Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is fond of telling anyone who will listen that Ayatollah Khamenei loves him. At the same time, he must be acutely aware that the Supreme Leader’s older brother, Mohammad Khamenei, has quite a different opinion of him.

The deep-seated hatred and animosity took its roots in the 1980s, when Hashemi Rafsanjani was the speaker of the parliament and Mohammad Khamenei led a group of MPs who supported his brother, Ali Khamenei – a man widely considered to be a powerless president overshadowed by both the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and the Prime Minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Speaking about Rafsanjani recently, Khamenei said that the Americans have been “working on” him for three decades, and that the disclosure of the “McFarlane Affair” — more commonly known in the United States as the Iran-Contra Affair — was the result of a power struggle between rival gangs supporting Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Montazeri, one of the key leaders of the Islamic Revolution and once slated to be Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor. The theory goes that those supporting Rafsanjani tried to hoist him to the position of Supreme Leader after Khomeini died.

As far as the “McFarlane Affair” is concerned, it appears that nothing is too old to use as ammunition in the acrimonious political landscape of the Islamic Republic. In the 1980s, when Iran was bound by an arms embargo and fighting a bloody war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a group of senior US officials devised a way to fund the Contras, a rebel group opposed to Nicaragua’s Marxist government, and secure the release of seven American hostages held by a Lebanese-based group affiliated to Iran. The solution: Secretly sell arms and arms-related equipment to Iran, covertly funnel the money to the Contras and persuade the Islamic Republic to intervene in the hostage crisis.

In September 1986, Robert McFarlane, President Roland Reagan’s former National Security Advisor, flew to Tehran in disguise, carrying a Bible inscribed by the US president and a key-shaped cake to symbolize a more open relationship between the two countries. But the mission reportedly failed after Iranian officials made demands the US government refused to meet.

But, in November of the same year, the truth came out when  Lebanese magazine Al-Sharaa reported that the United States had sent “military hardware in four US transport planes from a base in the Philippines,” quoting sources close to Ayatollah Montazeri. Khomeini later rejected him in 1989 after Montazeri took a critical stance toward the Supreme Leader’s autocratic policies. Rafsanjani, the then speaker of parliament, then also confirmed the reports on November 4, 1986, adding that US officials had also provided Colt pistols as gifts.

Rafsanjani attempted to explain what happened in a public session of parliament. But some MPs did not find his explanations adequate. Eight of them, including Mohammad Khamenei, summoned the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, to answer their questions on the matter. This incident enraged Khomeini, who had harsh words for them. “I did not expect this,” he told them. “The tone of what you said in parliament is harsher than that of Israel, harsher than that of the US.”

In his regular recent criticisms of Rafsanjani, who is currently chairman of the Expediency Council, Mohammad Khamenei has accused him of misrepresenting the McFarlane affair to Khomeini, effectively lying to him, and implied he should be arrested as a result.


“By the Grace of God”

In 1989, Rafsanjani became the president of the Islamic Republic. According to Mohammad Khamenei, this was the first step in a complicated scheme to usher Rafsanjani into the role of Supreme Leader — however, Ali Khamenei’s team successfully outmaneuvered Rafsanjani’s “gang.” According to him, “by the grace of God,” the Assembly of Experts selected his brother as the leader and Rafsanjani’s wish was never fulfilled. He has also said that those supporting Rafsanjani “used effective tools” in order to bring about Montazeri’s dismissal and gain power for themselves after Khomeini’s death.

Khamenei continues to add to the long list of Rafsanjani’s trespasses, including the former president’s support for Mir Hossein Mousavi when he was prime minister in the 1980s, his acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 598 that ended the Iran-Iraq war, as well as his good relations with Saudi Arabia. The latter, he claims, reveals “a secret relationship with America”— more evidence Rafsanjani worked with the Americans to secure his rise to power. 

In May 2013, ahead of the presidential election that brought Hassan Rouhani to power, Mohammad Khamenei told Fars news agency that US think tanks and their Iranian advisors who led the “sedition” — hardliners’ favorite code word for the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election and the Green Movement — supported Rafsanjani’s bid for the presidency because they believed he would be “the best person to support the American conspiracy against the regime.”

The same year also saw the publication of Mohammad Khamenei’s memoirs, in which he repeatedly attacked Rafsanjani, accusing him not only of having close ties to the US, but other disloyalties to the regime.


Bad Memories

Mohammad Khamenei has very bad memories of the mid-1980s and Rafsanjani. He has said that the day after Khomeini’s angry statement about what went on in parliament he had planned to address MPs himself, but was afraid that he might be confronted at the doors of parliament by an armed guard. When Rafsanjani wrote in his own memoirs that Mohammad Khamenei had been very afraid in those days, Khamenei reacted sharply. “Anybody who makes such a claim should have enough sense to know that somebody who is afraid would not go to the parliament right when it opens.” Later on, he went further, adding that Rafsanjani’s “mercenaries” had insulted the eight MPs that opposed him. “Their target was not just us, but the so-called faction of 99 who opposed Mousavi.”

The 99 Faction refers to the names of the MPs who did not vote to confirm Mir Hossein Mousavi’s candidacy as prime minister, even though Ayatollah Khomeini supported him. Mohammad Khamenei was one of the most prominent figures in the group, and their disobedience towards Khomeini put Khamenei under extreme pressure.

“Supporters of Mr. Mousavi used the 99 names as an excuse. When they wanted to pommel somebody, they would include his name in the group,” remembered Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, who was speaker of parliament in the 1990s, in his memoirs. He says that Mousavi supporters referred to almost 200 names in the list of “99”. “They even included me even though I was not an MP then,” Nouri said.

Mohammad Khamenei accuses Rafsanjani and one of  Khomeini’s sons — who he has not named — of forcing Khomeini to support Mousavi in order to prevent an open fight in government.

There are many other examples of the three-decades long battle between Rafsanjani and his nemesis Mohammad Khamenei. Whether it was Rafsanjani versus Khamenei; Khamenei versus Montazeri; Mousavi versus Khamenei; or any other battle between powerful politicians, they all have one common theme: revenge.

In Mohammad Khamenei’s view, Hashemi Rafsanjani is not one of the pillars of the 1979 revolution. He is a pillar of every conspiracy to have emerged after the revolution. He wants to take revenge on Rafsanjani for Mousavi having the upper hand all those years ago, in the same way that his younger brother the Supreme Leader took revenge on Mousavi in 2009.

But there is another angle to the story, one that clearly demonstrates just how the past is used as a weapon in Iranian politics, a powerful tool to damage enemies or support friends. Last year, a production company with close ties to the the Revolutionary Guards produced an hour-long documentary entitled “I Am Rouhani”. One of the program’s main focuses was on Rouhani’s attempts to normalize Iran’s relations with the West. And here  the McFarlane Affair was once again revived. Rouhani, the film says, was one of only three Iranian officials who met Reagan’s security advisor. DVDs of the film were widely distributed, with people around the country being given copies for free — raising questions about who actually backed the film’s production. Government officials and Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani dismissed rumors that Rouhani’s enemies foot the bill.

McFarlane is now 77 years old now and and has been out of the public eye for close to 30 years. But it seems that he is still very much remembered by Iranian politicians. This will not be the last time that the story of his trip to Iran, and the gifts he brought, will be resurrected as a way of settling old scores.

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