The Most Dangerous Man in the World
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ali Khamenei
Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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.
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