Iran’s Supreme Leader: Fanatic or “Genius”?

A diatribe against Israel and the U.S. stokes fears about whether Iran can be trusted

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Reuters

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greets clerics during a meeting in Tehran in 2009.

The most powerful man in Iran certainly has a way with words. He calls America “the devil incarnate” with plans for “evil domination of Iran.” Negotiating with the United States, he said in 2009, would be “naive and perverted.” He warns that the west is plotting to “arouse sexual desires” in Islamic Iran, because “if they spread unrestrained mixing of men and women… there will no longer be any need for artillery and guns.”

The words of that man, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are of extreme interest to the United States. Enough so that the National Security Agency reportedly tracks Khamenei through a secret surveillance project dubbed Operation Dreadnaught, although one former U.S. official tells TIME the spying reveals more details about Khamenei’s movements than his mindset.

No eavesdropping was necessary on Wednesday, however, when Khamenei was at it again—delivering a typically bellicose public speech in Tehran just as negotiators arrived in Geneva for a new round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program. He called Israel a “rabid dog” government, “doomed to failure and annihilation,” and run by sub-human leaders: “They are like animals, some of them.”

He also assailed the “arrogance” of the U.S. and added that, in the nuclear talks, Iran “will not step back one iota from our rights.”

The televised diatribe to an audience of 50,000 Basij militia men, who thrust their fists in their air and chanted “Death to America,” cast a pall over the Geneva talks—and left U.S. officials awkwardly signaling their disapproval without picking a rhetorical fight that could upset the delicate negotiations.

“Obviously, comments like these are not helpful,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki gingerly told reporters in Washington. “But we still believe that both sides are negotiating in good faith.” A French official was firmer, calling the Supreme Leader’s words “unacceptable” and saying they would “complicate” the talks.

The generally reclusive Khamenei’s appearance on the public stage was a timely reminder that behind the gentle faces the regime has presented to the outside world recently is a vitriolic figure who, some observers fear, may be incapable of reaching an agreement with America and its allies. Khamenei, who rules by supposed divine right, would have veto power over any potential nuclear deal struck by his foreign minister in Geneva, even if Iranian president Hassan Rouhani supports it as well.

“He has a very deeply ingrained suspicion, and I would say hatred for the United States,” says Gary Samore, who served as White House coordinator for weapons of mass destruction and arms control and is now president of United Against Nuclear Iran. “It really is defining for Khamenei.”

“He is an isolated, paranoid figure who is convinced the U.S. and west raise concerns over the nuclear  program only as fig leaf for hidden goal of regime change,” says another former Obama administration official who worked closely on Iran issues.

Khamenei has said as much in public.  In an address earlier this month, he said Iran had gotten nothing in return for suspending its uranium enrichment during 2003 negotiations with the west, arguing that “it became clear that [Iran’s] problems will not be solved by retreating, suspending enrichment activities, postponing our work and cancelling many of our plans and programs. It became clear that the other side is after something else.”

“Whenever they smile,” he groused in November 2009, “when we carefully look at the situation, we notice that they are hiding a dagger behind their back.”

But amid his bilious rhetoric Wednesday, some saw glimmers of hope that Khamenei—who became Supreme Leader in 1989 following the death of his mentor, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini—may have hinted at a coming agreement with Washington: “We want to have friendly relations with all nations, even the United States,” he said. “We are not hostile to the American nation,” only to America’s political leaders.

Such a diplomatic thaw would not be one borne of a sudden love for Miley Cyrus and JP Morgan, to be sure. Rather, it would be a strategic conclusion that his regime is threatened by sanctions and domestic discontent caused by the standoff with the West.

“The real experts who understand Iran’s system — they see the Supreme Leader as not very supreme,” says Samore. “He’s constantly balancing a very fractious and obscure and diverse coalition of people. And he’s very aware that a lot of the public is dissatisfied and unhappy. Especially the better educated. Even more than Obama, he’s constratined by all these factions that he has to deal with — including the very hard-core Revolutionary Guard.”

