O believers, when you encounter the unbelievers marching to battle, turn not your backs to them. Whoso turns his back that day to them, unless withdrawing to fight again or removing to join another host, he is laden with the burden of God’s anger, and his refuge is Hell—an evil homecoming!
—Koran, Surah VIII, Anfal (‘The Spoils of War’),
quoted by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in his speech
to the Basij and Revolutionary Guards at the Grand Mosque
of Ruhollah Khomeini, November 20, 2013
It’s impossible to find a Western parallel to the rahbar, the “supreme leader” of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or to that regime’s particular fusion of church and state. The caesaropapism of a Byzantine emperor, even one as religiously determined as Justinian, or a pope as imperial as Gregory VII, who humbled an emperor at Canossa, just doesn’t capture the revolutionary, quintessentially modern nature of the rahbar. Following in the footsteps of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei tries to steal the charisma attached to Shiism’s magical imams and fuse it to the raw, coercive power of a twentieth-century totalitarian dictator. Like his predecessor as supreme leader, Khamenei sees Islam as under siege from the West, and especially the United States. “In the military, political, and economic wars, in every arena where there is a test of strength, you, the believer, must stand firm against the enemy [the United States], your will must overcome the determination of the enemy,” he told his militant audience at the Grand Mosque the day the Geneva nuclear negotiations began. And in this arduous and awesome struggle, the believer can use “heroic flexibility,” he said, which doesn’t mean “abandoning the ideals and aims of the Islamic regime,” but rather “clever, artful maneuvering that allows for the believer to achieve his goals.” “Step by step” the believer advances, as did the followers of the Prophet Muhammad at the battle of Badr, who were outmanned and underarmed, but proved triumphant and divided the spoils of their routed foe.
Here is perhaps the biggest contradiction of the nuclear talks: The Obama administration wants to believe that the supreme leader just might forsake his historic mission—the quest for nuclear weapons begun under Khomeini and carried forth at great cost by Khamenei and every single Iranian president—because the United States, “the epicenter of evil,” has rallied the West against the Islamic Republic. The reasons administration officials give for why this extraordinary tergiversation will take place vary, but most spin around the idea that the supreme leader and his Revolutionary Guards—who oversee the nuclear program, terrorist operations, and domestic riot-control—really aren’t sufficiently committed to developing a nuclear weapon that the forces of moderation can’t seduce them from this dangerous course. The alleged forces of moderation are, in order of importance, newly elected president Hassan Rouhani, foreign minister Mohammad Zarif, and the Iranian people, at least those who voted for Rouhani.
Those who make these arguments, inside the U.S. government and out, rarely cite any primary material. Yet there is much to ponder in the lengthy speeches of Khamenei and senior guard commanders who scorch America and the West with nearly every breath; in the nuclear memoirs of Rouhani, which reveals a proud revolutionary determined to keep and advance the nuclear program despite European pressure (and, a decade ago, a widespread fear of George W. Bush); and in the recently published memoirs of Zarif, which limn a deeply conservative man wedded to the Islamic Revolution. In an odd twist on Iran’s controlled democracy, administration officials can tell you that since Rouhani received a mandate for change, and since he has promised to get rid of the hated sanctions, then ipso facto he must be prepared to do the thing necessary to achieve that end: Rouhani, they conclude, intends to roll back Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
Rouhani, they believe, must be more or less a moderate—a talented, politically savvy insider, not an egghead reformer like the former president Mohammad Khatami, whom Khamenei and his minions sliced and diced. He is, after all, not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the uncouth, pietistic populist. He has a Ph.D. from a Scottish university (think Duns Scotus, David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns, and Gordon Brown).