TEHRAN, Sept. 3 — As Iran defies the West over its nuclear program, the public face of the nation has become the outspoken president,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who by most accounts has been the primary architect of Iran’s combative foreign policy, and the force behind the president’s own power.
Cloaked in religious robes, with a black turban signaling that he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Ayatollah Khamenei delivers the same blistering anti-American, anti-British, anti-Israeli message as the president.
His political evolution charts his own rise to power. As the Friday Prayer leader nearly two decades ago, he questioned the absolute power of Iran’s supreme leader, saying Islamic law and the Constitution must come first. Today, he has emerged as an aggressive defender of his own right to have the final say in all matters of state and religion — a power he has not been afraid to exercise.
Indeed, political analysts, clerics and former government officials here said they believed that he had pushed for a more confrontational approach with the West because he grew disillusioned with the so-called confidence-building policy pursued by the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami.
They said he also sought to consolidate his power by building a political base among Iran’s more fundamentalist circles, which are suspicious of the West. Along the way, he succeeded in sidelining most of those with independent authority, such as the former two-term president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who pushed to select Ayatollah Khamenei as supreme leader.
“He wanted to preserve his power and he has been quite successful,” said Mohsen Kadivar, a senior reformist cleric in Tehran. “His power is stronger today. Everyone who is in power is to obey him, completely. But his authority, which comes from people’s support, has not increased.”
Ayatollah Khamenei’s political evolution from the traditionalist right to the more fundamentalist camp was described in interviews with present and former state officials, clerics who worked with him before and after the revolution, Western diplomats in Tehran and political analysts. Virtually all insisted on anonymity, fearing retribution if they spoke publicly. They all cautioned that they held only pieces of the puzzle.
The supreme leader is such a sensitive subject here that the government press office declined to submit a request to visit his office, or speak with his administrative staff.
When Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected last year, many analysts and present and former officials said he was Ayatollah Khamenei’s candidate. But when the president came out with his aggressive comments — about nuclear energy and Israel in particular — many wondered aloud if the leader’s candidate was speaking without the consent of his prime patron. It is still impossible to know whether, for example, the president asked for permission before sending letters to world leaders, including President Bush.
But Ayatollah Khamenei (pronounced kha-meh-neh-ee) erased some of that confusion late last month, when he made statements siding with the president against the Guardian Council, which oversees all government decisions, and Parliament. In a news conference last month, Mr. Ahmadinejad acknowledged that Ayatollah Khamenei had advised his administration to try to broaden its circle of advisers and reach out to more “intellectuals.”
When Ayatollah Khamenei was chosen 17 years ago to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic, he was finishing his second term as president, a relatively weak job then because there was also a prime minister.
The ayatollah, a midlevel cleric without a strong political base, was chosen in part because he was not seen as a threat to other powerful clerics or politicians, political analysts in Tehran said. In fact, for his first six years as leader, it was President Rafsanjani who ran the state, according to people who worked with both men.
Over time, Ayatollah Khamenei created a system that many political analysts and Western diplomats here say is less a theocracy and more an autocracy — with loyalty to the leader the prerequisite for influence.
Ayatollah Khamenei has strong ties to the Basij volunteer morality squads and the Revolutionary Guards, and has won the allegiance of some powerful seminaries in the religious center of Qum by giving them state funds. He also has strong allies in the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, which technically exercises oversight of the leader.
While Iran’s elected officials are subjected to public scrutiny and criticism, the supreme leader is not. He is more than a head of state; he is a symbol of two core elements of the Islamic Republic’s official identity — revolution and religion. As a result, assessing the leader is a red line in Iran, one few people are willing to cross, at least publicly.
The Constitution gives the supreme leader near total control of the state, though officials like to emphasize that he is selected by the Assembly of Experts, which is elected by the public. The leader appoints all military and security commanders, he has the power to declare war and must confirm the election of the president. He appoints the head of the judiciary, more than half the members of the Guardian Council and the head of state television.
Still, Iran is not a country ruled by decree. There are multiple power centers and competing agendas, requiring that major decisions be made after consultation and compromise.
As Ayatollah Khamenei has consolidated power, he has defined Iran’s agenda. He supports Iran’s right to pursue nuclear energy, rails against the failure of “liberal democracy” and often talks about the “usurper Zionist regime” — just as President Ahmadinejad does.
