Despite its belligerent policies, Iran is a significant country for Pakistan. It shares a border with Balochistan but, as our largest province has been ignored as a priority by our policymakers from day one, we have — despite geographic proximity — failed to benefit from our neighbour. Faults across fault lines, if you will.
Over the decades, our cooperation with Iran has been replaced with competition for all the wrong reasons. But before jumping to the question of ‘what went wrong’, we need to understand Iran, its politics and its relations with other countries, particularly the United States. The US has played a major role in the evolution of Iran’s relations with its neighbours, including Pakistan.
In his previous book, Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy and American Influence, leading expert on Iranian affairs Alex Vatanka exquisitely summed up Iran’s complex relations with Pakistan as the two vied for American patronage. In 1950, the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became only the second head of state to visit Pakistan after its creation. That makes relations between the two countries extra special.
Iranian-American Vatanka’s new book, The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979, is a window to understanding today’s Iran, its complex politics under its Islamist leaders and its relations with the outside world, particularly America.
In a nutshell, the book showcases the rivalry of two Iranian Islamist leaders: Ali Khamenei, the present supreme leader of Iran, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who, among other high positions in the Islamist regime, was the country’s president for two terms. Interestingly, thanks to rigid and complex Iranian politics, they were close friends-turned-bitter foes.
A new book by a leading writer on Iranian affairs is a window to understanding the complex internal politics of today’s Iran, which shape its foreign policies as well
Historically speaking, Iran was an emerging power in the Middle East. It furthered US interests and, being anti-communist, had a key role in containing communism in the region, as well as a greater role in pulling Pakistan toward the Western bloc.
Then Iran slipped out of US hands. At the time, the US had believed fundamentalism suited its interests, which was why it supported the Afghan jihad in 1979. This is what the US has done everywhere else in the world: been a source of disturbance and lost allies as a result. In the words of prolific Baloch author Dr Shah Mohammad Marri, if the US does not know or care about its own history, how can it care about others?
Pahlavi is also quoted in an interview, at the beginning of Vatanka’s book, that he “had come to believe Washington wanted him out.” The reason was that the US had pampered the Shah for a long time to use “Iran as a safer vanguard against Soviet communism” and, after his purpose was fulfilled, Pahlavi was no longer needed.
At the time, Iranians — particularly leftists and liberals — were being increasingly suppressed by the Shah. The leftist Tudeh Party of Iran sided with the mullahs, mistakenly believing that with the mullahs’ — also agitating against the Shah — help, they could overthrow the monarchy. However, the mullahs soon abandoned them and the revolution was hijacked by Islamists led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been forced to flee Iran during Pahlavi’s regime.
Upon his return after the revolution, Khomeini became the country’s supreme leader. In this position, he was answerable to none, including the electorate, except a six-member Council of Guardians. Three of these would be appointed by Khomeini himself. This pushed Iran’s vibrant, modern society into the clutches of religious fundamentalism, which brought only misery into the lives of its ordinary citizens.
Since then, or, to be more specific, since 1979, the Islamic revolution of Iran has been itself hijacked by the so-called mullah revolutionaries.
However, Vatanka’s book is about the rivalry between Khamenei and Rafsanjani. The latter was close to the supreme leader and introduced Khamenei to Khomeini. Khamenei assumed the mantle of the ayatollah after Khomeini’s death.
Following the so-called Islamic revolution, it was evident that Iran wanted to export it to other states, particularly its neighbours. According to Vatanka, as the Khomeinists consolidated power in Tehran, they looked to expand their message internationally and this made neighbouring states anxious. This also became a bone of contention between Shia Iran and Sunni Arab states in the Middle East, particularly those with Shia populations, and was the cause of war between Iran and Iraq that waged for eight years.
“Saddam’s invasion was mostly a blessing for the radical clergy. As with the US embassy takeover, it acted as a major distraction for the public and an opportunity for a further power grab,” writes Vatanka. But war brings destruction to all sides and it gave a further blow to Iran’s shambling economy. Vatanka sums up the cost: “By one estimate, the eight-year war cost Iran $645 billion.”
