The mind of a mullah

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.

Is the Iranian regime surviving because it has a legitimate power base or because it spins a potent delusion of grandeur?

It’s not a delusion of grandeur in the sense that it is a political system that was instituted as a power and is recognized as legitimate. And it's recognized by the majority of Iranians as legitimate. That doesn’t mean they don’t have delusions of grandeur. They think they’re a great power and world civilization, and that’s why they should have nukes.

Does Ahmadinejad have a Napoleon complex?

I think calling it a Napoleon complex is good. One thing is he’s very short. I’m sure he’s so competitive for having been the butt of jokes, having to be tougher than everybody else. I’m sure that plays a role. But he’s also tremendously popular with his base: The unsophisticated elements of the Iranian population. The other thing that’s attractive: He’s a real ascetic, he lives humbly, and that makes him popular.

What’s behind his hostility towards Israel?

I think he’s probably trying to delegitimize it. What he wants to do is enhance Iran’s standing with the people in the Arab world. He’s not going to appeal to middle-class Egyptians or educated Jordanians. But he will appeal to uneducated all over the Arab world. The point is to build Shiite greatness and enhance the role of Iran in the Middle East. The best way to do that is to pick on Israel.

How is it that Mousavi, a former prime minister and an elder statesman, became the vessel for Iranian resistance?

For one thing, he was always looked upon as a very sober guy. When he was the prime minister from 1980 to 1988, it was during the Iran-Iraq war, and he was seen as managing the economy brilliantly. He’s looked at as not crazy, but as very competent. And Ahmadinejad has done so much to screw up the economy. Plus, he’s been very up front with his wife. He campaigns with her. She’s often at his side. That’s endeared him a lot to women and to young people.

Iran is still a religious society, isn’t it? So what’s driving the tumult we’re seeing?

It’s been said a million times: 70 percent of the population was born since the revolution. They all don’t understand why they can’t wear blue jeans and play rock and roll. The Chinese are doing it, why can’t we? They don’t get it. The regime has done a terrible job explaining. The regime is stupid. They’re so ascetic. Islam in general is a very joyless religion: Life is miserable, prepare to die and go to heaven. The kids aren’t into that. Culturally it’s a complete disjunction.

[Editor's note: This article was updated after a reader pointed out an error and the author confirmed it: A quote from Marvin Zonis that read, "This guy who he appointed to succeed him [Khamenei] had no religious credentials" should have read, "The guy who was appointed to succeed him [Khamenei] had no religious credentials." The error occurred during the transcription of a recording of the interview.] 

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Iran election: Blood and oil

The Ground Truth in Tehran