Here is what the supreme leader said at a conference in Tehran in April:
“The bitter and venomous taste of Western liberal democracy, which the United States has hypocritically been trying to portray through its propaganda as a healing remedy, has hurt the body and soul of the Islamic Ummah and burned the hearts of Muslims.”
Ayatollah Khamenei appears to have gravitated closer to the fundamentalists. But he has always held conservative values. In a 1996 interview with the hard-line journal Sobh, for example, he wrote that children should not be allowed to play music. “Teaching music is not in accordance with the Islamic establishment, and teaching music to schoolchildren brings corruption,” he said.
In early power struggles over the scope of the supreme leader’s authority, however, he spoke out in support of limits. In the early years of President Khatami’s reformist rule, he tolerated some popular changes relaxing social restrictions and allowing more freedom of the press.
But he appears to have worked steadily to undermine Mr. Khatami, and those efforts accelerated after he sensed that the reform movement was challenging his authority. One former high-ranking reformer who remains friendly with Ayatollah Khamenei said that the biggest mistake the reformers made was to challenge the power of the supreme leader.
The former official, who is still involved in politics and said he meets regularly with Ayatollah Khamenei, said many of the supreme leader’s decisions were based on political calculations aimed at preserving his power. “He reacted to efforts by radicals among the reformers to weaken him,” the former official said.
When Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, the country’s leaders had talked about creating a council to replace him. The logic was twofold: there was a sense that no one could command the same authority and respect as Ayatollah Khomeini, and other officials did not want to cede power to a new leader, people familiar with the decision process said.
Mr. Rafsanjani, then the speaker of Parliament, was one of Iran’s most powerful men. He pressed for a new supreme leader, saying it was essential to have one person in that post — and he pushed through the selection of Ayatollah Khamenei.
“Rafsanjani definitely played a role in making him leader,” said Mahmoud Vaezi, a former deputy foreign minister who now sits on the Expediency Council, which arbitrates disputes between the elected and appointed arms of government.
But in time, the supreme leader figured out how to project his authority. He changed his dress, from elegant clerical robes to the more conservative, simple and traditional religious garb hidden beneath a flowing black cape. He also draped around his neck a kaffiyeh, the checkered scarf that is a symbol of resistance.
“Nobody should forget that as the leader, he is a revolutionary and a religious man,” said Mehdi Karoubi, a cleric and former speaker of Parliament who was among the early followers of Ayatollah Khomeini. “In his public comments he has to reflect those realities.”
The leader’s consolidation of power appeared to reach its height on the day of the new president’s inauguration ceremony last year, when Mr. Ahmadinejad made a very public gesture of obedience by gently leaning over to kiss his hand.
Still, Ayatollah Khamenei is known to consult widely before making a final decision. And he has made efforts to appear inclusive, reaching beyond his base. Recently, for example, he created a new strategic foreign policy committee and put a former official from Mr. Khatami’s reform government in charge, although the official is related to the leader.
Many Iranians who know him describe the ayatollah as a man who loves the arts, writes poetry and is a voracious reader. And most confine themselves to safe generalities: “He is a very kind, sincere, joyful person,” said Muhammad Ali Besherati, a former interior minister.
Ayatollah Khamenei was born in 1939 in Mashhad, a holy city in northeastern Iran. His father was a cleric, and according to his own biography, an ascetic who lived a life of few comforts. He was a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini and is said to have been a strong supporter of the students who stormed the United States Embassy in 1979 and held the staff hostage for 444 days. He was first elected president in 1981 and was re-elected to a second term in 1985.
In important early battles over the scope of the supreme leader’s power, Ayatollah Khamenei apparently took a more moderate stance than his predecessor. In December 1987, he first spoke out in favor of limits on that power in a conflict between Parliament and the Guardian Council, which sought to nullify a labor law Ayatollah Khomeini had backed, saying it conflicted with Shariah, or Islamic law.
Mr. Khamenei, speaking at Friday Prayer, suggested that the Constitution had to be observed by everyone and that laws had to respect Shariah. Mr. Khomeini rebuffed him, stating that the supreme leader could overrule even Islamic law.
In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa authorizing the murder of Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses.” At the time, Mr. Khamenei was the leader of the Friday Prayer sermon, a post that allowed him to address the nation.
“Islam is the religion of blessing and kindness,” he was quoted as saying in the Feb. 15, 1989, edition of the newspaper Kayhan. “And anyone who repents of what he has done, no matter how serious the sin, he ought to be optimistic of being forgiven by God.”
He was again rebuffed by Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a scathing public rebuttal.