Khamenei's outlook dims hope for Iran nuclear deal

LONDON Mon Feb 20, 2012 10:05am EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - As tensions over Iran's nuclear program ratchet higher once again, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's aversion for the West remains a formidable barrier to any diplomatic solution.

A visit by U.N. nuclear inspectors to Iran this week, a few days after Tehran wrote to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton promising "new initiatives" in negotiations, suggests the door to diplomacy has not slammed shut.

Harsher Western sanctions are damaging Iran's economy and Israel is debating military action, with or without a U.S. green light, lending fresh urgency to efforts to defuse the crisis over the Islamic Republic's sensitive nuclear activity.

Yet a sea change in policy seems unlikely while the tall, bearded Khamenei, 72, holds power in a country whose Shi'ite Muslim religious leadership has made "Death to America, death to Israel" its mantra since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

This month Khamenei said sanctions would not alter Iran's nuclear course, military threats would "harm America" and any nation or group fighting Israel, thought to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, would have Tehran's backing.

"In response to threats of oil embargo and war, we have our own threats to impose at the right time," he declared.

Khamenei has in the past denied that Iran seeks atomic bombs, saying: "It is against our Islamic thoughts."

But he has shown little interest in genuinely assuaging Western worries about Iran's activities, authorizing what the U.N. nuclear watchdog regards as only incomplete cooperation, as well as intermittent talks with six world powers that Western officials suspect Tehran pursues primarily to gain more time to attain nuclear "breakout" capability.

The bespectacled cleric, who ultimately decides all matters of state, including nuclear and foreign policy, simply does not trust the United States, once described by his late mentor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a wolf to Iran's lamb.

In 2009, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself no friend of the West, leaned toward a compromise involving a nuclear fuel swap to allay concerns about Iran's intentions, hardliners shot it down, apparently with Khamenei's blessing.

WARY OF RIVALS

Khamenei has long sought to ensure that no group, even among his conservative allies, musters enough power to challenge him.

And when Ahmadinejad appeared to do just that last year, Khamenei was swift to react, reinstating an intelligence minister sacked by the president against his will.

Iranian analysts say the Supreme Leader is keen to ensure that Ahmadinejad emerges weaker from next week's parliamentary election, expected to be mostly a contest among hardliners.

After Khomeini died in 1989, Khamenei, who served two terms as president in the 1980s, was picked to succeed him, a surprise choice for some, as he was then only a mid-ranking cleric. He was swiftly promoted to ayatollah.

Khamenei inherited enormous powers, but could not hope to emulate the towering political and religious authority of Iran's revolutionary founder. His allies say he tends to reach major decisions after consulting a tight-knit group of top officials.

He can count on the loyalty of the elite Revolutionary Guards and Basij religious militia, which quelled the worst unrest in the Islamic Republic's history after Ahmadinejad was re-elected in June 2009 in a vote opponents said was rigged.

TAKING SIDES

Khamenei then cast his weight behind Ahmadinejad, declaring that defeated opposition leaders would be responsible for any bloodshed in what proved to be eight months of street protests.

Soon after the election, Khamenei, the final authority in Iran's complex system of clerical rule and limited democracy, appeared to offer his own life for the Islamic revolution in an emotional Friday sermon that drew tears from the congregation.

"We will do what we will have to do," he said. "I have an unworthy life, a defective body and little honor, which was given to me by you. I will put all of these on the palm of my hand and spend them on the path of the revolution and Islam."

The message of the Supreme Leader, whose right hand was crippled in a 1981 assassination attempt, was that defiance of his will amounted to a counter-revolutionary act.

Khamenei should stay above the political fray, according to Khomeini's system of "velayat-e faqih", or rule by a religious jurist. His one-sided intervention in the uproar after the 2009 vote, which divided Iran's religious and political elite, further stoked a crisis of legitimacy that still lingers.

