America’s Real Problem in Iran: Ayatullah Khamenei

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by Michael Crowley,

from TIME Magazine,

The country’s most powerful person isn’t interested in diplomacy.

The Islamic Republic of Iran put its best face forward at the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City last month. In a room where Iran’s last President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reliably delivered anti-American tirades, his successor, Hassan Rouhani, spoke in friendlier tones. The smooth-talking Rouhani called the 9/11 attacks a “criminal act” and condemned extremism. He also called for further dialogue with the U.S. over Iran’s nuclear program. The next day, Iran’s Western-educated Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, visited U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s suite at the nearby Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where the men, joined by the E.U.’s top diplomat, spoke for three hours about how to resolve the long-running nuclear standoff.

But the man who calls the shots remained at home. Whatever the diplomats in Western suits were saying in Manhattan, a powerful cleric in dark robes and a black turban–a man who never leaves Iran and rarely speaks to Western officials–was railing against the U.S. back in Tehran. The day after Rouhani spoke of dialogue, the official Twitter account of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, posted an infographic titled “The Result of Negotiations With U.S.” The text declared the nuclear talks both “useless” and “harmful.” A cartoon image featured Kerry in suit and tie, pounding a negotiating table with his fist hard enough to knock over a water glass as he threatened Iran with military action.

Other recent tweets from Khamenei’s account, @khamenei_ir, have called the U.S. a bully, a threat to peace and a supporter of terrorism. In a recent interview on Iranian television, the Supreme Leader, who wields ultimate power in Iran, called Kerry a liar and said the U.S. coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)–a force that Iran opposes as well–is a mere excuse to dominate the Middle East.

Ten months into the slow-moving talks over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is clear that Khamenei is America’s real problem.

unlike Rouhani, the Supreme Leader looks backward, not forward. Iranian reformers want to embrace modernity and the outside world, but Khamenei sees himself as the guardian of an Islamic revolution that rejects the influence of both. Khamenei is a spiritual man, a lover of hiking, poetry and the writing of Victor Hugo and John Steinbeck. But he despises America, which in his view has long subjugated a nation heir to the great Persian empire and which seeks to topple his government. For Khamenei, it may simply not be possible to do a deal with the devil.

A few months after he took office in 2009, President Obama sent a secret message to Khamenei. It had been more than five years since the previous direct contact between America and Iran, and Obama wanted to restart a dialogue.

Khamenei surprised some Obama advisers by responding to the President’s letter. But he did so in a “very ranty” written message, filled with grievances about America’s treatment of Iran, says Samore. Obama followed up with a second letter but received no reply.

Four years passed with no further communication, until Rouhani’s June 2013 election.

Rouhani signaled that Tehran was prepared to discuss a nuclear deal. He appointed Zarif, who counts many American journalists and politicians as personal friends, as his top envoy.

Despite the overtures, skeptics warned Obama not to trust either Rouhani or Zarif.

Perhaps by showing a friendlier face to the world, Iran could get the sanctions lifted without making major concessions on its nuclear program. Whatever the motive, the new look worked, up to a point. Expectations soared. Notably, however, the Supreme Leader never spoke in such cheerful terms.

It was Khomeini who branded America “the Great Satan” and instilled a hatred for the West among his followers.

Almost every speech Khamenei delivers is shot through with that animosity. His rhetoric suggests a man who doubts that the U.S. could ever strike a deal in good faith. “America,” he said in a 2009 address, “appears with a deceitful smile but has a dagger behind its back … That is its true nature.”

In June 2009, a wave of street demonstrations in cities like Tehran and Isfahan erupted after Ahmadinejad won re-election in a seemingly rigged vote, … an unprecedented challenge to Khamenei’s power. In what became known as the Green movement, thousands of protesters denounced the Supreme Leader with chants of “Death to the dictator.”

Khamenei declared the protests the work of “espionage machines working for Zionists and the Americans.” Nonsense, perhaps, but revealing of his mind-set. The demonstrations were soon brutally suppressed by Iran’s hard-line security services.

Khamenei may have drawn mixed lessons from the Green movement, however. His tolerance for a reformer like Rouhani likely reflects anxiety that the sanctions could produce more social unrest.

Khamenei seems to believe that the benefits of a military nuclear capability outweigh the risks. Like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, he may believe a nuke is the only thing that can protect him from a hostile U.S.

But what he’s saying doesn’t give much reason for hope. Instead of a new partnership with Iran, the U.S. could be headed for a new conflict, one that the Supreme Leader may always have thought was inevitable.

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