Iran's Decider: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei

Amid escalating sanctions against Iran and constant talk of war, it's helpful to understand who is calling the shots in that country. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the only man who decides if Iran reaches a deal on its nuclear program. The U.S. is trying to convince him through sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On October 1, 2009, diplomats from several nations traveled to Switzerland. They went to a centuries-old villa by Lake Geneva. The U.S., China and European powers were all involved in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. They were hoping to ease the fear that Iran might build nuclear weapons. If those talks had succeeded, it's likely the world would not be quite the way it is today, with ever-increasing sanctions devastating Iran's currency, an oil embargo on the way, and constant talk of war. So let's take a look at what happened in 2009, back when President Obama spoke of reaching out.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.

INSKEEP: That extended hand seemed to lead to a handshake in 2009. Negotiators, including Mohamed ElBaradei of the United Nations nuclear agency, worked out a deal in principle.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: I very much hope that people see the big picture.

INSKEEP: But in this 2009 press conference, you can hear the deal at risk of slipping away.

ELBARADEI: I would cross my fingers that by Friday we should have an OK, an approval by all the parties concerned. Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Fingers crossed or not, diplomats soon believed Iran was backing away. Within weeks, the U.N.'s nuclear negotiator was all but begging the parties not to give up.

ELBARADEI: This is a unique and fleeting opportunity to reverse course from confrontation to cooperation, and should therefore not be missed.

INSKEEP: Later, ElBaradei wrote a book explaining why he thought the opportunity was missed. Iran asked to adjust the deal and the U.S. and Iran couldn't agree. When one side reached out, the other pulled back. And at a key moment, Iranian diplomats said they had to run the agreement past a very important man. It was not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president who in theory was in charge of the diplomats. The president was losing influence after a disputed election. The deal was referred to another man - an elderly cleric far less famous than the president but also far more powerful. Who's the decider on important matters when it comes to Iran?

MEHDI KHALAJI: The main decision maker on crucial issues, including nuclear program, is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

INSKEEP: We're listening to Mehdi Khalaji, one of many analysts in Washington who try to understand Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. As a clerical leader, Khamenei is supposed to rise above the factions in Iran's complicated political system. He's the only guy that you can really deal with on something as important as the nuclear program?

KHALAJI: Yes. We have to be reminded that he's not only Iran's supreme leader, he's the commandeering chief of armed forces.

INSKEEP: And back in 2009, that one man sent word that the nuclear negotiations were becoming an indignity. The supreme leader insisted on changing the deal despite warnings that his demands would not fly. Anybody who wants a deal now must reckon with a man believed to be Iran's decider.

ALI KHAMENEI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Westerners can never be sure what's on Khamenei's mind, but they do get glimpses of him. Earlier this month, for example, he conducted Friday prayers are Tehran University.

KHAMENEI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: He's a mild-looking man in a black turban, gray beard and glasses. He cultivates an image a little like a national grandfather. He's often shown smiling in posters on Iran's streets. Yet in his gentle voice at that Friday prayer sermon, the supreme leader delivered a warning. He said America's military threats are harmful to America. And, he added, an actual war would be 10 times more harmful to America. Which leads us to a one-word analysis from Mehdi Khalaji. OK, so does he want to reach a deal with the United States?

KHALAJI: No.

INSKEEP: Yet Khamenei is the man American diplomats think they have to persuade.

DENNIS ROSS: I do believe that he is the one who has to be convinced that he has to find a way out.

INSKEEP: Dennis Ross was an adviser to President Obama on Iran until late last year. He is hoping Khamenei will be moved by his country's diplomatic isolation - and by those sanctions. So in what way are the sanctions designed to pressure this one man?

ROSS: Well, I think the key has been to look not only at sanctions but to create a kind of composite of different sets of pressures. When you begin to focus on issues like the Central Bank and the buying of their oil, then you're really getting at the heart of the revenues that the regime needs.

INSKEEP: And this is how Dennis Ross hopes the regime will react. Tightening sanctions are causing economic chaos. That may cause Iran's supreme leader to reflect on the possibility of an uprising, like the 1979 revolution that deposed the U.S.-backed shah of Iran.

ROSS: You have in Khamenei someone who is very much concerned about preserving his power. And I think in his mind the image of 1979 continues to very much affect him. He knows when the sense emerged to unseat the shah, and if he feels somehow that the nature of alienation of the Iranian public is spreading across all classes, then I think he would be mindful for looking for a way to avoid that.

INSKEEP: You're saying that there were economic pressures as well as political pressures in 1979 when there was a revolution.

ROSS: Yes. And it drew in the lower classes, and that was really decisive.

INSKEEP: And so if there's a danger of that again, there's a danger to Khamenei, end of story.

ROSS: That's what I - again, I think that that would be part of his assessment.

INSKEEP: Dennis Ross says that might motivate the supreme leader to make a deal - assuming he can. Iran's political system is fractured. A military force called the Revolutionary Guard has been gaining more power, and some analysts now doubt that even the supreme leader could force them to accept an agreement. A senior U.S. diplomat describes Khamenei as conflicted, but Iran's leader has another option. Iran could speed up its enrichment of uranium and seek to build a bomb. A former Iranian diplomat contends that Western pressure may force that choice. Seyed Hossein Mousavian says Iran has had productive nuclear negotiations over the years under this supreme leader - just not this way.

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: The amount of sanctions against Iran is more than North Korea. What is the message of this policy, Steve, to Iranians?

INSKEEP: He says North Korea actually detonated nuclear weapons and the world treats it gingerly. Iran faces increasing pressure, even though its supreme leader once issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, against nuclear weapons.

MOUSAVIAN: This time you are pushing Iran to a full-scale level of enrichment, and then you escalate the sanctions, then you would leave Iran no other option than nuclear weapon.

INSKEEP: As I'm sure you know very well, there are plenty of Americans who will say that Ayatollah Khamenei is not a rational player. They will say he's a religious fanatic, you can't count on this man's word. Is there any basis to the argument?

MOUSAVIAN: This is exactly what Ayatollah Khamenei also has concern, that the U.S. would never be satisfied until Iran gives up its religious beliefs, values, identity, independence.

INSKEEP: That deep and mutual suspicion complicates U.S. efforts to deal with Iran's supreme leader. After taking office, President Obama wrote two letters to Ali Khamenei. In public statements, Khamenei expressed his doubts about U.S. intentions. Channels of communication are not closed. The U.S. can get messages to Khamenei through diplomats of countries like Switzerland, Turkey or Iraq. But Iran's supreme leader remains hard to read. Just yesterday on Iranian TV, he declared nuclear weapons to be a sin, but he said Western bullying will not stop peaceful research. With God's help, he said, no obstacles can stop Iran's nuclear work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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