In practice, Khamenei has long favored hardliners, helping to thwart reforms and feelers toward the United States when the moderate Mohammad Khatami was president from 1997 to 2005, and for years backing his radical successor, Ahmadinejad.

In theory, he could be removed by the 86-man Assembly of Experts, but the clerical body is never known to have challenged a man who controls many of the levers of power.

Khamenei, whose black turban signifies he is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and appoints many senior figures, including the heads of the judiciary, security agencies and state radio and television.

Born into a clerical family in Mashhad in northeast Iran in 1939, he became involved with underground groups opposed to the U.S.-backed Shah in the 1960s and was jailed several times.

In a study of Khamenei's writings, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment argued that his hostility to U.S. "global arrogance" was matched by fear that any opening to the West would allow foreign influences to dilute Iran's Islamic purity.

"After three decades of being immersed in a 'death to America' culture, it may be asking too much for Khamenei to reinvent himself," Sadjadpour wrote.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Comments (3)
Logical123 wrote:
Why should anyone trust the US when it is makes up lies about the Iranian nuclear program and attempts to destroy Iran’s economy. The West has nothing to offer to Iran. So, let them remove all sanctions first and then Iran may talk seriously. Until then, it is all just smoke and mirrors.

Feb 20, 2012 11:16am EST  --  Report as abuse
I do not think they are lies about the nuclear program. Perhaps Ayatollah Khamenei would not use nuclear arms against Israel, but I am sure there would be many hardliners who would love to get their hands on them. It is both countries best interest not to use them, but men are imperfect and make rash decisions.

Feb 20, 2012 12:24pm EST  --  Report as abuse
sitthisoneout wrote:
Let’s recap history to help ponder this recent “Iran getting a bomb threat”. The cold war lasted for decades. The threat of mutual destruction was a gloomy policy that kept the world from nuclear extinction. The U.S.A. navigated from that to abandonment of patriotism in the name of greed. Big corporations committed treason in my opinion to convert huge profits into obscene profits by exporting our industry overseas. The wholesale exportation of our industries created a false economy during President Clinton’s tenure and President Bush inherited a budget surplus. Next we had a terrorist attack September 11, 2001 that knocked down the front doors to the United States of America and we went to war in Afghanistan to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Concern for our own well being here at home declined, and decent jobs for workers in the U.S.A. continued to disappear, as our nation engaged in yet another war in Iraq, based on false assumptions. Why was it okay to call spending on our infrastructure and education “wasteful” for the last twenty years, and yet it was okay to go trillions of dollars in debt to China to continue war? How did being “conservative” twist from being patriotic to focus on the bottom line? Not paying enough tax to stay afloat, and exporting our industry, embracing the greedy tempation of cheap overseas labor was wrong. These days we have the working poor calling for “conservatism”, and somehow bad mouthing the “freeloaders” is the answer to our deficit problems. There is an unimagineable difference between a million and a trillion, and the average American has no idea how rich the super-rich “1%” really is! If you raise tax on the 1% several percentage points it doubles the income of the U.S.A. gathered by the I.R.S. Now to the topic at hand. I understand there is a great concern that Iran is far more radical than the late U.S.S.R. ever was, and the media is pounding it into our heads that Iran with a nuke is bad. There is a big difference between the suicidal terrorist missions on the ground, and the super-rich rulers in Iran. Trust me, those rulers who push that kind of suicide, are not so quickly to engage themselves, there is a natural sense of self preservation. Iran’s rulers no more want a nuke dropped on Tehran than anyone else. An arms race in the Middle East is not the end of the world. Pushing the button is. Over history, common sense and self preservation kept missiles from being launched. The cold war was expensive. Those that can’t learn from history will undoubtedly repeat it. Israel has enough nukes to obliterate Iran entirely. Let’s sit this one out. We obviously couldn’t afford the last two wars. Take a cue from China who has sat back and watched for centuries. Let the Jews and Arabs fight their own battles. Let’s sit this one out America

Feb 20, 2012 1:27pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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