While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to vehemently deny Iran's desire to develop nuclear weapons, his defeated rival in last year's presidential election has come out with sensational revelations that portray a completely different picture.
The defeated rival in question is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-cum-mullah who occupied the presidential chair for two consequent four-year terms between 1989-97. However, the revelations he made last week relate to 1988 when he was speaker of the Islamic Majlis (parliament) while also acting as the commander-in-chief of Iran's armed forces on behalf of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini.
The centrepiece of the revelations consists of two letters. One, written by Brigadier-General Mohsen Rezai, then commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is addressed to Khomeini. The other is Khomeini's reply.
In his letter, Rezai, whose forces had just suffered terrible losses as a result of chemical attacks against them by the Iraqis, informs Khomeini that, unless dotted with a range of new weapons, his forces cannot achieve the goals set for them. These goals included defeating Saddam Hussain, installing a Khomeinist regime in Baghdad, proceeding to "liberate" Jerusalem from Israeli occupation and wiping the Jewish state off the map.
Rezai asks Khomeini to provide his forces with 300 new fighter-bombers, 2,500 tanks, 300 attack helicopters and, last but not least, laser-guided missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
In his reply, Khomeini endorses Rezai's analysis and evokes the possibility of ending the war by accepting the United Nations' resolution 598 which Iran had systematically rejected as a "Zionist-Crusader" concoction. In fact, shortly after the exchange of letters, Khomeini announced that he was "drinking the poison chalice" by accepting a ceasefire with Saddam Hussain, thus ending the eight-year war in August 1988.
The fact that Rezai's analysis carried weight with Khomeini was not solely due to the brigadier general's established status as a war-hero. The event that rendered the analysis irrefutable was the battle that a US task force, ordered into the Gulf by president Ronald Reagan, had fought with the Islamic Republic's navy over the control of the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. That led to a series of engagements in 1987 that ended with the sinking of half of Iran's navy, the dismantling of Iranian missile batteries on 16 islands and billions of dollars of damages to Iranian offshore oil installations. Khomeini got the message and immediately halted attacks on Kuwaiti tankers and Saudi oil installations.
The question is: why did Rafsanjani decide to publish the two top-secret letters?
The immediate answer is that he wants to refute claims of "cowardice" and "collusions" with the US, made against him by Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president and his entourage have accused Rafsanjani of having persuaded Khomeini to stop the war against Saddam Hussain at a time that the Islamic Republic was on the verge of conquering Iraq and moving on to destroy Israel.
Ahmadinejad's spiritual master, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, has claimed that sometime in 1988 the Hidden Imam, a revered figure among Shiites, was getting ready to return and lead the Islamic forces to final victory in Occupied Jerusalem. Thus, Rafsanjani by persuading Khomeini to end the war prematurely, allowed Saddam Hussain to remain in power for another 15 years while prolonging the life of the "Zionist stain of shame" in the heart of the Muslim world.
Ahmadinejad and his entourage claim that Rafsanjani had made a secret deal with the Americans in the context of secret talks that were later revealed in the Irangate scandal.
By making the revelations, Rafsanjani wants to do two things. First, he wants to make it clear that the decision to end the war was made by Khomeini on the advice of his military commanders and had nothing to do with any alleged secret deal between Rafsanjani and the Americans. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Rafsanjani wishes to discredit what he sees as Ahmadinejad's strategy of deliberately provoking a conflict with the US that the Islamic Republic cannot hope to win without first acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
The revelation that the Islamic Republic began seeking a nuclear deterrent as early as 1988 is nothing new to seasoned Iran-watchers.
Always a fighter, Rafsanjani seems to have absorbed the shock of his defeat in last year's presidential election and is planning a comeback. But can he wait another 30 months before taking on Ahmadinejad in a second presidential election? The answer is probably no. Rafsanjani has more immediate objectives. He hopes to lead an anti-Ahmadinejad coalition in next December's elections for the Assembly of Experts, the body that can choose or dismiss the "supreme guide".
All this might have been of little or no concern to the outside world had it not been for two facts. The first is that Iran has had a secret nuclear programme for almost two decades while taking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for a ride. The second is that the Islamic republic leaders who felt no discomfort in discussing the use of nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction two decades ago, do not seem to have abandoned their strategy of reshaping the Middle East after their fashion.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.