August 13, 2012 | The Weekly Standard

The Most Dangerous Man in the World

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ali Khamenei
August 13, 2012 | The Weekly Standard

The Most Dangerous Man in the World

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ali Khamenei

One of the startling cultural disconnects in studying Iran is how unimpressive the officials of the Islamic Republic usually are. Reading Persian history inclines one to expect Iranians to be highly cultured and nuanced, delicately balanced between a conservative religious faith and a love of refinement and pleasure. Remember the Persian vizier to the Turkish Seljuk sultans, the eleventh-century Nizam al-Mulk, whose “mirror for princes” is a forerunner to Machiavelli’s reflections on power. Or the sixteenth-century Shah Abbas the Great and his astonishing, often inebriated, court in Isfahan, which solidified Persian as the lingua franca among Muslim elites. Or even, in more mundane, modern times, Amir Asadollah Alam, a minister to both Pahlavi shahs, with his enormous capacity to marry tradition to modernity, a skill that his last boss sorely lacked. But the days of such accomplished men are long gone. Iran’s ruling class today is incapable of attracting the country’s best and brightest. In their place have risen corrupt and crude ideologues, who have made Iranian society, even for the devout, often unpleasant and embarrassing. And what happens internally works its way abroad. 

Although the Islamic Republic is moving ever closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon, the ruling caste—Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in particular—has not been adroit in advancing the cause. Western indecision, timidity, and greed rather than Iranian diplomatic skill and strategic acumen have permitted the steady progress of the nuclear program. If the supreme leader had more Persian wiliness, Tehran would surely get its nuke with far less damage to the economy than it is suffering. The possibility of an American or Israeli preemptive strike would be far more remote. The odds that Khamenei’s aggressive, small-minded faith would lead his country into a war with Israel and the United States would be much lower than they are.

The Islamic Republic’s most powerful figures seem incapable of escaping their revolutionary religious identities and acknowledging their own rich culture, let alone the Western, mostly Marxist, ideas that have so profoundly shaped them. Read Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, on Western philosophy, a subject in which he reportedly got a Ph.D., and marvel at the contortion of his thinking, at the inferiority complex that makes a good mind seem stupid. A close confidant of the supreme leader, a former nuclear negotiator and commander in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Larijani is incapable of playful conversation with non-Muslims—something that comes easily to your average Persian Muslim. Instrumental in crushing Iran’s liberal intellectual efflorescence in the 1990s, Larijani is not unique: The revolutionary elite today has an enormously difficult time so much as saying “hello” to those who have not sprung from its world. 

The Iranian regime really should have been able to outplay the West in the recent P5+1 nuclear meetings in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow. Contrary to what is sometimes written on the American right, they manifestly did not. The Europeans and the Americans held firm, though they wanted to deal. Even more than President Barack Obama, the Europeans want to avoid an Israeli preemptive strike. In the White House and in Europe, there is little appetite for more impoverishing sanctions. All would prefer to stop, if the Iranians would only adhere—perhaps just pretend to adhere—to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed and ratified in 1970 and which actually allows a lot of maneuvering room for a nuke-seeking deceitful state. 

Truth be told, if Tehran had just confessed that it had, once upon a time, thought about making a nuclear weapon, had experimented with developing triggers and warheads, but had forsaken the idea on religious grounds, the West would have greeted this as a major breakthrough. Paris and Washington—the most important players on the Western side—would have been inclined to grant Tehran considerable leeway on uranium enrichment, probably even at the underground, bunker-bomb-challenging Fordow facility. The Iranians, who deny that their nuclear program has any military component, certainly could have proceeded, with at least the implicit approval of the West, enriching to 5 percent or higher. And as long as the 5 percent stockpile, which is about 70 percent of the way to making bomb-grade uranium, continues to grow, the regime will have a rapid breakout potential, provided it can improve the quality of its centrifuges. Better centrifuges allow for much smaller cascades and more rapidly produced highly enriched uranium, and are the key to escaping large, targetable facilities, like Natanz and Fordow. The Iranians have had a devilishly difficult time manufacturing improved versions of the A.Q. Khan-delivered, Pakistani-designed P1 model. But they have, slowly but surely, progressed. They need time, which a confession would have bought them.

