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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

If the U.S. wants to improve relations with Iran, it can only happen with the approval of the man we'll profile next. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is Iran's supreme leader.

INSKEEP: His power is exactly what the job title suggests. An Iranian analyst named Said Laylaz says Khamenei controls everything from Iran's nuclear program to foreign policy.

Mr. SAID LAYLAZ (Iranian Analyst): Only supreme leader in the country is involved of negotiation with United States.

MONTAGNE: Ayatollah Khamenei is not the Iranian that Americans know best. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad holds that distinction, with his rhetoric about the U.S. and Israel. Khamenei is the Iranian who holds the most power.

INSKEEP: He is the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, the late revolutionary leader whose scowling face still appears all over Iran. The newer leader is pictured alongside with a seemingly benevolent face - white beard, thick glasses, sometimes smiling. He's in hallways and offices; he overlooks public squares.

Board a domestic flight in Iran, and if you happen to look up during the safety announcement, there's Ayatollah Khamenei peering over the flight attendant's shoulder. Iranians don't leave home without him.

Iran's supreme leader grew up in this city called Mashad. It's best known for a Shiite Muslim shrine, a giant complex with huge domes that's a short distance from this alley where his father had a house. The house has now been turned into a place for Shiite Muslims rituals. The rooms have been preserved, and on a recent evening, we heard old men and young children praying there.

(Soundbite of praying)

INSKEEP: Some of his followers pray on the floor of his childhood bedroom. It was one of four bare rooms in a modest house. Ali Khamenei grew up the son of an ayatollah, a religious leader with an exalted title and a limited income. The son attended theological school. He came under the influence of Ruhollah Khomeini, the older cleric who would dominate Iran's Islamic Revolution.

The younger man returned to Mashad and attracted revolutionary followers of his own. One of them was Hamid Reza Taraghi, who was arrested by the government of the Shah of Iran.

Mr. HAMID REZA TARAGHI (Iranian Official): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Taraghi says, when I was released from prison, Khamenei told me the path of fighting is a long, hard road.

The leader's rise to power was long and slow. After the 1979 revolution, he became president, then supreme leader when Ayatollah Khomeini died. People who studied his rise include the Iranian-American analyst Karim Sadjadpour.

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Iranian-American Analyst): It's interesting how he became leader. He wasn't elected because he was necessarily the most qualified person to take over for Ayatollah Khomeini. But he was essentially a default choice, someone that all the different factions could agree upon, loyal to the ideals of the revolution.

INSKEEP: His fellow clerics made what was seen as a safe choice. Khamenei gave an inaugural address, modestly saying he was no more than a minor cleric. Yet for 20 years now, he's been putting his supporters into almost every position of power.

Mr. SADJADPOUR: He actually has much more control than an American president in the sense that he also has control over the media. He has control over the judiciary, the legislature. He likes to project this image of a magnanimous grandfather who is simply guiding the country benevolently. But in reality, behind the scenes, nothing can get done without his consent, and if you cross him, he can be extremely vindictive.

(Soundbite of street protest)

INSKEEP: We're standing on a busy street in Tehran, getting a look at one source of the supreme leader's power. We're outside the British Embassy, and a number of demonstrators have just arrived holding banners, waving banners. They happen to be protesting a decision by the European Union involving an Iranian opposition group. But the more important point is that this group has been mobilized.

They're known as Basijis. They're sort of an informal militia, and they're known to appear almost anywhere that the regime needs a little bit of muscle to mount a protest, as here against the British, or to put pressure on individual Iranians.

(Soundbite of protesters)

INSKEEP: The Basijs are under the supreme leader's direction, as are the Revolutionary Guards. That's a military force that's increasingly involved in business - which brings up another point. The supreme leader appoints men who hold tremendous influence over Iran's economy.

Mr. SADEGH SAMII (Businessman): Well, they're one of the biggest conglomerates in the world.

INSKEEP: Sadegh Samii, a Tehran businessman, says the supreme leader controls billions of dollars in assets seized from the Shah of Iran. The money is concentrated in charitable foundations, and the leader names the men who decide how to spend it.

Can you list off the top of your head some of the kinds of companies that they are invested in?

Mr. SAMII: They are from beverages, banks, steelmakers, automakers, agriculture, lots of things.

INSKEEP: To understand how the supreme leader uses that power, we sat down with Hamid Reza Taraghi. He's that longtime follower from the leader's hometown, and he remains an official in Khamenei's political party. A few weeks ago, Khamenei's advisers completed a long-term development plan. That plan comes at a critical time, since the economy is sliding toward crisis. Taraghi says Khamenei insisted on one major change.

Mr. TARAGHI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: He says the leader made it a top priority to ensure that any development is Islamic. For example, he wants to make sure than any new buildings have a traditional Iranian, not Western, character.

Khamenei is guardian of a revolution founded in resistance to the United States.

(Soundbite of loud chanting)

INSKEEP: That's the sound of Friday prayers in Tehran, where people chant: Death to America, long live Khamenei. He has rarely met with Americans. One of the few is John Bryson Chane.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: He's the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C. Last year, Chane attended a conference on religion and politics in Tehran.

Bishop JOHAN BRYSON CHANE (Episcopal Church): And during that conference, out of the blue, somebody came over and said, you're going to meet the supreme leader; be out in the hallway in 10 minutes.

INSKEEP: The American bishop and a handful of other Westerners went to meet the leader in a room across town.

Mr. CHANE: It had beautiful, Iranian-woven, oriental rugs. There were chairs along the wall. And he speaks very softly, so it's not a matter of sitting around a table, you know, hammering out stuff. It was a very quiet conversation.

INSKEEP: In that quiet voice, Khamenei spoke of his country's historic involvement with the West.

Mr. CHANE: He said it had been hurtful. It had inhibited its ability to become an independent nation. It was unwelcomed.

INSKEEP: Now, if you're wondering if Iran's most powerful figure is interested in dealing with the United States, one place you might begin is this gigantic mural that's painted on the side of a building in Tehran. Beneath an American flag, you see the slogan Death to America, and beneath that, a quote from Ayatollah Khamenei, who was quoted as saying: We will not get along with America even for one single second. However, there is an Iranian politician who is running for president here, Mehdi Karrubi, who says he thinks that's an old position. It might possibly be changing.

Mr. MEHDI KARRUBI (Iranian Presidential Candidate): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: If America shows its goodwill, he says, we will respond positively. In Washington, analyst Karim Sadjadpour is not so sure that Khamenei will.

Mr. SADJAPOUR (Analyst): I don't think he wakes up in the morning saying, how can we have an amicable and expansive relationship with the United States? The Iranian Revolution is 30 years old and for me, there's three symbolic pillars which remain. One is enmity towards the United States, enmity towards Israel, and last is the symbol of Islamic piety, which is the hijab.

INSKEEP: That's the requirement that women dress modestly. Sadjapour says it might be hard to drop the opposition to America.

Mr. SADJAPOUR: And then you will ask, well, then, what is the essence of the Islamic Republic? What remains? And he's almost 70 years old, so I don't expect him to abandon or deviate a political philosophy which he's held very strongly now for four or five decades.

INSKEEP: That's why one diplomat cautions that Iran's supreme leader remains just as much of a hardliner as that Death to America mural would suggest.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Later today, we'll have a live Web chat with three Iranian-American authors - Karim Sadjapour, Azadeh Moaveni, Hooman Madj. You can find out more at npr.org, and many of our member station's Web sites.

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