In a final parting shot at Hassan Rouhani, the Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran this week abruptly released an old, recorded conversation featuring a jab at Rouhani’s views on the future of US-Iran relations.
The five-minute film released on Monday, one day before Ebrahim Raisi’s endorsement ceremony, showed Ali Khamenei and ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani talking about the US during a meeting of Iran’s senior leaders in 2012.
Shot a time when Iran was under the first bout of crippling international sanctions, the video shows Khamenei sharply criticizing Rafsanjani over a proposed diplomatic response to the United States.
Rafsanjani tells the Supreme Leader in turn that Hassan Rouhani, a former National Security Council Member, had prepared the text outlining the “pros and cons” of normalizing relations with the United States, and he had contributed to it.
Khamenei bitterly replies that he has read it, and that "You and Rouhani spoke of the benefits of talks but nothing of their harm... You [Rafsanjani] also added a few clauses.” The others in the room, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former Chief Justice Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei then laugh at the sarcasm.
The footage came from a meeting of the Expediency Council on April 8 of that year. It was published on Monday by the Office of the Supreme Leader under the title “The Lesson of the Future”, together with an addendum reminding viewers that Ali Khamenei had always warned people not to trust “the West”. The recording from the meeting is followed by a montage showing outgoing Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others at the time of the signing of the JCPOA.
The essence of it is that Hassan Rouhani – who also previously had a hand in the Iran-Contra affair – was too blithe in his approach to negotiations with the US. This was a view Khamenei also made plain in his unusually harsh farewell address to Rouhani’s cabinet last week.
The ‘Off-Record’ Meeting that Spawned a Thousand Alternative Takes
After the short film was published and aired on Iranian state TV, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, a member of the Expediency Council, reminded reporters that Rouhani’s government was in its last days and in his view at least, "the fallen should not be kicked."
He claimed Khamenei had also snapped to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at the meeting: "What are you talking about, ‘relationship with the United States’?"
At the time of the meeting, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had just given an interview with the Quarterly Journal of International Studies in which he said that in his letter to Khamenei, he had in fact asked the Supreme Leader to set targets for seven distinct important issues – only one of which was the future relationship with the United States.
"After all,” he said, “our present position – to neither talk to nor have a relationship with the United States – is not sustainable," he said. "America is the world's biggest power."
Years later, Rafsanjani would say of the meeting: "We discussed a lot. We argued for an hour or two and didn’t reach a conclusion. I said I couldn’t say anything else; it was between us and God. I said eventually on Judgement Day, you and I will be asked why all this damage and problems were created for the system, and for Muslims. I said if he accepted these responsibilities, then I had nothing more to say. The Leader said: ‘Yes, I will answer to God’."
Saffar Harandi also recalled that at the end of the meeting, Hassan Sanei, a member of the Office of the Supreme Leader and the Expediency Council, had told Khamenei: "It’s better that you forbid those present at this meeting from raising this issue outside" – to which, he said, the Supreme Leader had simply replied, "Yes".
Saffar Harandi added that Khamenei had not initially planned to ban the disclosure of the details of the discussion, but did so on Sanei’s request. For this reason the moratorium was never taken seriously by the officials present, including Rafsanjani himself.
Morteza Nabavi, another then-member of the Expediency Council, narrated his own version of events on last December. He claimed Khamenei had also told Hashemi Rafsanjani that his interview with an academic journal on relations with the United States had "caused the enemy to abuse his views" and had taken place "at the worst possible time."
The "worst possible time" was exactly the time at which secret negotiations between Iran and the US were about to take place. News of the first preliminary meeting in Oman that July broke in the international media shortly afterward and continued to make global headlines for months to come. Iranian officials including the Supreme Leader’s advisor Ali Akbar Velayati tried to deny the reports; Rafsanjani’s interview presumably did not help.
In the past few years, Iranian state-affiliated media outlets have published reams of critical content about Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani trying to improve relations with the United States. The release of this new video was more expressly directed at the outgoing government of Hassan Rouhani for “trusting” the US. Not unlike the previous publications though, it appears just as much to be an exercise in damage control by the Office of the Supreme Leader.