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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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.