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A far greater believer in the power of Jamkaran is Ahmadinejad, who last year boldly challenged Khamenei's diktat and lost – raising questions about Khamenei's "infallible" decision to back the divisive president in 2009.
"The hard-line [faction in] Iran has essentially tied its fortunes completely to Khamenei; it has said repeatedly that 'whatever [Khamenei] says is right,' " says analyst Farhi. "And what can you say against God's representative on earth, if he makes a decision?"
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Crucial decisions are due on Iran's nuclear advances and US-Iran ties in the coming months that will test whether Khamenei's current mood is one of flexibility or hostility.
In US intelligence circles, the view has been that Khamenei isn't completely unpredictable, even if debate continues about the scale of his intransigence. The 2007 American National Intelligence Estimate on Iran found that the country made strategic moves based on a rational "cost-benefit analysis." By January this year, that assessment by all US intelligence agencies had not changed.
The result of Mr. Obama's overtures to Iran in early 2009 provide a useful example. Determined to change the US tone toward Iran, Obama said one week after his inauguration: "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." Later, Obama marked the Persian New Year, calling for a "new beginning" with Iran.
Khamenei, with uncharacteristic speed, replied the next day in a speech. He cataloged decades of Iranian grievances and said Obama had "insulted Iran" from his first days in office. If the US offer was an "iron hand covered with the velvet glove," it would not do. Yet Khamenei promised: "You change, and we will also change our behavior, too."
Since then, Iran's 2009 election crisis has complicated the dynamic. So have a host of other factors – the covert US war, the Stuxnet computer virus, the crippling sanctions, and the recent US removal from its terrorist list of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK/MKO), a cultlike group that opposes Iran's regime and has been linked to the assassinations of scientists in Tehran. So far this year, three rounds of high-level nuclear talks between Iran and nuclear powers have produced little progress.
"[Khamenei's] mind-set is that under threat and pressure, to show flexibility or compromise would be seen as a weakness," says Mr. Mousavian, the former member of Iran's national security council. "Therefore under such conditions, he consolidates and hardens his position. This is critical in understanding the position of Iran on nuclear negotiations."
Khamenei's reaction to any attack by Israel or the US on Iran's nuclear facilities would likely be even more truculent. The concept of "resistance" has been fundamental to the Islamic revolution since its inception in 1979, enabling Iran, its leaders say, to finally reverse 200 years of "shameful weakness" at the hands of Russian, British, and US colonial powers.
At least until a few years ago – before the US and Israel stepped up their covert war against Iran – senior Iranian officials boasted that they had never allowed a single overt or clandestine attack against Iran to go unavenged.
Iran’s “successful experience in resistance against the bullying and comprehensive pressures by America” were evidence of nothing less than God’s blessing on the Islamic Republic, Khamenei said this summer: “We have with our own eyes repeatedly witnessed divine assistance in these challenges.”
Khamenei views the result of any new war, therefore, as inevitable. “In the confrontation between truth and falsehood, and between the camp of God and the camp of Satan,” he says, the Quran teaches that victory belongs to Muslim believers, “to anybody who fights for a divine cause” – even if they can’t match the enemy’s “power, wealth, and weapons.”
That unbending right-is-might belief will dictate the severity of Iran’s response to military action. The list of Iran's likely moves are well known to analysts and would ensure conflict for years to come. Inside the country, the Islamic republic would almost certainly kick out UN nuclear inspectors and decide to push all-out for a nuclear weapon – with Khamenei calculating that no other step could deter future attack or preserve the Islamic regime.
Outside the country, Iran would strike hard with proven asymmetric capabilities. Iranian commanders have long trumpeted their ability to "defend" Iran, noting that dozens of American military bases and all of Israel are within its missile range. Iran has warned it would mine and close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a significant portion of global oil supplies flow, while it attacked US warships in the Persian Gulf with fast-boat swarming tactics.
Iran could ask the proxy allies it arms and supports on the front line with Israel – Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza – to unleash its missile arsenals. The recent eight-day Gaza fight illustrated what could be achieved, in Khamenei's view. Revolutionary Guard chiefs said they were "proud" that Iran had provided Hamas with the know-how to build its Fajr-5 missiles, which shook Israel by bringing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into range for the first time.
Khamenei hailed the "victorious resistance" of the people of Gaza, slotting the event into his ever-triumphant worldview. It was a lesson, Iran's supreme leader said, "that resistance is the only way to defeat the enemies of Islam."
• Scott Peterson is the author of "Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – A Journey Behind the Headlines," for which some of the reporting in Tehran was first conducted. Follow him on Twitter: @peterson_scott
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