Ayatollah Khamenei's Journey

"They are not going to answer your greeting," begins a poem that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knows well, and loved once. "Nobody is going to raise his head to answer a question or to see a friend." The verse was written in the time of the shah, in the 1950s, when Khamenei was a young, idealistic Shia cleric who shared with its hard-drinking author a sense of claustrophobic alienation and deep frustration. "Winter," by Mehdi Akhavan Sales, is about as vivid a metaphor for oppression—externally imposed, but deeply internalized—as you can find:

Now, in this summer of 2009 in the overheated air of Tehran's stifling streets, it is Khamenei himself who has come to symbolize for millions of Iranians that cold, hard weight of authority. (Story continued below...)

What is unfolding in Iran is no simple confrontation between tyranny and freedom. The protests, wave upon wave of them, have not overturned the regime, nor have they sought to do so. But 30 years after the Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah, they have remade the country's political landscape. They have eroded if not destroyed the credibility—forget infallibility—of Iran's theocratic leadership. And they have done so, in large measure, because of who this Supreme Leader is.

Like all revolutions, this one is a complicated contest of wills and visions, ambitions and grudges, with marchers and martyrs on the streets and Machiavellian conspirators behind closed doors. You have seen the shaky cell-phone videos that still escape the censors: the hundreds of thousands of people walking solemnly, silently, relentlessly through Tehran; the militia motorcycle gangs swinging truncheons; the occasional outbreaks of violence against government forces and buildings. You have seen, probably more than you would like, the sunken eyes and disconcerting grin of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose reelection in a supposed landslide brought on the crisis. Amid the crowds you've also watched the relatively unfamiliar face of the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, which in person and on posters has become an icon of hope.

In this kinetic, kaleidoscopic rush of images, however, Khamenei's appearances on state television have often seemed like static interludes. For Westerners who remember the first Supreme Leader, the fiery old Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei can seem a rather wan successor. On TV he is almost entirely without charisma, and early on was considered by some almost an accidental ayatollah, keeping the chair warm until someone better came along. For two decades he has maintained his position not through force of personality or even religious authority but by balancing factions, playing sides and portraying himself as above the fray.

In fact, he never was. And over the past four years, critics say, like a rich old man who starts to let servants run his life, he has indulged and defended Ahmadinejad, the most divisive figure in the country. "Like anyone who is in power for such a long time, Khamenei loves to be revered," says a politician who has known him for more than 40 years. Like most Iranians, he asked for anonymity to discuss the subject, the most sensitive in Iran. "It's amazing how much people can be deceived by flattery. This man, Ahmadinejad, is destroying the whole system of the Islamic Republic, which includes Mr. Khamenei. But Mr. Khamenei supports him because he sits like a mouse in front of him and kisses his feet."

Over the years, to cement his power base, Khamenei has also developed close relations with the military and security apparatus. He has built a vast bureaucracy inside the government and around his own Beit Rahbari, or House of the Leader. But all that left him ill prepared for the initial stages of this crisis: his weakness is in the street, which came out massively against Ahmadinejad after the allegedly rigged election, and within the theocracy, where his power has been challenged by a divided clergy whose deep and complicated rivalries date back decades.

At Friday prayers at Tehran University, one extraordinary week after Iranians went to the polls, Khamenei asked Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, along with the two other candidates—former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai and former Parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi—to attend the service and acquiesce to his judgment. Reporters who had been ordered not to step outside their offices earlier in the week were now invited to attend. The purpose, without question, was to show that the regime was still solid. ("They know that if they don't hang together, they'll hang separately," says Sir Richard Dalton, who was Britain's ambassador to Iran earlier in the decade.) In every past crisis, such a moment had come, and the old boys' club of the revolution had pulled together. But this time, things were different.

Mousavi had not come. Neither had Karrubi. And looking at Ahmadinejad in the front row of worshipers, obedient there beneath him, Khamenei warned those who were not so loyal. He was not going to back down, he said. There had been no fraud in the election, and even if there had, it wouldn't explain the 11 million votes that separated Ahmadinejad and his opponent. To attack the results was to attack the revolution. With his denunciations of the protests, Khamenei opened the way for the crackdown by security forces that everyone has known, and feared, might come. But the marchers would be to blame. "If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible," Khamenei said.

The speech, in fact, was the performance of the Supreme Leader's lifetime, beginning with the suggestion that to disobey him would be like betraying the Prophet Muhammad and ending with Khamenei speaking into the air, as if directly addressing the 12th Imam, who vanished 11 centuries ago. The faithful dissolved in ritual tears.

Speaking for more than 90 minutes, the 69-year-old Supreme Leader not only laid down the law, as he saw it, he laid out a vision of the world in which Iran is unique and proud and powerful and beset by enemies, especially the United States, Britain and Israel. There would be no new "velvet" revolution here, whether homegrown or financed from abroad. No foreigner had anything to teach Iran. "It was a Khomeini moment," according to one devout supporter of the Supreme Leader who clearly was surprised by the show. "He was strong and fearless." Even Mousavi supporters seemed taken aback. "We're entering a new period," said one.