“I do think he’s prudent,” says Ray Takeyh, an Iranian-American Middle East expert with the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official. “He does not let go of his final objectives—which in his case is not just maintenance of the regime but also the ideological character of the regime—but he is capable of tactical modification. Which is why he is the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East.”

Khamenei has always been an insecure ruler, says Mehdi Khalaji,  a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is writing a political biography of the Supreme Leader. He lacks the charisma and the theological credentials of his revolutionary predecessor, Khomenei. “The lack of self-confidence makes him very cautious about trusting anyone,” Khalaji says. “Even in domestic politics, he doesn’t have friends.” (The distrust may be enhanced by his near-assassination in 1981 by an exploding tape recorder planted at a press conference by a radical opposition group.) He has compensated in part with crowd-pleasing anti-American vitriol, which also connects him to the Islamic revolution’s anti-western origins.

But the prospect of a possible deal of necessity with America may now be leading him to focus on Israel as compensation. “As Iran approaches some kind of détente with the West, we can expect its rhetoric on Israel to become harsher,” Brandon Friedman, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, tells the Jerusalem Post.

That would be more consistent with the image of a canny leader, not a fanatic unable to adjust to political realities. “I have to say, the guy is a first-class genius,” Takeyh adds. “This guy is Bismarck with a turban.”

There is some surprising evidence of intellectual depth. According to the Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji, Khamenei is a lover of Tolstoy, Balzac and Victor Hugo, whose Les Misérables, Khamanei said in 2004, “is the best novel that has been written in history… a miracle in the world of novel writing.”

More important than gauging his intellect, however, is what the former Obama official calls “the million dollar question”: whether or not Ali Khamenei can be trusted. That remains the supreme mystery about the Supreme Leader.

17 comments
smithsaedd
smithsaedd

I am sure Khamenei's puppets in Iran are reading this and bragging about how you used the word "Genius" for their master! When I read this it sounded like calling Hitler a Genius. How can you call Shah a "...thug at home"? You should avoid writing about subjects that you have a remote understanding about them or your understanding is a result of collection of false information you have received on some books or on the internet. Shah was much more educated and smarter than any other leader in Middle-East. If genius Jimmy Carter wouldn't have pulled the rug from under the Shah of Iran we wouldn't have had so much skirmishes in the Middle-East now. We wouldn't have had a powerful Hizbollah and Hamas in Shah's watch and you can guess the rest.

Middle-East is not your piece of cake, brother. Don't even try it! 


seaniemurphylumphammer
seaniemurphylumphammer

Ayatollah Khamenei is the Shah of Iran. But he is also seriously mentally ill. He suffers from manic depression and believes everyone is out to get him. Yes, he may be correct in his summation of The West and Israel to an extent but a cleverer leader who is mentally stable would take advantage of relationships with the West even if they personally did not approve. I'd say this is Rouhani's position. Khamenei also has the luxury of following Ayatollah Khomeini's model (Khomeini also suffered from depression). Yet, it is strange that a priest (Ayatollah is the Iranian term for Cardinal) to show such hatred of others which goes against Christian beliefs (and yes, Islam is a breakaway Christian sect that believes in Allah as god and both Mohammed and Jesus as prophets, but not son of god. Islam believes in nonracist and loving views of all). But, then we have had Brendan Smith as a priest here.

ScarfoZiokiller
ScarfoZiokiller

usa land of terror.  finance all the wars and killings. you have killed most people in the world always long away from your own land. and you have worlds most missing kids.fuckin zionist and satanist and gays. you so proud of be those things. i spit on your graves.

american zionist regime your guarddogs will fall soon

Ancient
Ancient

US population seems to have been brainwashed by the media and neither the public nor the media is able to read or listen to anything but "SOUND-BYTES"

Firstly, lets look at the sequence of events:

1- 2003 Iran agreed to freeze their nuclear program in return for P5+1 to provide some aircraft spare pats and some other "minor" benefits! Iran was asked to take the first step! Iran took the first step, only to find out that after many months of discussion, it was clear that US & Europeans (specially France and UK) were playing for time and had no intentions of fulfilling their own obligations, not even US built civilian aircraft parts were approved to be sold to Iran!

