Iran's Steely Chief Cleric Steps Forward

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned at Friday prayers of continued demonstrations leading to "bloodshed," has held the title of supreme leader of the revolution for 20 years, twice as long as the man for whom the title was created. In laying down an ultimatum to protesters demonstrating against alleged vote fraud, Khamenei showed the steel that got him the job.

Thirty years ago, Khamenei's mentor, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, swept to power in Iran when the monarch running the ancient country backed away from a similar challenge. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's decision to flee in the face of a rising revolt left the country to Khomeini, a coal-eyed cleric whose righteous persona and unquestioned religious credentials personified the 1979 Islamic revolution he instigated from exile and dominated upon his triumphant return.

But when Khomeini died 10 years later, he left no successor. The grand ayatollah widely expected to follow him, Hossein Ali Montazeri, lost his place by expressing revulsion at violence committed in the name of the revolution.

"I surely would follow you up to the entrance of hell," Montazeri wrote to his mentor, Khomeini, in 1988, when political prisoners were being hanged by the hundreds each day. "But I am not ready to follow you in."

And so the question of who would inherit Khomeini's mantle went to committee.

Khamenei, now 69, was the overwhelming choice of a conservative clerical establishment that -- with his white beard, black turban and name just a few vowels away from his mentor's -- he tends to blend right into.

Only a mid-ranking cleric at the time of his selection, Khamenei was immediately promoted to ayatollah. That move, analysts say, was immensely significant, instantly introducing practical politics into a religious hierarchy grounded for centuries exclusively in scholarship. It also signaled that, with the death of its founder, the Islamic Republic of Iran was going to involve a certain amount of improvisation.

Twenty years later, the essentials of Khamenei's tenure were on display with him at Tehran University during Friday prayers.

Iranian officials point out that Khamenei favors jazz and wears a wristwatch, a modern flourish for a cleric. In official portraits, his smile appears gentle beside Khomeini's frown. But his life in Iranian politics has also left him battle-scarred: His right hand is withered from a 1981 bomb attack by political rivals.

Analysts said his long experience has left him wary of perceived threats from inside and outside Iran.

"Whether true or not, Khamenei has long believed that the U.S. is bent on regime change in Tehran, not via force but via a soft or velvet revolution," said Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "For the last 20 years, I imagine he goes to sleep at night and wakes up every morning mistrusting both outside powers and his own population. In that type of atmosphere of fear and mistrust, he's relied on the intelligence, security and military forces much more than the clergy."

Around Khamenei's neck yesterday was the simple plaid kerchief worn by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military organization that, unlike the regular army, reports directly to the supreme leader.

"There's a question in my mind whether Khamenei is calling the shots or whether the Revolutionary Guards are calling the shots," said Gary G. Sick, a Columbia University professor who was at the National Security Council in 1979. "But clearly the Revolutionary Guards, their whole organization and their leadership have assumed a position in the constellation of voices in Iran that is extraordinary, and they say they are absolutely loyal to Khamenei."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sat cross-legged in the front row at prayers yesterday, emerged from both the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, the largely working-class, volunteer organization that is part paramilitary, part social welfare. Khamenei has nurtured both groups as constituencies and instruments of social control independent of the clergy.

"Khamenei depends on them almost entirely,'' Sick said of the Basiji. "He is in no position to contradict them or take exception to their wishes. They are very conservative and want to protect the system as it is."

Conspicuously absent from the audience was Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, two-time president of Iran, current head of two major councils and, not least, the cleric historians say worked hardest to ensure that Khamenei succeeded Khomeini. The two men go back 50 years, to the underground that deposed the U.S.-backed shah by the power of street demonstrations and cries of "God is great" much like those heard this week.

Rafsanjani is widely believed to loathe Ahmadinejad, whose victory was endorsed by Khamenei yesterday. Sick said Rafsanjani's absence from "possibly the most important speech by any top leader in the past 30 years strikes me as really significant."

"There are funny bedfellows in Iran," he added. "And things are proceeding in a way that was not anticipated by them and by people outside the country."

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