The clerical regime knows that the Americans and Europeans years ago debriefed defecting Iranian scientists about the ultimate objective of the Islamic Republic’s centrifuge program—a nuclear weapon. The defectors were explicit about what was clearly understood by all those setting up the Islamic Republic’s centrifuge manufacturing and the clandestine, dual-use import network in the late 1980s. Iranian officials now have a good idea—largely because the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and European diplomats have told them—what else we know about their nuclear-weapons research. The path to the bomb would probably have been slower with an official confession, but it would have, at a minimum, divided the West, and inclined the United States and France to recognize unofficially Iran’s “right” to uranium enrichment. No such “right” actually exists in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which only grants to its signatories the right to nuclear energy provided participating countries obey all of the articles of the treaty, including allowing IAEA oversight. And the French, much more than State Department officials, have insisted that Western negotiations hold to the letter of U.N. resolutions: Iran has no sovereign “right” to enrichment. 

Perhaps not even Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the duplicitous former president and now-fallen clerical majordomo who launched the atomic-weapons program, or his clever nuclear sidekick, the Scottish-educated cleric Hassan Rowhani, if they’d still held sway in foreign policy, would have been capable of admitting to weapons research. They certainly would have resisted the full implementation of the Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA unfettered freedom to examine any suspicious site in a signatory country. Iran’s foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, Ali Velayati, who remains a close adviser to the supreme leader, reportedly once equated the Additional Protocol to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, in which Iran surrendered Armenia, much of Azerbaijan, and the Caucasus to Russia. For Iranians, that’s the pits. 

But European diplomats were almost begging Tehran to accept a watered-down version of the protocol, where the IAEA would inspect the Parchin military facility, which Western intelligence services have long suspected of housing weaponization research, and then applaud that progress but push aggressively no further. A -cleverer helmsman than Khamenei would have played with the IAEA about giving some access to Parchin—or other facilities in lieu of Parchin if the weapons research there could not be sufficiently wiped clean. But Khamenei, who has encouraged his minions to parade his reported anti-nuke fatwa, or juridical opinion, refused to wiggle. Neither he, nor his MIT-educated nuclear technocrat-turned-foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who’d been intimately involved in setting up Iran’s dual-use import network, or his war-ravaged, one-legged, deeply devout ideologue-turned-nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, realized that they’d pushed the Americans and the Europeans into a corner. 

Western Europeans and Americans are treaty-conscious: They try to abide by what they sign. They could not revise their understanding of the NPT to fit Khamenei’s preferences or hang up the Israelis. Tehran, which hasn’t met a treaty with Westerners it can’t violate, appears to have thought the French would cave. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’d pulled Obama into Libya, and who’d run to the right of Washington on Iran, lost his reelection bid on May 6, eight days after the first P5+1 meeting in Istanbul. But under President François Hollande, the French have refused to budge. Indeed, Hollande’s people, just like his predecessor’s, complain in private about Obama’s diplomatic team sending mixed signals to the Europeans, the Russians, and the Iranians. 

Khamenei has now forced the Americans and the Europeans to default to more sanctions, which will convulse ever-larger sections of Iran’s energy industry. What was unthinkable in Europe 10 years ago, when the Islamic Republic’s clandestine nuclear program at Natanz was revealed by an Iranian opposition group, has come to pass: It’s now conceivable the Europeans will back non-U.N.-mandated sanctions against Iran that will rival the restrictions imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Huge loopholes still exist in lots of European sanctions—especially measures against Iran’s central bank. And the Europeans are hardly united. The antisanctions crowd, enthusiastically led by the Swedes, is still trying to stop the newly implemented European embargo of Iranian crude from spreading to other trade. The palpable, omnipresent sense in Europe that the continent could soon go over the fiscal cliff also besets all -foreign-policy discussions. 

But the EU3—the French, the British, and the Germans, who have handled the Iran question—know that their credibility in foreign affairs is on the line. The Europeans’ desperate financial predicament appears to have actually made the French even more determined not to budge on uranium enrichment. Hollande, who intends to cut French defense spending further, sees little gloire for France overseas, and certainly has no desire to outflank President Obama over anything, is disinclined just to surrender and allow Khamenei a nuke. It’s now entirely conceivable that the Europeans will follow the American lead in responding to any Israeli preemptive strike. Senior French officials regularly suggest that Paris could not stand idly by and watch Iran or the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah retaliate against Israel, where more than 100,000 French Jews are often in residence. For good reason, Jerusalem is no longer seriously concerned about an EU boycott after an Israeli strike. 

