NICOSIA, CYPRUS — The clumsy and inopportune efforts of Western governments and the Western media to cast Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani in the role of the "moderate," "pragmatic," Anwar Sadat-like leader of Iran have helped produce the militant counterattack that led to his humiliation before the Majlis last Tuesday.
Instead of the honorific formality of presenting himself as the newly elected president along with his Cabinet to the Parliament, he was there informed by outgoing President Ali Khamenei that, according to the constitution, he would have to wait till October before he could step up--and only after Khamenei stepped down. Rafsanjani tried to rush things, because in Iran's presently volatile politics six or seven weeks is an age, and he was initially rebuffed by his antagonists. Only two days later, on the 17th, did Rafsanjani contrive to get Khamenei to resign so that he himself could be sworn in.
Predictions of a power struggle after the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei were belied by what seemed a smooth transition of power; but in fact the struggle went on, just below the surface, in the arcane underworld of mullahdom. Now it has burst into the open.
Last Wednesday, Rafsanjani was succeeded as Speaker of the Majlis by his deputy, Mehdi Karrubi, who, as it happens, is a leading militant and a close friend of Ahmed Khomeini, one of Rafsanjani's main challengers. Khomeini, son of the late ayatollah, is the rabble-rouser who led rioting Iranian pilgrims in Mecca in 1987, when 400 people were killed.
The very bases of Rafsanjani's position are under challenge. He lacks solid political legitimacy because almost half the electorate did not vote in the presidential election, which was openly rigged. And he also lacks spiritual charisma, being a very different sort of person from the usual senior Shiite cleric. Rafsanjani, before entering politics under Khomeini, was a full-time and successful millionaire trader, managing his family's pistachio-nut business. It is inevitable that other ambitious Iranians, whether mullahs or civilian politicians, should question why this particular turbaned wheeler-dealer should be the leader of Iran.
On the one hand, Rafsanjani revealed his pro-Western tilt when he proclaimed that he was ready to help obtain the release of the hostages held in Lebanon. And for very practical reasons: He is desperate to obtain Western financial and technical assistance in the rebuilding of Iran's war-wrecked economy.
On the other hand, the militants have been warning Rafsanjani not to depart from "the line of the imam," which remained tough and anti-Western right to the end of Khomeini's life. A few days ago, Iran's largest newspaper, Keyhan, asserted that the purity of revolutionary principles was more important than money.
The West is not helping Rafsanjani in his power struggle by prematurely and overeagerly praising him for his "helpfulness" and ascribing to him powers for speeding the release of the hostages in Lebanon which he does not actually possess.
The militants in Iran are led, among others, by Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the minister of the interior, who felt strong enough to throw down the gauntlet to Rafsanjani in a recent speech from Khomeini's graveside that denounced those who would conciliate the United States and Israel. The day before the Majlis session, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly answered Rafsanjani's pro-Western tilt when he delivered a comprehensive and angry assault on the United States as the ally of Israel.
In the struggle with the fundamentalists, Rafsanjani is in an infinitely weaker position than was Sadat vis-a-vis his fundamentalists. Egypt was, and is, a secular state and the Egyptian Muslim activists, after their suppression by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, were small groups working underground, able to obtain arms and explosives only with difficulty. In contrast, Iran for the past 10 years has been a full-fledged and militant Islamic state with anti-Western fundamentalism as the political mainstream. This was backed with all the power and charisma of the imam and has been accepted not just by scores or hundreds or thousands of people but by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of devout believers as their religious and political creed.
In Egypt, the militants were on the outside attacking the Establishment; in Iran a militant Establishment will have to make a 180-degree turn if it is to accept Rafsanjani's pro-Western, anti-militant policies.