Iran After the Imam : 4 Who May Rule Steeled by Struggle

Times Staff Writer

The scene at New York’s opulent Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was surreal. In a formal ballroom, underneath elegant chandeliers, Iranian President Ali Khamenei was having breakfast with 15 American journalists.

Surrounding Khamenei was a squad of formidable, bearded Revolutionary Guards from the fearsome military unit made famous by its quest for martyrdom during the war with Iraq. And in the hallways just outside, U.S. Secret Service agents provided their own protection for a man whose government had officially dubbed the United States “the Great Satan.”

The first moments of the meal were awkward. In 1981, Khamenei was nearly killed by a bomb hidden inside a tape recorder and placed on the podium as he gave a Friday prayer sermon. Since then, he has walked with a cane, and his right arm has dangled uselessly at his side. To help the Iranian president eat his breakfast, one of the Revolutionary Guards had to bend over him, like a parent over a child, and cut his cheese and cold cuts.

On Sunday, Iran’s ruling mullahs, or clerics, named Khamenei to replace the revered Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of Iran’s revolution.

Whether he will survive in that role in unpredictable Iran is anybody’s guess. But for now, the 49-year-old Khamenei has emerged as one of four Iranian leaders who are expected to play major roles in the struggle to fill the vacuum left by Khomeini.


And in a nation where violence has become an accepted form of political expression, Khamenei’s close brush with death does not distinguish him. Two of the three other contenders for power have also been targets of assassins since Khomeini’s revolution swept Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi from power in 1979.

Near-Misses for Rafsanjani

Hashemi Rafsanjani, 54, the Speaker of Parliament and the man widely predicted to become the real power during the revolution’s next phase, was injured during a 1980 assassination attempt. A year later, he left a building less than three minutes before a bomb killed more than 70 people, including 10 Cabinet officials and 27 members of Parliament. Unconfirmed reports suggest that he has survived a series of further assaults over the past 18 months.

Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the interior minister, has no left hand and only the thumb remaining on his right hand. He lost his hands and part of his face in 1984 when a book bomb detonated as he opened it at the Iranian Embassy in Syria, where he was then serving as ambassador.

Only Ahmed Khomeini, the ayatollah’s son and chief of staff for 12 years, has remained unscathed, at least as far as is known. But his older brother, from whom Ahmed inherited the job as his father’s right-hand man, died when the Khomeini family was in exile in 1977. No official cause of death was announced, but followers charged that the shah’s secret police were responsible.

These are the men who, at least at the outset, will shape Iran’s political future--whether it militantly pursues the Islamic Revolution or finally seeks accommodations with the West, whether it maintains close central control of its economy or allows an opening for free enterprise, whether it retains its tight grip on social behavior or permits the diversity of Iranian society to re-emerge.

All four, in addition to their familiarity with violence, share several common characteristics.

They are hojatoleslams, a category of mullahs that means “authority on Islam” and is the rank just below ayatollah. They are all lifelong Khomeini disciples who faced persecution during the shah’s reign.

And now, reflecting the metamorphosis of the clergy from inexperience to expertise in running a complex nation of 50 million, they are all masterful politicians.

They differ, however, on the future of the revolution they jointly engineered a decade ago. Those differences are likely to provide the framework for Iran’s political future.

Together, Khamenei and Rafsanjani constitute the pragmatic leadership of the Islamic Republic’s complex political spectrum. The Iranian government has blamed leftist opposition groups for the attacks on their lives.

Mohtashemi, by contrast, is Iran’s leading hard-liner. He has been linked to the devastating bombing of the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut in 1983 and the suicide bombings of U.S. embassies in Beirut in 1983 and 1984. U.S. intelligence officials speculate that he or his followers may have played a role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which was downed over Scotland last December, killing 270 people.

Ahmed Khomeini is, at the moment, the man in the political middle. At different times he has sided with various factions and evolved into the role of power broker on behalf of his father. He is almost certain to continue to play a major role as rival factions turn to him for interpretations of what his father would have said on key points.