That Tehran could have blown its advantages in Europe—lucrative trade deals, deep-rooted anti-Americanism, widespread tiers-mondiste sentiment among the intelligentsia, and a general, narcissistic, Europe-centric nombrilisme (navel-gazing) that enfeebles the Old World beyond its borders—is an astonishing self-inflicted defeat. Khamenei’s profound hatred of the West, which so many European and American journalists and academics failed to notice during George W. Bush’s presidency, has led him to trash the hard diplomatic work done by Rafsanjani in the 1990s. During Rafsanjani’s presidency, Tehran regularly sent assassins to Europe, and sometimes roughly treated European diplomats and businessmen in Iran, but it also eagerly welcomed Germany and France’s engagement policy. The Islamic Republic’s dual-use import network, which allowed Tehran to develop the then-clandestine nuclear program, would have been impossible without Rafsanjani’s determined efforts to balance nefarious actions with lucrative trade deals. 

Once, Iran’s revolutionary elite had a certain appeal, given the desiccated authoritarians elsewhere in the region. When Ali Larijani used to fly around the Middle East castigating American-supported oligarchs while touting Iran’s more democratic system, his Cheshire smiles expanded on a truth: Theocratic Iran was married to a semi-democratic system that wasn’t a total charade until the savage crackdown in the summer of 2009. Iranian democracy was stage-managed, but it could produce surprises. It inculcated in the people a desire to have the real thing, which roared forth in the fraudulent presidential elections three years ago. And it could occasionally nurture figures with a bit more gravitas than nearby Arab potentates and their cronies. 

Arab lands, of course, have been in free fall for decades. Middle Eastern political and cultural elites were once rich in well-educated men. The region’s rough, post-World War II politics always favored those hardened at home, but around them were cosmopolitan, highly Westernized men who were less prone to lose themselves in the conspiracy theories that have so defined and debased Middle Eastern culture and discourse. Yet as the region’s autocracies coarsened and globalization gained speed, allowing the best and the brightest to flee their homelands, these Arab elites contracted in number and talent. 

And the Islamic revival, which has been a powerful cultural force for the last 50 years, hasn’t helped. Fundamentalists, be they Sunni or Shiite, are like autistic children: They are, more often than not, intelligent and focused, but unevenly and erratically developed. The bright ones usually get degrees in the nonspeculative hard sciences or engineering, since God’s omnipotence is not seen to be challenged by a periodic table or stress tests for concrete. (See the new president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, who received a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Southern California.) 

But they freeze when unbridled “reason” is thrown at them. The best of them know well how the relentless use of inductive and deductive thought transformed Christians. They’ve seen it in on a much smaller scale among their own kind. Mohammad Khatami, the soft-spoken, politically inept former president, is obsessed by the evolution of the West and how Muslims might empower themselves without forfeiting their faith to the unceasing queries that helped sweep religion from the public square in Europe. The Islamic Republic’s really interesting religious minds have almost all developed in opposition to theocracy: freethinking clerics, like Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari and Mohsen Kadivar, and the lay powerhouse, fallen Islamist ideologue-turned-moral philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush. Soroush unrelentingly tries to marry reason and the faith, to “modernize” Islam so that ethics are not so firmly tied to the Koran and the prophetic traditions. The hard Islam—the revivalist Islam that revolves around the Holy Law and little else—has had a difficult time attracting and keeping intellectually curious Muslims.

Iran’s revolution was supposed to change that. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had no use for intellectual brilliance and insisted there was “no fun in Islam,” didn’t see it that way, of course. A cleric who seamlessly knit virtue with power, he could not have cared less. But others did: The revolution was supposed to fuse Islam and the Iranian left, where most intellectuals of stature resided. Those who’d lost their faith, at least as a political identity, would somehow get it back. Clever men wouldn’t have to flee abroad, as they had done under the shah. They could come home and be proud, productive Muslims. 

The revolution’s tumult has certainly produced a varied cast of characters, but—with the exceptions of Khomeini, who was sui generis in his motionless, black-eyed charisma, his successor-turned-critic Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, the most consequential Marxist-Islamist “red” cleric, Mahmoud Taleghani, who died in 1979, the brilliant and voraciously curious cleric Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, who died in 1981, and the enthusiastically corrupt former president Rafsanjani—they’ve mostly been people who overwhelmed neither friends nor foes with their personalities and erudition.