Yet for all the virtuoso drama and rhetoric of victimization during his performance, Khamenei has brought much of the crisis on himself, critics say. "This is a classic case of power blindness," says a former ally. "Mr. Khamenei is really a smart, intelligent and cultured man. Even a moderate. But all those positive adjectives are forgotten when it comes to his own power."

According to people who know him well, Khamenei dreams of creating an Islamic caliphate, where life would be more just, more equitable for all of Iran's people. But the man he has chosen to implement that dream, President Ahmadinejad, is less an idealist than a self-serving populist. And another former associate of Khamenei says the ailing cleric's fixation on his utopian goal has given him a kind of tunnel vision, so that at times he can be oblivious to the present-day realities of his country and the burgeoning aspirations of a population that is young, educated and increasingly urban. They are, in fact, the kind of people who look on Ahmadinejad as an embarrassment, or worse, a provocateur who could drag the country into needless, costly confrontations with the rest of the world.

Again and again over the past year, and against the advice of many of his own supporters, Khamenei has linked his own fate to Ahmadinejad's. Last August, according to Rooz Online journalist Hossein Bastani, who is now living in France, the Supreme Leader met with Ahmadinejad's cabinet and sang the praises of the president in no uncertain terms. Ahmadinejad, he said, did not apologize for Iran's actions or go on the defensive; he took the offensive, and that made him better than his two immediate predecessors. About a month before the election, in a trip through the Kurdish areas of the country, Khamenei said flatly that he favored the kind of candidate who fights superpowers, lives simply and is fearless. He didn't name Ahmadinejad, but he might as well have been reading talking points from his campaign. "From then on," says a reformist politician who was close to Khamenei in the past, "the election was not about Ahmadinejad and Mousavi anymore. It was a referendum about the legitimacy of Mr. Khamenei's rule. He brought on the situation we are in now."

The treacherous crosscurrents inside the regime are fed by the pressure from the street but date back long before many of today's protesters were born. An old photograph of Khamenei as a young seminarian shows a beardless youth in a turban who already wears thick glasses; behind them, the expression in his eyes is of a boy looking inward, lost in thought. A photograph of his fellow seminarian Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from that same period in the 1950s suggests, beneath the white turban, a Type A personality who might, in an American context, be running for class president. Both of those young men committed themselves to making revolution as followers of Ayatollah Khomeini in Qum before his exile, and as activists inside the country—and often inside its jails—after Khomeini had been forced to leave. The relationships that took shape among the young mullahs then have continued to shape Iranian politics ever since Khomeini's revolution triumphed in 1979. Through the bloody consolidation of power, and the eight-year war against Iraq, they shored up their positions, sometimes in competition, sometimes in support of each other. The aging Khomeini continued, truly, to be the Supreme Leader to whom all turned for approval. And he rewarded fealty. "The revolution will be alive as long as Mr. Hashemi [Rafsanjani] is alive," said the Imam. And, "I've raised Mr. Khamenei myself."

During the war years, Rafsanjani became speaker of the Majlis, or Parliament, and a young leftist intellectual named Mir Hossein Mousavi became prime minister. Khamenei was president, but he and Mousavi often disagreed, and to his consternation, Mousavi often won.

Then the war ended in 1988 and in 1989 Khomeini died without a clear successor as Supreme Leader. The post was supposed to be held by a great scholar of Islam such as Khomeini had been, a grand ayatollah recognized by all Shia clergy as a marja, or source of emulation. But the most qualified cleric, the one who had been thought of for years as Khomeini's heir apparent, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, had fallen out of favor. The year before, when thousands of political prisoners had been massacred at Evin prison, Montazeri had spoken out. (Rafsanjani, Mousavi and Khamenei all remained silent.) Khomeini punished the dissident, dismissing him as "simple" and "not a statesman capable of running the country."

The decision about who would be the new Supreme Leader was up to a group of clergy called the Assembly of Experts. Rafsanjani went to work on them, using all his considerable political skills to get his old comrade named to the post. No matter that Khamenei was not considered an ayatollah, much less a marja. "Without Mr. Rafsanjani's support, Mr. Khamenei could never have become the Supreme Leader," says a source who was privy to the debates, but does not want to be quoted by name. "I witnessed how he worked night and day to convince the members of the Assembly of Experts and other senior clerics to support Mr. Khamenei. Even though Mr. Khamenei was not qualified to hold the position theologically, the Grand Ayatollahs agreed with Mr. Rafsanjani because they believed in him. It is fair to say Mr. Khamenei owes his position to Mr. Rafsanjani."

For his part, Rafsanjani became president and pushed through a new constitution that did away with the old, competing post of prime minister. (Mousavi retired from politics, until this year.) At the same time Rafsanjani strengthened the constitutional basis for the Supreme Leader to have the final decision on all major issues. But favors can be galling—especially for those who feel their authority could be undermined. A widespread assumption among Iran analysts in 1989 was that Rafsanjani had made Khamenei Supreme Leader because he thought he could control him. Khamenei probably suspected the same thing.

