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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Two decades later, God's representative on earth took to another podium, this time to lead Friday prayers at Tehran University as Iran's Islamic regime faced its most serious crisis in a generation: the violent aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election.
Khamenei's turbulent tenure had turned his beard from black to white. As he stepped up to the lectern, he grasped the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle – a tradition of Friday prayer leaders throughout the revolution.
It was one week after the vote that had reinstalled the populist firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term as president. Khamenei had declared the result a "divine assessment," but millions of Iranians felt cheated, certain Mousavi had really won.
They took to the streets – as many as 3 million in Tehran in one day alone – carrying signs that read "Where is my vote?" Members of the ideological Basij militia cracked down on the protesters. More and more, Khamenei's portraits were torn down and torched amid chants of "Death to the dictator!"
Getting to that point had not been easy. When Khamenei was elevated to supreme leader in 1989, he was bestowed with Khomeini's title, but didn't inherit his charismatic magic – nor his theological gravitas. Throughout his career, higher-ranking clerics often took issue with his leadership, and its supposed "divine" status.
"In all his life, [Khamenei] was in the shadow of a greater authority, and that so bothered him," says biographer Khalaji. "When he was president, it was Khomeini, and when he became supreme leader, he [was not] recognized by the clergy [or by] the political elite of Iranian society – he was indebted to [many] other people."
When Khamenei favored the little-known Mr. Ahmadinejad, then mayor of Tehran, for president in 2005, he "thought that, finally, he had got rid of all those people who were bigger than him," says Khalaji. But Ahmadinejad was a hard-liner with little understanding of eco-nomics, who was seen by many as recklessly pushing Iran toward war with the US and Israel. Now, in 2009, his declared landslide victory had created an existential crisis, which Revolutionary Guard commanders would later admit took the regime "to the edge of a downfall."
Under pressure to ease the violence, Khamenei, at the prayer podium, didn't try to reassure the pro-democracy activists. Instead, he accused them of treason and being used by the "espionage machines working for Zionists and the Americans." He promised a fiercer crackdown.
Scores would die in the following months, as the regime crushed the opposition Green Movement. In Khamenei's worldview, the protests were no surprise. They were just the latest attempt by the US and European countries to back a nonviolent revolution like ones that had already been successful in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and other nations. US officials had trumpeted their role in funding and training pro-democracy groups in those countries, which led directly to changes of government.
In Iran, "they saw that the United States is willing and able to instill regime change in other countries that they don't like, and does that openly," says the senior European diplomat. "This is perceived as an ongoing threat."
Back in 1995, the CIA had launched a $2 million campaign to beam anti-regime propaganda into Iran. Later that year, Congress appropriated $18 million to aid what then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich called an effort to “force the replacement of the current regime” in Tehran.
Within days, the Iranian parliament ear marked $20 million in counterespionage cash to counter this “secret” US effort. While those tit-for-tat moves garnered headlines, Khamenei took a more serious step at self-education. In 1997, he ordered a wide-ranging examination of case studies of the decline of dictatorships around the world.
From the People Power revolt in 1986 in the Philippines, to Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution in 1989, to political prisoner Nelson Mandela's rise in South Africa, Khamenei wanted to know how it all happened – and what tactical role Washington had played.
In 2000, Khamenei hinted at the project. "I have now reached the conclusion that the United States has devised a comprehensive plan to subvert the Islamic system," he said, believing it would be an "imitation" of the plan that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The focus on the Soviet Union might be expected, considering it has long been an academic interest of Khamenei.
Khamenei reads two to three books a week, according to Khalaji, and sleeps only three to four hours a night.
"Many of these books are on classical literature, the political history of Iran and the world. He is a serious student of the Soviet Union," he says. "But on the other hand, don't forget that [Khamenei] doesn't know the West at all. He has never traveled to the West; he is not interested even in the literature of the 20th century."
"Everything he knows about the West is from the perspective of the books of the Soviet Union," Khalaji adds. "So somehow his mind is shaped by that literature."
Still, Khamenei is provided a several-page news digest every day. He randomly watches television news channels, including BBC Persian, which Tehran officials have excoriated for seeking to undermine the regime.
A decade ago he learned to use the Internet and sometimes surfs the Web, says Khalaji. A believer in art and science, Khamenei has also embraced some superstitions like bibliomancy – seeking guidance by reading random passages, often in sacred texts. He has also made regular visits to the Jamkaran mosque, south of Tehran, seeking guidance from the "missing" 12th Imam Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah.