BEIRUT (Reuters) - Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s deep aversion for the West dims any prospect of a lasting nuclear deal or a rapprochement with the United States.
A staunch defender of Iran’s nuclear program, Khamenei has in the past dismissed Western charges that his country wants atomic bombs, saying: “It is against our Islamic thoughts.”
Iran may or may not endorse a draft accord forged this week with three big powers and the U.N. nuclear watchdog on a plan to allay concern over its nuclear work, but a sea change in policy seems unlikely while the tall, bearded Khamenei holds power.
The 70-year-old cleric, who ultimately decides matters of state, simply does not trust America, once described by his late mentor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a wolf to Iran’s lamb.
“For Khomeini, enmity toward the United States was an important pillar of the revolution and it became central to the identity of the Islamic Republic,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I think that is the case for Khamenei as well.”
After Khomeini died in 1989, Khamenei was picked to succeed him, a surprise choice to some as he was then only a mid-ranking Shi‘ite 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 together led efforts to quell unrest after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected in June in a vote his opponents said was rigged.
But Khamenei has sought to ensure that no group, even among his conservative allies, gains enough power to challenge him.
Last month Khamenei accused the West of plotting the unrest sparked by Ahmadinejad’s re-election, but said war was unlikely.
“The enemy has come to confront the Islamic establishment with a psychological war,” he told an assembly of clerics. “One should not ignore the enemy’s plan to plot and sow discord.”
Sadjadpour, author of a study on Khamenei’s writings and speeches, said the leader’s anti-U.S. views had never wavered, although he might show tactical flexibility to preserve clerical rule in tough times, such as the post-election crisis.
“What’s interesting is that he does not fear military action. He is obsessed with the idea of velvet revolution.”
Khamenei believes that more interaction with the West, which might accompany the kind of fence-mending political engagement envisaged by U.S. President Barack Obama, could fatally dilute Iran’s Islamic revolutionary culture, Sadjadpour argued.
“So in a way a rapprochement with the United States is more of an existential threat to him and to the hardliners in Tehran than the status quo,” he added.
Khamenei has clearly favored hardliners, helping to thwart reforms when the moderate Mohammad Khatami was president from 1997 to 2005, and backing his radical successor, Ahmadinejad.
He surprised many Iranians by overtly supporting Ahmadinejad after the June election, even though he should stay above the day-to-day political fray, according to the Khomeini-instituted system of ‘velayat-e faqih’, or rule by a religious jurist.
The supreme leader’s decision to take sides in an upheaval that divided Iran’s religious and political elite stoked a crisis of legitimacy created by the storm over the election.
In theory Khamenei 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.
Nevertheless, he drew sharp criticism of his handling of the post-election protests from defeated presidential candidates and from some senior clerics, such as his old rival, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had been in line to become supreme leader until he fell from grace shortly before Khomeini’s death.
Khamenei, a former president fiercely loyal to Khomeini, lost the use of his right arm in a 1981 assassination attempt.
Born into a clerical family in Mashhad in northeast Iran in 1939, he became involved with underground groups opposed to the pro-Western Shah in the 1960s and was jailed several times.
Carnegie’s Sadjadpour said Khamenei had left a consistent paper trail of anti-American speeches and writings that revealed no yearning for a fundamental rapprochement with Washington.
“Does he wake up in the morning thinking to himself ‘how do we do a deal today with the U.S.?’ I don’t think that’s how Khamenei sees the world.”
Editing by Samia Nakhoul