Iran can prevent the regime-change scenario in Tehran.
But this approach to the Arab world is costly and hugely unpopular with the Iranian public, which sees it as waste of national treasure in pursuit of the open-ended ideological ambition of Khamenei to reshape the Arab world in the Islamic Republic’s image. Even if there is a new nuclear deal, Iran can expect nervous regional states to mobilize to counter it, unless Tehran agrees to some kind of process of deescalation. As the Middle East wonders about the American desire to remain in the region in the long term, we see new partnerships emerging, including ties between Israel and several Arab states through the Abraham Accords of 2020. In other words, Iran has to assume that even if there is a nuclear deal that lowers tensions with the United States, its neighbors will remain very sceptical about Tehran’s ambitions and are preparing to challenge them.
MY: Do you agree with the view that Iran is heading toward a military dictatorship under the Revolutionary Guards after Khamenei’s passing?
AV: This is a partnership that both sides need. Khamenei could not run Iran the way he does today without the Revolutionary Guards. One can, therefore, argue that Iran is already a military dictatorship of sorts. That said, the next supreme leader (if there is one) will not be as powerful as Khamenei. That is why the Revolutionary Guards will have even more room to shape policy than they do today.