The Iranian revolution was a great upwelling of lower-middle- and lower-class Shiites who don’t travel abroad, even within the Middle East. Iran’s Westernized Islamic revolutionaries—and most of the ruling elite are vastly more Westernized than they can admit—are particularly unimpressive: They are often graduates of America’s and Europe’s third-rate universities or, increasingly, mediocre students at their own overstuffed red-brick schools. The Revolutionary Guards have set up both lay and clerical educational establishments to filter out the Western cultural pollution and antitheocratic ideas that flow through most of Iran’s established universities and old religious institutions. The incidence of manufactured academic degrees among the revolutionary elite is pretty high. The inferiority complex among these men—starting with Khamenei, who appears to loathe accomplished clerics and lay intellectuals with equal embittered fervor—cannot be overstated. 

Iran’s optimistic, secularized, pro-revolution reformers of the 1990s, whom Western academics, journalists, and the State Department latched onto with such hope, analyzed their own political culture almost perfectly backwards. Iran wasn’t going to have a successful soft, second revolution, where the hardcore first generation gave way gradually and nonviolently to a more moderate, worldly, meritocratic elite. Rather, the hardcore was ready and willing to purge the evolving parts of the ruling class. A new generation of lesser men, culturally formed by the extreme, frontline fraternity of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), rose up to challenge their betters, who’d never seen combat. These revolutionary “peasants”—and the elite of the first-generation revolutionaries can be merciless in describing the newcomers in class-based terms—have come overwhelmingly from the ambitious rank and file of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

The reformist, pro-revolution intellectuals who were pretty confident in the early and mid-1990s that reform was around the corner didn’t see these folks coming. The reformists had become too Westernized: They had a hard time taking the lumpenproletariat seriously. M. Hadi Semati, a reformist, pro-Khatami Iranian scholar who once was fairly influential in Washington from his perch at the Carnegie Endowment, was typical of this crowd. Semati was certain that Rafsanjani, who has long been one of Iran’s most detested clerics, would win the 2005 presidential election. For Semati, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was just too embarrassing—too far removed from where postrevolutionary Iranians believed their countrymen were—to become -president of the Islamic Republic. And the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad, who as mayor of Tehran was popular among the poor, is actually a fairly sophisticated example of the new-generation urbanized “peasants.” Even men of the ruling elite who knew this milieu, because they, too, had once been close to or members of the Revolutionary Guards—for example, the hardcore Islamist-turned-Green Movement dissident Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the merciless revolutionary snob Larijani—probably didn’t fully appreciate the social and religious power brewing beneath them. With an increasingly insecure and vindictive supreme leader driving the process, Iran’s revolutionary elite was becoming a lot less elite. 

This contracting, insular Iranian VIP world—made all the more surreal by the Islamic Republic’s unjammable cultural and intellectual openness to the West -courtesy of satellite dishes, the Internet, and relatively inexpensive foreign travel—has had a major impact on foreign policy. It’s produced profound tension within -Iranian society, between the rulers and ruled and within the ruling class. Khamenei is so implacable toward the West, especially the United States, because he sees how many Iranians, especially within the revolutionary upper crust, have fallen from the path. Their incessant talk of democracy and human rights, to his ears, has a made-in-America ring to it. Iran’s internal crisis of legitimacy is thus in great part America’s fault. Understood from the inside out, Iran’s nuclear program is for Khamenei a means to counter internal rot by checkmating the foreign menace. This understanding is probably false—thousands of nuclear weapons didn’t save the Soviet Union from internal collapse. But Khamenei isn’t a historian. 

The recently published biography of the supreme leader—written by Hedayatollah Behboodi and funded by the Iranian intelligence ministry, utilizing old SAVAK intelligence files and early interviews—shows a man obsessed with Islamic ethics, fearful of and tempted by Western culture, and filled with venom toward those who don’t recognize his worth. In Behboodi’s Sharh-e Ism (Explanation of the Name), which was quickly withdrawn from the market by order of Khamenei’s office, probably because the book is a bit too revealing, we see a poor boy who made good through stubbornness and suffering, with a growing chip on his shoulder. We see an -awkward, sexually uneasy young man developing into a modern, hardcore Islamist. The biography covers the years 1939 to 1979, before Khamenei had risen to prominence courtesy of the patronage of Rafsanjani. The clever Rafsanjani, once thought by many to be the white-turbaned hope for the restoration of more normal relations between Iran and the West, had been a fair-weather friend to too many. The superrich mullah, who’d regularly lent money to Khamenei as a poor student and aspiring revolutionary, actually wasn’t difficult for the supreme leader to take down after Rafsanjani refused to back Ahmadinejad’s rigged election in 2009. 