Khamenei and Rafsanjani share the same end of the political spectrum now, but Khamenei was not always a pragmatist. At the Waldorf-Astoria breakfast, which took place in 1987, he demonstrated the characteristics that have made Iran’s revolutionary leaders so maddening to Americans.

He barely noticed that someone was cutting his food for him. The highest-ranking mullah ever to set foot on American soil was instead preoccupied with fielding tough questions from Mike Wallace of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Garrick Utley of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and 13 other journalists. To the surprise of the reporters who attended, the Iranians had not invited reporters who were sympathetic to their cause.

Two days earlier, an Iranian ship called the Iran Ajr had been caught red-handed by the U.S. Navy laying mines in the Persian Gulf. Americans had seized the ship, killed four of its crew members and held the rest.

Khamenei angrily denied that the Islamic Republic was scheming against the U.S. naval forces that had been dispatched to the gulf to protect oil tankers from the increasingly bloody war between Iran and Iraq.

“It was a peaceful merchant ship,” the new Iranian president insisted. “This is the beginning of a series of events, the bitter consequences of which will not be restricted to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. shall receive a proper response for this abominable act.

“Today, it is we who receive the dead bodies of our sons. But if, God forbid, the day comes when you will receive the dead bodies of your sons, people will say, ‘Why didn’t you stop it?’ ”

Khamenei had gone to New York to make a bold address to the United Nations about the respected place that Iran felt it deserved in the international community. He was the most senior Iranian revolutionary to have spoken to the United Nations.

Instead, Khamenei found himself forced to defend Iran’s mine-laying misadventure. Although he was a senior member of Iran’s Supreme Defense Council, which prosecuted the war against Iraq, insiders said he was unaware of the escapade in the gulf--and deeply embarrassed by it.

Iran’s new leader appears to have mellowed since his U.N. address. Over the past two years, Khamenei has increasingly become a conciliator and a pragmatist. He and Rafsanjani are widely credited with manipulating hard-liners and, ultimately, Khomeini himself, into accepting the 1988 cease-fire that ended the devastating eight-year war with Iraq.

Khamenei personally knew the divisive costs of the war. His son was scarred last year in a chemical weapon attack by Iraq. And his sister went into exile to join her dissident husband in Iraq.

Last fall, he even suggested that Iran might be prepared to borrow foreign funds for the first time since the revolution and to use Western technology to help reconstruct the war-ravaged country.

“We must make use of the knowledge, expertise and resources of the foreigner,” he said at the opening of Iran’s International Trade Fair.

While he has in the past advocated reforms to improve the lives of Iran’s lower classes, his longstanding ties to bazaar merchants have tempered his support for radical economic reforms.

And shortly after Khomeini’s death sentence on author Salman Rushdie over his novel, “The Satanic Verses,” in February, Khamenei publicly suggested that the edict might be lifted if Rushdie apologized. An outraged Khomeini quickly rebuked the president.

Even his attitude on social mores has moderated. More than three years ago, he refused to attend a state banquet in his honor in Zimbabwe because women were to sit at the head table and wine was to be served. But at the Waldorf breakfast a year later, two American women were allowed to sit close to him. One who had brought Islamic head cover was told that she need not wear it.

Although Khamenei has at least temporarily inherited the title of Iran’s revolutionary leader, he is in fact likely to end up taking a back seat to Rafsanjani. Indeed, the parliamentary Speaker, who is a member of the selection council, may have helped maneuver Khamenei’s election, according to Iran specialists.

Roommates as young theologians and later imprisoned in the same jail by the shah, the two men are longtime associates. Together, they could form a powerful bloc to hold off the hard-liners.

Rafsanjani’s standing is expected to be decided in August presidential elections. He is the leading contender to succeed Khamenei in a strengthened executive presidency. Under Khamenei, the position was largely ceremonial.