This was a clear betrayal of the trust and demonstrated BAD FAITH by the P5+1.

2- After so many years, they got back together again, new players, new Iranian leaders...and they finally met in Geneva in November, where the US AUTHORED the terms of the agreement that was "acceptable to US and P5+1), on Thursday November 8th, Iran agreed the terms and gave a "VERBAL OK" as they started to finalize the details.

When France FM was told that Iran was agreeable to the terms, ONLY THEN he said, he rejected the agreement and demanded to scrap half of the agreement document and include other items.....

US, UK, Germany, Russia and China, including Ashton were taken by surprise about this behavior and tactic, so was Iran! The rest of this has now been publicized already.

This was another clear BREACH OF TRUST by US and the Europeans. To make matters worse, US Secretary Kerry, subsequently blamed Iran !!

Again, Iran was being manipulated and double crossed during a negotiations, just like they were in 2003.

How the US, France and UK and the western media can talk about TRUST and the fact that they can't trust Iran is unbelievable and a blatant LIE!

IS IT REALLY SURPRISING THAT IRAN DOES NOT TRUST US, FRANCE and UK?

3- To top this all, the western propaganda machine of the "so called independent media" keeps distorting facts and statements.

US Congress, Senate and Israeli leaders have constantly threatened Iran and Iranians (the population) with bombing, war, destruction.....and this is all just taken as NORMAL and ACCEPTABLE

But the Iranian Leader makes a statement about "The Israeli Regime leaders, SOME OF THEM" being like a "Rabid Dog of the Middle East" and Netanyahu says in response "see, he is saying that all Jews are......." How can anyone with a grain of intelligence or integrity take any such rubbish coming out of the western media or Netanyahu seriously and WITHOUT CHALLENGE!

When will someone find the BASIC INTEGRITY to say to the Emperor that HE IS NOT WEARING ANY CLOTHS!

Given THE FACTS and at least based on the current evidence, we can certainly believe Iranians MUCH MORE than the US, French or UK politicians or the western mainstream media!

alan9644
alan9644

If the USA signs anything with Iran, this country should settle on Washington DC like flies on old meat.  Iran must be hung by its own petard.  It is time to tighten the noose.  Obama (and Kerry) have made yet another blunder by initiating these Geneva talks.  Obams's second term is beginning to look like the worst term any president has ever served.  Bad for him--but that is his problem.  Bad for us--that is our problem.  We must not allow these talks to proceed.  Let Israel and Saudi Arabia deal with this and may the Saudis have the will to WORK with Israel on this one.  Saudi money and Israeli genius and courage.  They will figure out how to deal with the most dangerous terrorist state in the world today.

jaelleofcanaan
jaelleofcanaan

“He is an isolated, paranoid figure who is convinced the U.S. and west raise concerns over the nuclear  program only as fig leaf for hidden goal of regime change,”

That's NOT paranoia, stupid. That's a firm grasp on the real world. He is absolutely correct in his view of the USA's objectives.

Never ceases to amaze me how Americans ALWAYS call world leaders they don't like "paranoid" because those world leaders ACCURATELY and CLEARLY understand that the US' ultimate aim is to undermine them and unseat them from power.