Optimistic Americans and Europeans have hoped that Khamenei, who used to be reflexively referred to as a “pragmatist” in the Western press, would prove to be more Iranian than Islamic, that a supposed ingrained sense of caution and self-preservation melded with a love of nation would incline him to moderation. If the Americans could do the right thing and find a “grand bargain” that would satisfy all of Iran’s competing interests, the cautious, nonideological side of Khamenei would, according to this “realist” painting, produce a live-and-let-live dispensation toward the United States. The man who was at Rafsanjani’s side in 1988 to explain to Ayatollah Khomeini that the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had to end or the Islamic Republic might crack apart would be the man to end the cold war with the United States. 

But this Khamenei was a myth. He’s nowhere to be seen in Sharh-e Ism. The young man who grew up in the puritan world of Mashhad’s deeply conservative, really-no-fun-in-Islam religious schools, who’d once camouflaged himself to catch a glimpse of a Western movie in a theater and needed to use a public bath to wash off a wet dream, has become a nearly friendless Islamic paladin—in his own eyes, the vanguard of a new global Islamic order. Khamenei is obsessed with stopping the Western cultural invasion of his country, which he sees as a largely American–run plot. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that this obsession is his raison d’être. 

President Obama obviously knew none of this when he came into office and made his personal overtures to the supreme leader. Not well versed in revolutionary Iran or contemporary Islamic thought, and a child of the soft tiers-mondisme dominant in America’s better schools in the 1970s and 1980s, Obama thought that the -differences between the United States and the Islamic Republic were largely the product of misunderstanding, American hubris, and George W. Bush. Ecumenically American to his core, Obama extended his hand. Seeing the devil, Khamenei recoiled. Given recent comments by the president’s national security adviser Thomas Donilon describing the hoped-for fall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria as a blow to Iran, it appears that the president no longer sees the differences between Washington and Tehran as largely deriving from misapprehensions. 

It’s still not clear, however, whether the administration fully understands that its olive branch was guaranteed to produce an adverse reaction. In Khamenei’s eyes, Barack Obama was an American version of Mohammad Khatami, who sincerely wanted to downgrade the Islamic Republic’s posture toward the United States from virulent hostility to mere non-jihadist disgust. Khatami’s enthusiastic followers—“the 23 May Front,” named after the day Khatami won his unexpected landslide election in 1997—were crushed. The resurrection of the 23 May Front in the Green Movement of 2009-10, which coincided with Obama’s attempt to engage the supreme leader, further confirmed for Khamenei how poisonous and dangerous the United States was under its new black president with the Muslim name. 

Khamenei was shrinking his circle of trusted friends long before Obama came into office. But the practical effect of Obama’s early outreach was to encourage the supreme leader to accelerate his purge of those who’d evolved too far. The biggest beneficiary: the Revolutionary Guards, who openly pledge their loyalty to Khamenei as “the shadow of God on earth.” This narrowing of the Iranian elite, where clerics, Revolutionary Guards, and politicians formed per Khamenei’s instructions have risen to the top, cannot be reversed as long as Khamenei lives. If he were to die, the regime might rip itself apart trying to replace him. The Guards and the revolutionary mullahs might hold it together with brute force, devising some religiously sanctified politburo to succeed Iran’s one-man rule. The men with guns and the Holy Law behind them might even designate a new supreme leader from the clergy—but this time round there would be no Rafsanjani to bring the regime’s component parts quickly together. Barring some kind of counterrevolution, Khamenei’s death is likely the only internal event that could derail the nuclear-weapons program. 

But as long as Khamenei rules, he’s going to advance his kind and purge the rest. In foreign policy, this means there will be no nuclear compromise. The supreme leader will not buckle under sanctions. That would be a negation of his mission civilisatrice. And it would probably infuriate his most loyal, hardcore, and violent followers within the Revolutionary Guards, who are his praetorians. The collapse of the Iranian position in Syria, where the Islamic Republic’s allied Shiite regime of Bashar al-Assad is slaughtering Sunni rebels and civilians, will probably destroy Tehran’s position in the Arab world. Even Shiite Iraqi Arabs, who’ve always looked up to Iran as their (disliked) guardian of last resort, will likely distance themselves from the Islamic Republic if the butchery in Syria escalates.  

