On the eve of the U.N.’s nuclear deadline for Iran, Gareth Smyth of London's Financial Times analyzed the crisis from the point of view of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 67, who has held that position for 17 years.[1]  --  Smyth’s article is not very illuminating.  --  It fails to point out, for example, that months before his death in June 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, bowing to political reality, decided to dismiss a designated successor and strengthened the Iranian state by revising the 1981 constitution to increase the political and decrease the religious nature of the controversial ‘velayat-e faqih’ (‘guardianship of the Islamic jurist’).  --  The result was “to strengthen and partially rationalize the central government and increase and politicize the consitutional nature and powers of the faqih,” or Islamic jurist (Nikki Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution [Yale University Press, 2003], p. 261....


In depth


By Gareth Smyth

Financial Times (UK)
August 30, 2006


Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became Iran’s supreme leader in 1989 as the country faced the huge task of recovering from the eight-year Iraq war with little assistance from an outside world that had generally backed Baghdad.

As the U.N. Security Council deadline expires on Thursday for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, its most sensitive nuclear activity, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is now 67, may again face a defining period where he must rally the nation.

When he succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he lacked his predecessor’s religious pre-eminence and his stature as the popular figure of the revolution that in 1978-79 toppled the Shah, a significant U.S. ally.

Partly as a consequence, Ayatollah Khamenei has rarely led from the front.

“On the nuclear issue, he waits to see what the Supreme National Security Council decides, and goes with the majority,” says Nasser Hadian, politics professor at Tehran University.

But the supreme leader has almost unassailable powers under Iran’s Islamic constitution. Among his direct appointments are the heads of the armed forces and the top posts in the state media. His “office” has a leading government role with representatives in every state institution, and he has the right to declare war or peace.

Born to a clerical family in the holy city of Mashhad, eastern Iran, Ali Khamenei studied at seminaries in Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, becoming active in the opposition to the Shah. After the revolution, he became a parliamentary deputy and was in 1981 elected president.

Before and after becoming leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has often sided with Iran’s conservatives. In the 1997 presidential poll, he did not conceal a preference for the conservative Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, and when the reformist Mohammad Khatami won, Ayatollah Khamenei allowed conservatives to undermine him, especially through the judiciary.

Fundamentalist conservatives refer to him as the “leader of the Islamic Revolution,” stressing his international role in guiding Muslims, especially Shia. In this guise, he often appears austere in public, fanning the demonization of the U.S. and the practice of burning U.S. and Israeli flags.

With few exceptions, only Muslim heads of state have met him and Western leaders complain they lack direct access. Their frustration is not eased by Muslim officials -- including, recently, the Saudis -- who visit Ayatollah Khamenei and then portray him as more compromising than the West believes.

Iranians who know the leader -- through family connection, official position or, as is often the case in Iran, both -- say he is privately more approachable. “He used to spend a lot of time hiking or horse-riding,” says one official.

“He has a simple life and a simple household,” says another. “He’s also very cultured. You can’t mention a good novel he hasn’t read, and he’s written notes on the margins of most of them.”

Many in Tehran say Khamenei has mellowed from backing the conservatives to seeking unity among all those supporting the Islamic Republic. Last year, he instructed the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog, to reinstate two reformist candidates in the presidential election.

He has certainly developed a close political relationship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the fundamentalist president, and shares his belief in ‘social justice.’

But he has also worked, in domestic and foreign policies, to balance the president’s sometimes raw zeal against criticism from reformists and pragmatic conservatives.

In March, he gave public backing to possible talks with the U.S. about Iraq, despite strong objections from fundamentalists, a move that led to Iran’s stance that it will negotiate over the nuclear program with the U.S., alongside other leading powers, as long as Iran’s “rights” are respected.

Given the factional and sometimes conspiratorial nature of Iranian politics, there has been speculation over the succession to Ayatollah Khamenei. It has focused on elections in December for the Assembly of Experts, the body of senior clerics that chooses the supreme leader.

The Experts Assembly sits for eight years, and so there is a chance the new one will pick Iran’s third supreme leader.

But in the shorter term, Iranian officials, whatever their disagreements over tactics and over other policies, have closed ranks over the country’s nuclear program. This unity is forged in a core leadership group of about eight.

“There are differences over how far we can build trust with Europe, but leading figures share the same view of our national interest,” says Mohammad Atrianfar, editor of Shargh, the reformist newspaper. “The leadership is thinking together, with the leader at the core.”