The speaker is both wily and charismatic. Among the generally stern clergy, he is one of the few who frequently smiles in public. His gentle jokes are legendary, and he was widely said to be a Khomeini favorite because he could make the imam laugh.

His following outside fundamentalist circles has grown to the point that many Iranians openly refer to him as “Akbar shah,” implying that he has gained the power of an Iranian king.

His political skills were evident at a parliamentary session last June. Although several members made speeches on the floor, the real action was clearly taking place elsewhere. One by one, a dozen members made their way to Rafsanjani’s chair on the elevated dais to whisper in his ear.

“This is how the bartering is done,” said an Iranian official in private. “Everyone goes to Rafsanjani with problems or proposals. No idea will get very far without him.”

Later that day, Rafsanjani was elected to his ninth term as Iran’s parliamentary speaker. According to the official tally, only five of the almost 200 secret ballots did not carry his name. And they were all blank.

As acting commander in chief, Rafsanjani also enjoys widespread support within the fractious military. He was once briefly commander of the Revolutionary Guards and still reportedly has a following among several wings.

His political skills are reflected in a popular story about the time Rafsanjani was riding in a car with Iran’s president and prime minister. When they came to a fork in the road, the driver asked which way to turn. “Right,” said the president. “Left,” said the prime minister. Rafsanjani then instructed, “Signal left, but turn right.”

The current positions held by Rafsanjani and Khamenei are most threatened from within the theocracy by men such as Mohtashemi, who is often called Khomeini’s “third son.” Mohtashemi was with Khomeini throughout his exile, as a student and then as an aide. His longstanding loyalty earned him access and position within Khomeini’s inner circle.

Mohtashemi, a diminutive and quiet man with a trim black beard and horn-rimmed glasses, symbolizes those clerics who advocate continued isolation from the outside world, tight control of the economy and no wavering from the “pure” political ideals of the revolution.

Within the government he serves as interior minister, and he derives power from his control over the revolutionary komitehs, or committees, that police political and moral conduct in neighborhoods throughout Tehran.

Iran’s Interior Ministry is in charge of state security, not wildlife and national parks. Mohtashemi’s komiteh network gives him the only national base from which to challenge either the military or the Parliament.

Although the militants appear at the moment to have been outflanked by Rafsanjani and Khamenei, Mohtashemi’s predilection for unconventional tactics makes his future unpredictable. In a hearing last fall to reconfirm members of the Cabinet, a fellow government official said of him publicly:

“He is well known for his hiring and firing. He regards himself as the only power. He neither consults the clergy nor does he pay attention to (Parliament’s) deputies. With regard to the law, he acts wherever he sees fit and in accordance with his own will.”

Mohtashemi was only narrowly reconfirmed as interior minister.

The last of the contenders for power is Ahmed Khomeini, a plump, almost cherubic-looking figure in his mid-40s and an unknown factor in the long term. Although some pundits have reported his quest to succeed his father, he is widely considered in Tehran to be too young and inexperienced in government, lacking both religious credentials and scholarship.

Although Khomeini holds the same religious rank as Rafsanjani, Khamenei and Mohtashemi, he has not written extensively except in his father’s name. That confers disadvantage in Iran, where elevation within religious circles has depended on introducing new ideas and on generating prolific scholarship.

“He is politically shrewd, but he is not an intellectual,” an Iranian official once said of him.

By recently establishing a militant clerics’ association, Ahmed Khomeini has created an inside power base from which to build. And, as “keeper of the flame,” he is almost certain to have a role as the mullahs sort out their political and personal differences.

How the Iranian leadership shakes out will determine that nation’s relations with the United States. Even as long as two years ago, at the Waldorf-Astoria breakfast for Khamenei, there was a sign that the two nations could cooperate, at least on small matters.

It was no accident that the Revolutionary Guards were inside the ballroom and the Secret Service agents were in the hallway outside. The two security services had together worked out the arrangements “quite amicably,” said one of the U.S. agents.

“One on one,” he volunteered about the Iranians, “they’re not bad fellows.”

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