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Inside the mind of Iran's Khamenei (+video)

Why Iran's iron ayatollah distrusts the US and what that means for nuclear talks and the possibility of war with the West.

By Staff writer / December 4, 2012

Students hold posters of Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran, Iran.

Vahid Salemi/AP

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Deep inside an old Tehran political prison, three turns off a dark corridor and through a small gap, lies a bleak cell for solitary confinement. Too narrow for a prisoner to extend his arms, it was once the cell of the man who today holds the official title in Iran, "God's deputy on earth."

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TEHRAN (AFP) - Iran can overcome problems caused by "barbaric" economic sanctions that Western states have imposed over its nuclear program, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said.

Scratched into the blackened paint is a hopeless verse about "the prison ashamed of the face of the liberated."

It was here in the 1970s that opponents of the American-backed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi were held and tortured by the SAVAK secret police, as popular anger outside swelled inevitably toward the 1979 Islamic revolution. That event would oust the shah and usher in a self-proclaimed "government of God."

The downtown prison has since been turned into a museum called Ebrat, which means "lesson" or "example." Its ghoulish displays are a stark reminder of just one critical influence – a wary anti-Americanism – on the thinking of its most famous inmate, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Holding absolute power at the top of Iran's theocratic regime today, Mr. Khamenei will make the decisions that yield war or peace, determine détente with the United States or another generation of hostility, and dictate how far Iran goes toward a nuclear weapons capability. Few other global actors will be more important to understand as President Obama begins a second term, with Iran dominating issues across the Middle East and beyond.

Yet to many, Khamenei, whose black turban denotes a direct line of descent from Islam's prophet Muhammad, remains an enigma. A bookish revolutionary cleric with a passion for poetry, who years ago wore his clerical collar in the style of the "chic sheikhs," he was once considered a liberal, and on one occasion in the late 1980s even challenged the absolute power of the post he now holds.

Since taking the top spot in 1989, Khamenei has been a calculating player on the world stage, never leaving Iran but claiming leadership, with endless rhetorical flourish, of a global Islamic revolution. He has survived assassination attempts, remains deeply paranoid about his personal security, and is preoccupied with what he sees as the threat to the Islamic republic from Velvet Revolution-style protests and "Westoxication." And despite having lesser clerical credentials than many of Iran's most senior theologians, who have chafed at Khamenei's role as velayat-e faqih – the supreme religious ruler, who is meant to be infallible – he has godfathered the unruly and often vicious political scene inside Iran for nearly a quarter century.

Today, Khamenei presents himself as an uncompromising commander of an ever-strengthening Iran-led "Axis of Resistance," locked in battle against what he lambasts as the declining "arrogant" power of the US, other Western nations, and Israel.

Yet Iran also faces a host of US-led sanctions that are targeting its economy, choking its oil exports, and cutting off its central bank to pressure the country into halting its nuclear program. Does Khamenei see a way beyond the covert war that has shaken Tehran in recent years with the assassination of nuclear scientists, unexplained explosions, and computer viruses aimed at Iran's nuclear facilities – all of which he blames on the US and Israel? And what will he do if Israel or the US bombs the country's nuclear sites?

While Khamenei may deeply distrust the West and see in all things a policy of regime change by Washington, Iran's supreme leader has often shown a pragmatic streak. He has long placed survival of the Islamic regime above all else. And his officials are now signaling a willingness to talk, and even to deal with the US – if the other side is ready, too.

"We should think of Khamenei as a person that has been swayed in different directions, depending on circumstances," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran analyst at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Khamenei's tremendous distrust of America is due to his long contact with Washington's anti-Iran policies, "not necessarily because of a reflexive anti-Americanism" that is "part of his DNA," says Ms. Farhi. "Yes, there is an incorrigibility on his part. But his history also shows that when he sees a possibility – a potential for a change in the American position – he assents to [exploring] it."

* * *

Deciphering Khamenei's worldview is possible by examining key moments in the supreme leader's history, in word and deed. Among the hundreds of framed mug shots that line walls at the prison museum, for example, is that of a younger, unsmiling Khamenei. He has a thick black beard, and his eyes look through large, slightly askew glasses, unimpressed and unflinching.

The picture was taken during one of Khamenei's six arrests. Painted over his prison number is the Persian year of his incarceration, which equates to 1974 – the same year Amnesty International reported Iran under the shah to have a "history of torture that is beyond belief."

These days student tours follow a trail of blood-red footprints painted on the floor from one torture room to the next, which are meant to illustrate the secret police's favored practice of whipping feet with metal cables and braided whips. No opportunity is missed to demonstrate a link between the pain inflicted upon Iranians, and the American CIA and Israeli Mossad trainers of SAVAK.

Many of the life-size torturers are made to look unmistakably like American agents, taller and lighter skinned, and wearing ties and suspenders. They stand over wax-figure victims that drip fake blood from their wounds. Some of the prisoners hang upside down, their bodies burned and lacerated.

SAVAK's old-school aim was to break its victims' will to resist, but the pain the torturers inflicted often just galvanized hatred of the shah and his American backers.

"US support for the dictatorial and suppressive rule of the shah was critical" to shaping Khamenei's views, says Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian ambassador and member of its national security council now at Princeton University in New Jersey, who met with Khamenei several times. "Ayatollah Khamenei's struggle against the shah dates back 15 years prior to the revolution. During this time he was repeatedly tortured, held in detention, and exiled. He saw in this repression the role of the US [and] their blatant support and hypocrisy."

Anti-Americanism has been a pillar of the revolution, codified by the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, in which 52 American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days. In the decades since, attempts have been made by both the US and Iran – authorized on the Iranian side by Khamenei – to find a less hostile modus vivendi. All have failed, victims of mismatched expectations, or miscommunication, or spoiler actions by hard-liners bent on preventing any deal. In some cases, it was simply one side unwilling to allow the other side anything it might use to declare a "victory."

It has all served to calcify levels of distrust. In 2008 Khamenei declared that "there hasn't been a day in which America has had good intentions toward Iran." Marking the anniversary of the embassy seizure, he said Iran's problem with the US was not over "one or two" issues that "we can resolve by sitting down and negotiating. The problem is like a matter of life and death."

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