‘Iran will not change while Khamenei is in charge’

US has given up on finding solution while he is in power, expert tells audience in Abu Dhabi.

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ABU DHABI // Iranian policy on the region will not change unless the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is taken out of the equation, a senior Iran policy analyst said yesterday.

Karim Sadjadpour, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace foreign-policy think tank, said the Iranian regime’s attitude towards Syria, Iraq and America was not rooted in their sectarian ambitions for the region but in their ideological beliefs that come from their supreme leader.

“The Obama administration has realised that there is no solution with Iran with the supreme leader in power,” he told an audience at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.

Mr Sadjadpour said that in 2009, Barack Obama had covertly and directly engaged Mr Khamenei after realising that negotiations with Iran had to go through him.

“America was confused on who to talk to after speaking with Khatemi, Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, so Obama directly engaged the supreme leader,” he said.

Mr Sadjadpour, who is frequently called upon to brief US, EU and Asian officials about Middle East affairs, and who regularly testifies before Congress on Iran, said that two letters were sent but never made public, and that he was privy to their details.

“In his first letter, president Obama stated that the US was not interested in regime change in Iran or conflict but wanted to engage with him,” he said. “Mr Obama provided the supreme leader with the names of individuals who he described as his closest advisers on Iran that can be approached at any time, and asked for a list of advisers who can be approached by the American side.”

Mr Sadjadpour said Mr Khamenei’s response was not welcoming and no names was provided.

“A second letter was sent to follow up on the first and urge the supreme leader and no response was provided this time,” he added.

The letters were sent in 2009, just before the election protests of June 15 began, he added.

“At that time Obama did not directly support the opposition, so he would not upset the engagement that was started, and did not want to jeopardise the nuclear talks that were going on.”

Mr Sadjadpour said that at the time of the protests, Mr Khamenei exercised strong force to put down the uprising – exactly what he is advising Bashar Al Assad to do.

“Khamenei has once mentioned that the speech by the Shah in 1979 apologising to the public had made him show weakness,” he said. “He said this was the point where they were emboldened and knew they had to push harder.

“He refused to show any weakness or compromise during the election protests in 2009 and this is what Iranian officials advised Assad in Syria to do. Look what happened to Ben Ali after he apologised” and to Mubarak and others in the region, he added.

Mr Sadjadpour said the upcoming Iranian elections on June 14, although unpredictable, have to yield a result favourable to the supreme leader.

“People say in democracies that every man’s vote counts, but in Iran it’s one man’s vote that counts and that’s the supreme leader’s,” he said. “It is difficult for any candidate not supported by Khamenei to win because he needs someone who is subservient and loyal to him, is committed to the revolutionary ideals, has managerial competence, popular appeal and is accepted by the revolutionary guard.”

Mr Sadjadpour said that none of the current candidates ticked all the boxes but the front-runners were the chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, and the mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Ghalibaf.

“Jalili is subservient and accepted by the clerics and revolutionary guards but is unpopular and is not charismatic,” he said.

“Ghalibaf is popular, charismatic but not subservient to the supreme leader as he has greater ambitions.”

Mr Sadjadpour said that Iran had become a military autocracy.

“The revolutionary guards have become the prominent institution of power socially and economically in Iran today,” he said.

"They play a major role to support Khamenei, who is not as regarded by the clerics as his predecessor."