Khamenei’s longstanding desire to find radical Sunnis who mirror his preferences will certainly intensify, as he tries to rebuild ties to Muslims who can still tolerate him. This growing isolation will feed Khamenei’s ample appetite to strike out against domestic and foreign foes, who are, in his mind, intertwined. The men who could check Khamenei or cajole him to take a less confrontational course are all gone now—unless they are hiding somewhere in the Guard Corps. Rafsanjani, Rowhani, Khatami, Mehdi Karroubi, Abdullah Nouri, and so many more have all been humbled and pushed aside. The attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington in October 2011, orchestrated by the Qods Force, the disciplined special operations branch of the Revolutionary Guards, should have been a wake-up call in the West. It’s unlikely that Rafsanjani would have allowed that hit to go forward (even though Rafsanjani detests the Saudis and the United States). He would have found it rash to strike inside America—especially before having the bomb. But the head of the Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, had become Khamenei’s right-hand man. Soleimani bled the Americans in Iraq, and he authorized the operation in Washington. Lame as that operation may appear in hindsight, it was breathtakingly bold, made the more so by the character flaws of the Iranian American enlisted to strike at the restaurant. 

President Obama didn’t retaliate for the plot, any more than George W. Bush retaliated for the killing of Americans in Iraq with Iranian help. Both men kept their cool. But now the United States and Europe are engaged in economic warfare against Tehran. The supreme leader undoubtedly sees the present coercion as a prelude to regime change. Add Stuxnet and other computer-delivered malware aimed at gumming up the nuclear program, add the assassination of a few Iranian scientists, for which a senior Israeli intelligence official said Jerusalem deserved “partial credit,” and we have a situation where Khamenei is guaranteed to unleash further terrorism against us. He’s already started on the Israelis (with attempted hits on Israeli officials in India, Georgia, Thailand, and Kenya and the Hezbollah attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria). We were always going to reach this point: where the United States, Europe, and Israel would ratchet up pressure to stop the supreme leader and his guards from getting a nuke. The only way Tehran wasn’t going to respond with violence was if Washington made clear that the U.S. military would punish Iranian misdeeds with ferocity. 

Washington hasn’t done that, and it’s probably too late to do so. President Obama’s quiet-but-firm recitation that “all options are on the table” against Iran has left the Israelis cold. An official close to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently described Obama’s threat as having “0 percent credibility.” Khamenei, who is a master of Machtpolitik and has watched Obama leave Iraq, betray eagerness to do the same in Afghanistan, stay out of Syria, slash the defense budget, and “pivot” toward Asia, is even less impressed than Netanyahu, who at least wanted to believe in American resolve. 

So we wait. Either Netanyahu will bomb Iran in the coming months or he won’t—no doubt blaming Obama’s lack of support for any decision to stand down. If Jerusalem does bomb, the Iranians will, in all probability, take their revenge through terrorism. Playing dead and railing against Israel in the court of world opinion will be the intelligent thing for Khamenei to do, and it’s the course of action that the French fear most, since it would shatter the European consensus against Iran and behind the United States. But the supreme leader will burn to strike. So, too, probably the guards he has promoted. Little doses of terrorism probably won’t be enough. A more muscular Iranian response would likely drag President Obama, if he is still in office, into a war he does not want. And if Netanyahu doesn’t act, then Khamenei will loudly, and rightfully, claim he defeated the Jewish state—the first Muslim to do so.

Assuming Barack Obama does not bomb (and it would be a biting irony if this president led America into its third war—a second “war of choice”—in the greater Middle East since 9/11), then Khamenei will rejoice the more loudly. In his speech in March before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the president pledged that he would not allow the Islamic Republic to acquire a bomb: “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment,” he solemnly threatened. If Tehran stockpiles enough 20 percent uranium to make several atomic bombs, which will happen next year, it will become extremely difficult, even for this president, to claim that Iran hasn’t yet become a nuclear-weapons state. And just as in the case of Pakistan, the CIA will know that Iran has assembled a functioning nuke the day after. IAEA monitoring—as any U.N. nuclear inspector will privately confess—is not that good. This is why John Sawers, the current head of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, flatly stated in July that we have two years left before the Iranian regime can build a weapon. MI6 chiefs have historically been very conservative with their predictions. 

We don’t know what would happen if a terrorist-supporting state whose leader loathes the United States more than Stalin, Mao, Tojo, and Hitler combined obtained nuclear arms. Khamenei would have defeated the United States—the West—in an epic struggle. Perhaps a sensible fear of the awesome power in his hands would take hold and Tehran would refrain from using or leveraging its new weapons. But it’s doubtful the “shadow of God on earth” would be so well behaved. He’s a man with a mission. If the supreme leader gets nuclear weapons, it will be a miracle if he does does not stupidly lead his country into war. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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