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.
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In Pictures Khamenei: The Iron Ayatollah
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An unlikely site of pilgrimage is nestled in a decrepit north Tehran neighborhood, where small electrical and furniture shops give way to the steep rocky outcrops of the Alborz Mountains. It is here in Jamaran where the father of Iran's revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, chose to live and preach after returning from exile in 1979. Existing ascetically on bread and yogurt, onions and garlic, he presided thunderously over an Islamic resurgence that shook the world.
It was Mr. Khomeini whose cutting words from exile galvanized anger against the shah, declaring in 1971, for example, that the term "king of kings," used by Iranian monarchs, was the "most hated of all titles in the sight of God." Their crimes "have blackened the pages of history," Khomeini railed, as the shah marked the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire with a lavish culinary spectacle while some Iranians were starving.
Khomeini's cramped home in Jamaran was connected to a small prayer hall with high windows and meager space for kneeling believers. Herds of visiting schoolchildren file through the site today, where a brass plaque states that this "very modest and humble house" became the center for the hearts of "millions of Muslims" and "disturbed the sweet dreams of the tyrants in the world." Inside, a banner burnishes his legacy: "This revolution is not known anywhere in the world without the name Khomeini."
Khamenei was a favorite pupil of Khomeini's from the early 1960s, but his tenure as supreme leader will never be lionized in the same way. Indeed, Khamenei has long labored in the shadow of more powerful figures, or alongside more flamboyant ones, starting with his own father.
Khamenei was born in the shrine city of Mashhad, burial place of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite imam. For him, joining the clergy was expected.
"One of the fundamental experiences in his life was his relation with his father, [which] was very, very problematic, and I think made him lose his self-confidence," says Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran specialist at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who is writing a biography of Khamenei. "His father was aggressive [and] not communicative. [Khamenei] didn't want to become a cleric; he became a cleric. He wanted to leave Mashhad. He went to Qom – his father pressured him, so he didn't stay long. He went back. His father was against his political activities; his father was almost always against anything he has done."
One result, Mr. Khalaji suggests, is that Khamenei is "not able to make big decisions and take responsibility for them. He wants to have full authority without full responsibility, because he is afraid – he's not like Khomeini, who had no shame about making a decision and pronouncing it."
Khamenei's passion for literature began at an early age, when his mother would recite the poems of the Persian writer Hafez and tell him stories from the Quran. In Mashhad, Khamenei joined a literary association and hobnobbed with poets and writers. He kept up poetry readings when pursuing seminary studies in Qom and was later nicknamed the "poet president."
Iran's future leader also once had a love of music. By one account, in 1988 – when most forms of music were outlawed – he was asked by law students how they could tell which music was forbidden. He responded: "When in doubt ... listen to it."
Khamenei's time in prison, some three years in total, was another formative period in his life. In 1974 he shared that tiny cell, meant for one, with Houshang Asadi, a communist who came to be impressed with the solemn religiosity of his fellow inmate. Mr. Asadi respected Khamenei's humanity – at one point, they both hand-fed another prisoner for days – and his quick humor. Khamenei had a "sweet laugh" and was "always cheerful and up for a joke," recounts Asadi in his 2010 memoir, "Letters to My Torturer."
"He would recite the Quran quietly, he would pray, and then he would weep, sobbing loudly," writes Asadi. "He would lose himself completely to God. There was something about this type of spirituality that appealed to the heart."
Despite their different backgrounds, the two men formed a close bond. When they parted, Asadi recounts, he gave the thin and shivering Khamenei his sweater, and felt the "warm tears ... running down his face" as they embraced.
"Under an Islamic government, not a single tear would be shed by the innocent," Khamenei told him.
That was a promise that would not be kept, as Asadi discovered in 1983, when security forces loyal to Khomeini arrested him. Years of torture followed – the cruelty, as he described it, far worse than anything he had experienced under the shah. In fact, the thousands of political prisoners killed in the first decade of the Islamic revolution far outstripped the less than 100 recorded as dying in the shah's last decade.
In 1979, Khamenei became a Tehran Friday prayer leader and a deputy defense minister. His behind-the-scenes role in organizing Iran's military in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War led to an assassination attempt in 1981, when a tape recorder packed with explosives blew up during a press conference, paralyzing his right arm.
That blast – and another one two days later that killed 73 senior officials and would eventually pave the way for Khamenei's election as president – contributed to his wariness about personal security. In public, Khamenei wears a bulletproof vest beneath his clerical uniform and has bought a $7 million bombproof BMW, says Khalaji: "He's very sensitive about his security team; he actually manages these things himself – he is extremely paranoid about this sort of thing."
The vast carnage of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s – and the West's support for Saddam Hussein during it – added to Khamenei's conspiratorial distrust. Roughly 400,000 people died in the conflict.
While Iraqi forces used chemical weapons extensively, Tehran never unleashed them in return. Western chemical assistance to Baghdad and US intelligence help, including satellite imagery that made Iraqi chemical strikes more lethal, drove up Iran's death toll.
Many grievances have fueled the Islamic revolutionary chants of "Death to America!" over the years – starting with the 1953 coup, the first-ever conducted by the CIA, that reinstalled the detested shah. But US support in the 1980s for Iran's sworn enemy was seen as grievous proof of American perfidy.
"One real damaging episode was the [Iraqi] gas attacks on the Kurdish areas," says a veteran European diplomat. Even after it was clear that Iraq had carried out the atrocity, which killed 5,000 civilians, international reaction was mute to the first use of weapons of mass destruction since World War II. "This comes up over and over and over again," notes the diplomat.
For Khamenei, that confirmed the righteousness of Iran's revolution: "Remaining alive under [subjugation] to the rule of the superpowers is, in reality, death," he declared in 1980, "while [death] through cutting the bloody claws of the superpowers is life."
Throughout his two terms as president, Khamenei was often locked in political battle with Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi – the man who would be a presidential candidate in 2009 and whose defeat sparked the opposition Green Movement and street protests. During the 1980s, disputes between the two men would be taken to Khomeini, who often ruled on the side of Mr. Mousavi.
Khamenei didn't distinguish himself as president and was only a mid-ranking cleric at the time. As journalist Elaine Sciolino reports in her book "Persian Mirrors," just months before Khomeini's death in 1989, Khamenei said: "I'm not qualified to be Supreme Leader. It's not the proper place for me."
In fact, history shows how reluctant Khamenei was to accept the role. Within hours of Khomeini's death, the Assembly of Experts met to choose a successor, to transfer God's authority from one mortal to the next. A videotape of the meeting, made public in 2008, reveals how one regime official conveyed stories about Khomeini's quiet support for Khamenei. The constitution had been changed in previous months to accommodate Khamenei's lesser theological credentials – he wasn't even an ayatollah, much less a top-flight "source of emulation" for Shiite followers. Still unconvinced was Khamenei himself, who stood up from his red leather seat in the chamber and took the podium, despite the chants of approval from other clerics. He stuttered, and finally said: "I'm against this, anyway."
Khamenei was shouted down, calls of "God is great!" went up, and the chairman concluded that "with this decision the hope of our enemies ... will be turned to hopelessness."