As for Pakistan during that time, Gen Ziaul Haq had come to power through a military takeover. Like his Iranian counterparts, he was a religious fundamentalist but, being Sunni, was alarmed by the spread of Shia revolution to his country. Besides, as a whole, the Pakistani state was concerned about its Shia population — the second largest after Iran. Like Shia populations in other countries, a major chunk of ours continued to look to Iran, to import the Shia revolution to Pakistan. The rest is history.
Both Sunni and Shia populations have been greatly affected by an unending sectarian war in the country. Noted Pakistani journalist Khaled Ahmed chronicles this in his book Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its Links to the Middle East. He brings to light the relocation of the Shia-Sunni conflict from the Middle East to Pakistan after Khomeini’s rise, and the proliferation of Sunni religious seminaries in Pakistan, funded by Saudi Arabia.
The Shia-Sunni conflict is a 14 centuries-old phenomenon. “The differences between Shias and Sunnis are thus not only political, but also theological and even anthropological,” writes Iranian-American academic Vali Nasr in his book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam will Shape the Future.
Nasr goes on: “Islamic fundamentalism was born first among Sunnis as a response to the decline of Muslim power”, and that the “current excessive legal-mindedness of Iran’s ayatollahs is in some ways ‘Sunnification’ of Shiism — a reflection of the influence exerted in recent decades by Sunni fundamentalism, with its puritanism and intense political activism.”
In Vatanka’s book, politics post-1979 in the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to be a game of chess, where unexpected things keep happening. “At Khomeini’s temporary headquarters at Refah School, Rafsanjani quickly morphed into one of the three principal gatekeepers to the old man. The other two men were 60-year-old Morteza Motahhari and 51-year-old Mohammad Beheshti.”
Both men were soon assassinated; Motahhari in May 1979, Beheshti in June 1981.
As for Khamenei — who was not even in the race at the time — Vatanka writes: “Ali Khamenei, Iran’s future supreme leader, was at this point barely standing out. He did have a background in opposition politics. SAVAK [the national security agency established by Shah Pahlavi] had once banished him to [Sistan and Balochistan], Iran’s far-flung province on the border with Pakistan.”
But the murky nature of politics favoured Khamenei and he became the supreme leader after Khomeini’s death on June 3, 1989, thanks to his friend Rafsanjani. Unfortunately for Rafsanjani, this same turn of events put him in hot water throughout his political career during Khamenei’s regime.
Through its exploration of the relationship between Khamenei and Rafsanjani, Vatanka’s book informs us of the evolution of Iran’s foreign policy since 1979. In this context, both men put their personal agenda first. Vatanka states: “Iran’s foreign policy was heavily shaped by how these two men defined their parochial, political interests, and how these petty interests intersected, defined and, in many cases, overshadowed Iran’s national interest.”
As the supreme leader, Khamenei had the leverage of dominance. He became head of the Iranian deep state and the Revolutionary Guard Corps — which Vatanka calls “a state within state” — went into his hands. It continues to remain Khamenei’s source of power. It also continues to thwart Iran’s relations with the US. Shedding light on this, Vatanka argues: “What is still not known is how far the pro-Khamenei faction — the ‘deep state’ inside the regime — might have gone to scuttle any effort to normalise ties with Washington.”
Having consolidated his powers, Khamenei engaged in confrontations with the country’s so-called elected presidents, including those handpicked by him. Rafsanjani — once Khamenei’s friend and later one of his greatest rivals — died in mysterious circumstances in 2017. With Rafsanjani’s death, Khamenei does not have any opponents to his supreme leadership left.
Singular opponents, that is. Iran’s public has grown deeply disillusioned and, although his Revolutionary Guard Corps has crushed uprisings on the streets on many occasions, it is now Khamenei versus the citizenry.
“Rafsanjani and other senior members of the Islamic Republic that put Khamenei on the pedestal are almost all dead or marginalised,” sums up Vatanka. “Pushback against him now only comes from the streets, from an Iranian public that is so deeply dismayed by the realities of domestic and foreign policies of the country.”
This begs the simple question: with all his rivals gone, can Khamenei stand up against the public?
The reviewer is a member of staff. He tweets @Akbar_notezai
The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979
By Alex Vatanka
I.B. Tauris, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 6th, 2022