I guess Gaddhafi and Saddam were "paranoid" too about American objectives toward them.

jimmyjimmyjimmy111
jimmyjimmyjimmy111

This is the kind of sensationalist reporting that is a good indication of the extent of Western hubris. Khamenei's distrust of the U.S. is based on solid evidence. Iranian forces under the command of Khamenei cooperated with and helped U.S. forces in Afghanistan post Sept-11 on an unprecedented level. This included providing maps of Taliban positions, fighting alongside U.S. troops etc. What did they get in return? "Axis of evil." The history repeats itself over and over: Every time Iran makes a conciliatory move, the U.S. arrogantly turns away. Want another example? Iran negotiated a solution to the nuclear energy stand off with Turkey and Brazil. Both Turkey and Brazil presented an agreement that Obama had sold. When Turkey and Brazil proudly announced that a deal had been reached, the U.S. reneged. Brazil and Turkey were outraged. Iran was not surprised. This is typical trashy, voyeuristic journalism that Time.com engages in and is the bane of U.S journalism. Khamenei is a very rational player on the international stage. To pick his statements apart in order to ridicule him does not acknowledge the fact that he has successfully led Iran during a very turbulent 30 years. To call him "isolated" is a joke. World leaders from all over the globe regularly visit. He is in touch with the Iranian public. He has his hands on the international and domestic pulse. He has personally supervised the humiliation of the U.S. in Syria and forged a strong alliance with Russia and China. What a joke Time.com has become. Did it every occur to the mediocre Crowley that Khamenei's latest speech may in fact be a shrewd move to leverage the current ongoing negotiations? The Iranian negotiators can say "see, we need to hurry before the hardliners come back to power." Of course Crowley can't think past his career trajectory at Time.com. Khamenei has shown himself to be a very smart, shrewd, disciplined and rational leader. Attributes that Crowley's TMZ like journalism certainly doesn't have. 

DarianL.Smith
DarianL.Smith

As long as he directs and nurtures the persecution of the Baha'i Faith in  his own country, we know he is a paranoid fundamentalist who terrorizes the best of his people.

jmac
jmac

Shavit (My Promised Land)   -   Shavit argues that Israel can't afford to just wait for every Palestinian to embrace a Jewish state.  It must find a way to separate from the West Bank, as it did in Gaza, otherwise the spreading Jewish settlements there will be the virus that kills the original Israel.   (from NY Times article)

It's time.  Now's the time for negotiations.   Either we do it now or Iran continues on and Israel bombs them and  -   the same old same old.   The world has grown weary of the Middle East - weary of both sides.  

paulejb
paulejb

With Barack Hussein Obama as the opposition even Harpo Marx would seem to be a genius. Khamenei is just lucky to be dealing with a neophyte who makes Jimmy Carter look like Winston Churchill.

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

So, even in a theocracy where there exists a Supreme Leader there is a need to walk a tight rope and balance the political reality with the political ideologues.

Heh, heh!

paulejb
paulejb

Genius? Only if one of the definitions of genius is rabid, paranoid loon.

jimmyjimmyjimmy111
jimmyjimmyjimmy111

@DarianL.Smith The head of Savak, the notorious secret police under the Shah that tortured and murdered Iranian on regular basis was a Baha'i. The Baha'i cooperate with Israel and one of their main temples is in Haifa. If American Baha'is undertook the torture and persecution of Americans and coddled up to China, the results would be the same. Get a life and read a book. 

kinolurtz
kinolurtz

@ViableOp They not only went out of their way to prevent sanctions, they lifted bans on certain chemicals required to create chemical weapons, so that they could legally supply them to the Saddam regime. In other words, they helped supply the chemical weapons that killed unbelievable numbers of Iranians. Its no wonder that those in Iran old enough to remember have no great love for the US.

Hotpuppy
Hotpuppy

@kinolurtz @ViableOp The Iranians would do good to also remember that the United States is the only country that has used Nuclear Weapons in war.  History has a way of repeating itself and their options are being a memory or going along with not being a nuclear nation.  Really simple choice.  If they continue down their current path, Saudi or Israel will attack them and they will retaliate, causing the US to put them back a few hundred to thousand years.  I would be far more worried about a tactical nuclear strike from the US than a nuclear armed Iran.