Rouhani And his "American Boys": Ayatollas And The US Congress
16 February 2014
By Amir Taheri
Ever since the mullahs seized power almost 35 years
ago, they have regarded the United States with a
mixture of fascination and fear—and that mixture has
played a crucial role in the power struggle going on
within the Khomeinist camp ever since. The mixture is
now at work, as the faction led by former President
Hashemi Rafsanjani tries to recapture the positions it
lost during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency.
Signs of the mullahs' fascination with the US, dubbed
the "Great Satan" by Ayatollah Khomeini, were present
from the earliest days of the regime. The first
government created under Khomeini and headed by Mehdi
Bazargan as prime minister included five naturalized
US citizens. Bazargan's first deputy was later tried
as a CIA agent.
Shortly after forming his government in 1979, Bazargan
met US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski
in Algiers to work out a "common strategy" against the
Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
To topple Bazargan, rival factions harped on the fear
of the US and provoked the seizure of American
diplomats as hostages. Muhammad Beheshti, the
ambitious mullah who led the principal anti-Bazargan
faction, held secret meetings with US agents to forge
an alliance. Beheshti even sent one of his protégés,
Ali Khamenei, who is now the "Supreme Leader," to the
occupied Embassy to improve conditions for the captive
diplomats. In footage available on the Internet, one
sees Khamenei promising the American hostages they
would be released soon and that the Islamic Republic
would like to resume buying arms form the US.
The rival faction at the time was led by Prime
Minister Mir-Hussein Moussavi, who ended up
negotiating the release of the hostages. To
consolidate his position, Moussavi set up a channel
with Washington led by his chief aide, Abbas Mohsen
With Beheshti assassinated, his two protégés, Khamenei
and Rafsanjani, came together to dislodge Moussavi.
Rafsanjani became Washington's chief interlocutor in
Tehran and, in time, played the American card to have
Khamenei appointed "Supreme Leader" while anointing
himself as President.
The Khomeinists' fascination with the "Great Satan"
was such that many regime grandees quietly dispatched
their offspring to the US for education. Today, a high
percentage of posts in the Khomeinist regime are
occupied by the American-educated children of mullahs
and their associates. In 2011, a member of the Majlis,
the ersatz parliament, leaked a list of over 300 such
individuals, many of them holding US Green Cards.
Not surprisingly, the US has been a second home to
hundreds of former Khomeinist officials, Revolutionary
Guard members, and "fixers" supervising businesses
owned by mullahs. Many went to the US on scholarships
provided by unknown American sources.
At first glance, the investment that the US has made
in maintaining a network of contacts inside the
Islamic Republic would appear worthwhile. Today, many
members of that network are in key positions in
President Hassan Rouhani's administration. Many others
are returning from their sojourn in the US to
strengthen the network.
Secretary of State John Kerry argues that once
Rouhani's position is strengthened, his faction would
be able to move against the "hardline" factions who
remain prisoners to antiquated anti-American
For their part, Rouhani and his "American boys" claim
they could secure US support for the system, thus
improving the Khomeinist regime's prospects.
Rouhani's message to Washington is simple: ‘Let us
rule Iran and we shall guarantee your interests!' He
calls that a "win–win" game.
However, a closer look at the realities of Iran today
might offer a different picture.
Compared with 1979, Iran today is a far more complex
society, with many forces shaping its domestic and
foreign policies than a few hundred well-placed
individuals. Rafsanjani, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and
other high-profile players all fish in the same
increasingly shallow pond of the revolution. The best
estimates, including rates of participation in the
regime's arranged elections, indicate that Khomeinism
could still mobilize between 10 and 15 percent of the
population. Because the rest of society remains
divided by ideology and political memory that 10 or 15
percent is still a strong constituency. The problem is
that hatred of America is a key ingredient of the
Khomeinist ideology. Thus, when time comes for real
change in Tehran's anti-American stance, the faction
playing the American card would not be able to
Rouhani and his "American boys" would be able to
deliver what they promise to Kerry only if they ditch
the anti-American ingredient of their deadly
ideological cocktail. It is obvious they cannot
without losing their Khomeinist constituency.
Of course, Rouhani claims that he could find a broader
constituency beyond the Khomeinist one. A majority of
Iranians have a good opinion of the US and desire
close ties with it. But if Iran gets a chance to
return to its traditional alliance with the US, why
should it trust such a project to individuals nursed
on the hatred of all things American?
During their presidential tenures, Rafsanjani and
Muhammad Khatami, another mullah who flirted with the
US, showed that when the crunch comes they were unable
to jettison their anti-American base. It is not
possible to forge an alliance with a power that one
regards as ideological enemy.
Rouhani and his "American boys" are unlikely to do any
better than did Bazargan, Moussavi, Rafsanjani or
Khatami. Despite his real or feigned naiveté, Kerry
would do well to remember that Iran's problem today is
not with the US. Iran has a problem with itself, the
problem of a split personality in a nation where a
majority welcomes alliance with the US while a
minority regards hatred of America as its ideological
Amir Taheri was
born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of
the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was
Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92,
he served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and
2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald
Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal,
the New York Post, the New York Times, the London
Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale,
and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been
translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist
for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book
"The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in
London and New York.