By Karl Reiner
In his State of the Union address, President Obama noted that Iran must be prevented from developing nuclear weapons. The weapon capability issue, Iran's regional aspirations and oil supply security have complicated the West's relations with Iran for years. Tensions are increasing; Israel has threatened to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities while international sanctions have crimped the economy.
Neither side trusts the other. The West remains skeptical about the prospects of diplomacy, is suspicious of Iran's intentions and its interest in making peace. Iran fears that the real goal of the West is regime change. Although they have gone nowhere in the past, Iran has suggested dates for reopening talks.
Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei is the man to watch. A cleric and Islamic Jurist, he has been Iran's supreme leader since 1989. As the supreme leader, he has the final say on matters in a country with a population of 79 million. Khamenei, born in 1939, is fluent in Farsi (Persian) and Arabic. He is said to have some understanding of English.
A religious conservative and nationalist, he is no supporter of press freedom. Devoted to fostering the concept of clerical rule in an Islamic republic, Khamenei generally opposes the U.S. and the Western world. Recently, he nixed the idea of starting bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran.
Khamenei's hold on power is absolute. He permitted the crackdown and arrests that resulted in the deaths of opposition activists after the disputed 2009 election. He believes the U.S. and its allies have gradually put in place measures that have circumscribed Iran's regional influence. The country's economy is in trouble due to government mismanagement, the bite of international sanctions and a depreciating currency. Oil and gas exports have declined by 45%. Iran's currency has lost about 40% of its value.
Khamenei states that Iran will not be moved by threats. The country will not negotiate from a position of weakness. Khamenei is willing to play for time even though the price for dragging things out is high. He also wants negotiations to be conducted by an Iranian president, one he can blame if the talks fail. The June election is expected to put a Khmenei loyalist into the president's office.
What Iran's leader needs is a face-saving deal that lifts sanctions and allows Iran a degree of nuclear enrichment under strict inspection. To ease the pressure of sanctions and lessen the threat of a military attack, Iran has to make a verifiable deal with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
As the pressure mounts, Khamenei is not without assets. iran has the ability to stir up trouble in the region. It is a transshipment route route for Heroin going to Europe. Iran is a supporter of terrorism, the regime in Syria and Hamas in Gaza.
A government overseen by conservative clerics develops its own unique set of management problems and internal power struggles. Last November, Khamenei issued an edict prohibiting public displays of political infighting by contending groups before the election. His simmering feud with erratic outgoing President Ahmadinejad (once his loyal supporter) has come into the open.
Observers are not sure what the growing amount of political infighting in Iran will mean for the talks with the West. In a country beset by a degree of cronyism, the big decisions are ultimately one man's responsibility. In the meantime, the time for a settlement deal shrinks. As it does the risk of war increases.