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The mind of a mullah

What's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei really thinking? Here's some quick psychoanalysis.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks while standing under a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran June 3, 2006. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

There’s been a lot of talk about the key players in the Iranian election saga, but little mention of their psychological motivations. So we decided to play Freud. Helping us with this head game is Marvin Zonis, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Zonis is a political risk expert who was a widely cited commentator during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He was educated at Yale University, the Harvard Business School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a Ph.D. in political science, and the Institute for Psychoanalysis, Chicago, where he received psychoanalytic training.

What's the mindset right now of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

The overwhelming commitment he has is to the preservation of the Islamic system. In the end he’s not loyal to anything except maintaining the power of the cleric, and secondly to maintaining political stability. If he thinks he’ll buy off the disaffection he’ll do it, and in the end he could dump Ahmadinejad if he thought it would preserve stability.

What about Khamenei’s religiosity. Does that count for anything in terms of how people see him as a leader?

[Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini was referred to as “The Leader.” The guy who was appointed to succeed him [Khamenei] had no religious credentials. He got the job because Khomeini fingered him as a loyalist. They started referring to him as “The Supreme Leader” to give him credibility. Islam is important, but there’s no question that the principle goal is to stay in power. They believe, through various acts of self-delusion, that to stay in power is the best thing for Iran.

What is the psychological game behind making the U.S. the boogeyman?

It continues to play. It does so because there’s a small hook of reality they can attach to this. The main thing is: Iranians love conspiracy theories. They love conspiracy thinking. It plays a huge role in Iran. For example: The Iranians refuse to believe that they had made the revolution. The United States did. Why would the U.S. do it? Because the Shah was too friendly with the Soviets, and they were worried about Soviet penetration of the Persian Gulf. So the U.S. brought Khomeini in. So if they brought him into power why did he seize the hostages? Well to essentially throw people off the track. You see, there’s an explanation for everything. They are going to see the hand of the U.S. in this business. But [Obama’s] got to be cautious.