In his traditional costume of long, flowing robes and with a white turban around his head, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani appeared as an unusual visitor in an unlikely setting. But as Rafsanjani, the Speaker of Iran’s parliament, met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin’s cavernous St.
Catherine’s Hall last week, each man seemed to be determined to set the other at ease. And following two days of meetings, Rafsanjani, 55, the highest-ranking Iranian leader to visit the Soviet Union since his country’s 1979 Islamic revolution, warmly praised Gorbachev’s policies. He also extended his trip to visit Leningrad and Baku—the capital of the largely Moslem Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Said Rafsanjani, the sole candidate for Iran’s presidency in elections scheduled for July 28: “New horizons have really opened up [and] our optimism has been totally justified.” With such remarks, the two nations—which share a nearly 2,600-km-long border—made their most dramatic step toward healing the deep rifts that developed during the 10-year reign of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died on June 3. In their talks, Rafsanjani and Gorbachev signed a number of agreements, ranging from the expansion and reopening of existing international railway lines to plans for Iran to participate in a joint space flight with the Soviets. Perhaps most importantly for Moscow, Rafsanjani pledged that his government will not become involved in Soviet internal affairs. With more than 30 million Soviet Moslems, the Kremlin is wary of Islamic fundamentalism spreading to Soviet Central Asia from Iran. And for the Iranians—who are attempting to rebuild their country after a devastating eight-year war with Iraq—a Soviet pledge to co-operate “in strengthening [Iran’s] defence capability” was a major victory. Although no details of that agreement were made public, Soviet armed forces chief Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev said that Moscow was considering arms sales to Iran.
That co-operative spirit contrasted sharply with the dismal state of Soviet-Iranian relations over the past decade. Moscow had enjoyed generally warm relations with the Shah of Iran before his ouster in 1979. But under Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionary government, millions of Iranians called for the destruction of both the
Soviet Union and the United States as “instruments of Satan.” After years of mutual mistrust and antagonism—Moscow armed the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq war while Tehran backed Moslem rebels against Soviet troops in the
Afghanistan conflict—Gorbachev is clearly exploiting Iran’s isolation from Western countries. In February, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze met with Khomeini, and the two sides set the date for Rafsanjani’s visit to Moscow.
In fact, Khomeini’s meeting with Shevardnadze gave Rafsanjani a crucial opening at home. In Khomeini’s will, last updated in 1987, he invoked “the curse of God” upon both the United States and the Soviet Union as “oppressors” of Moslems. But before leaving Tehran for Moscow last week, Rafsanjani said that Khomeini had had a change of heart toward the Kremlin. At the same time, Rafsanjani, who is known among many Iranians as “the shark” for his ability to navigate Iran’s tortuous political waters, insisted that the United States had “declared direct war on us.”
Those statements reflected Rafsanjani’s eagerness to appease hard-liners at home and consolidate his power. For their part, the Soviets clearly viewed Rafsanjani’s cordial visit as a sign that a potentially troublesome neighbor had been neutralized. As well, the Kremlin stands to gain influence in the strategic Persian Gulf, through which much of the world’s oil is shipped. Said a Moscow-based Western diplomat: “It is the ultimate marriage of convenience.” After an uncomfortable estrangement, those are reasons enough for reconciliation between neighbors.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.