Once the two men held the highest offices in the land, the difference in their visions became clear. Rafsanjani's power base was among the merchant classes—"the bazaar," as they say in Iran. If he did not quite say, like some character from Wall Street, that "greed is good," he often gave the impression that that's what he believed. He put economic growth and development at the heart of his policies, and his family grew conspicuously rich.

Khamenei wanted instead to appeal to the Iranian masses. Since his early days immersed in scripture and poetry, he had loved to identify with "the oppressed," and he built his base of support in those institutions—the clergy, the military and the bureaucracy—where loyalty and obedience offered a path out of poverty. Since the war years in the 1980s, he had also forged close relations with the intelligence apparatus, perhaps convincing himself, as many a revolutionary has done, that the best way to prevent oppression is to eliminate enemies. In an article published last year in Foreign Affairs, Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji claimed that at Khamenei's very first meeting with cabinet leaders after taking his post as Supreme Leader in 1989, he put forth a "theory of terror" that would define his approach to security issues. "The majority of the people in the state are silent," he is supposed to have said. But "a selfless group of individuals can make the state endure by using terror."

Even if this were true, however, there was a complication. Iran had styled itself as an Islamic democracy, and, yes, compared with Saddam Hussein's Iraq or many other dictatorships in the Middle East, it was a bastion of relatively free expression. Its voters were given limited, carefully vetted choices, but there was some real competition. And what the ballot boxes showed in the 1990s was just how deaf the geriatric leadership and its hardline institutions had become to the changes taking place in Iranian society. Satellite television, which was illegal but commonplace, had offered a vision of a much wider world. Then came the Internet. Demands for greater freedoms and opportunities grew quickly in a population that was mostly under 30 and increasingly well educated.

When in 1997 the "reformist" candidate for president Mohammad Khatami, considered to have little chance by those who allowed him to run, wound up winning with a huge majority, the Supreme Leader perceived a threat. Khatami vowed to liberalize society and strengthen Iran's civil institutions, and for a brief time the winter of fear and repression seemed to have passed. But that Tehran spring did not last. Constant pressure from Khamenei—and also from Rafsanjani, operating behind the scenes to protect his vast interests—wore down the reformists and ate away at their credibility. So when Khatami announced his candidacy for a second term, it was literally with tears in his eyes, and even though he won, he operated in an ever more claustrophobic political space as supporters were shot or arrested or forced into exile.

The Supreme Leader, meanwhile, began turning to his second son, Mojtaba Khamenei, as his agent and enforcer. Some in the leader's house believe the 40-year-old cleric might one day inherit his father's position. But for now, Mojtaba has become the Supreme Leader's main conduit to the outside world, and an interpreter of what is happening on the street. "Mojtaba Khamenei thought that the reformists were betraying his father during the eight years of the Khatami presidency," says an ally of Rafsanjani who did not want to be cited by name. The fact that many of them had been activists and organizers of the popular uprising against the shah made them particularly dangerous. They knew how to work the streets. After Khatami's two terms, neither Mojtaba nor his father wanted to see them come to power again.

In 2005, Rafsanjani put himself forward as a candidate, looking to retake the office that term limits had made him relinquish in 1997. But whatever popular appeal he once had he'd lost among a populace who saw the old guard as corrupt and out of touch. Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad—the mayor of Tehran who was the son of a working-class family, a veteran of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards and willing to kiss the Supreme Leader's feet. Ahmadinejad won.

In the four years since, taking advantage of billions in windfall revenues from high oil prices, Iran has restarted its nuclear-enrichment program, funded Hamas as it took over Gaza, and supported and armed Lebanon's Hizbullah in its 2006 war with Israel. Indeed, Ahmadinejad has regretted that Israel even exists on the map. And Khamenei has been pleased. According to a European intelligence source, early in Ahmadinejad's first term, the man leading the country's nuclear negotiations presented several options about how and how fast Iran's nuclear program should proceed. Ahmadinejad said there was only one option: full-scale industrial production. Khamenei's response: Yes, that's what we will do. Early last year, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is at the center of the negotiations to end or contain the Iranian program, decided to meet with Khamenei directly. As the two of them drank tea in Khamenei's home, Mohamed ElBaradei says he was struck by how Khamenei "was fully briefed about what was going on—and full of distrust about Western intentions."

When President Barack Obama reached out to Iran with a Persian New Year greeting in March, Khamenei responded that if the United States changed its behavior, Iran could change too, leaving the door open for further talks. But all that has been complicated now by the election and its aftermath. Was it in fact fraudulent? Privately, American officials say there are indications of fraud, but that they believe Ahmadinejad would have won anyway. Khamenei's loyalists may have calculated—or miscalculated—that crushing numbers would help marginalize all their rivals: the remnants of the reformist movement; Rafsanjani and his allies; the dissident Ayatollah Montazeri; and others. A lot of old scores would be settled, and the regime would be that much stronger going into negotiations with the United States. Insecure leaders often practice overkill, and wind up still more insecure as a result.

There is a poetic irony here, perhaps. The greatest internal threat to the regime in its entire 30 years may have been provoked by rulers who felt they had to steal an election they'd already won.

Join the Discussion