Neighbors / Just a Regular, Everyday Supreme Leader

Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei may make out like an ascetic who has to borrow money from friends, but reports show he and his family are directing multi-billion dollar oil deals and consolidating power within.

"He wakes up about half an hour to an hour before the morning prayer, after which he goes for a walk of 45 to 60 minutes. On a day when he plans to go far away, he takes the Koran with him so that he can pray when he reaches his destination. We, the guards, do not allow him to go to the same mountain twice in case the enemy discovers he is there and attacks him. He 'uses' all the mountains around Tehran. There is no specific mountain to which he goes."

The description is of the routine of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, as told to the Iranian monthly Itihad by one of his bodyguards, Gholam Shahafsandi. The story is just one of the many human interest pieces published in Iran by Khamenei's aides in order to build an image of him as a normal everyday citizen.

khamenei - Reuters - September 13 2011

The guard continues that "after praying, Khamenei eats breakfast and then turns to his office work until it is time for the afternoon prayer. If he participated in a meeting before the prayer, he eats lunch together with those who participated in the meeting, after the prayer. He generally spends the afternoon and evening hours in his library."

Khamenei, 70, hardly ever appears in public and if he plans to visit a public place, a special unit of the Revolutionary Guards prepares the site for him well in advance. Candidates for the unit undergo the most stringent examination by the Intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guards and then must complete a long and exhausting training.

The leader's close associates also try to describe him as being modest and ascetic. Ayatollah Abualhasan Mahadavi, a member of the experts' committee from the Isfahan region, says that not only is Khamenei self-denying, he even needs to borrow money from friends now and then.

The head of his bureau says he personally has lent his boss money "and he returns it when he has it." But many who have visited Khamenei do not buy the stories about his modesty. They are well aware of the stories about corruption in his family as well as the fact that the supreme leader collects large fees for approving projects carried out by the heavily financed charitable institutions that he manages.

Khamenei's son-in-law, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, who used to be speaker of the parliament, vehemently denies these charges and states that Khamenei has never taken money for himself. However Haddad Adel himself is on the board of directors of the Petro Nahad company, a body which Khamenei set up in order to have control the Iranian oil industry. Also on the board is Khamenei's son Mojtaba.

By order of the supreme leader, all oil dealings in Iran need to pass through Petro Nahad. A year ago, the company drew up the terms of a $4.7-billion oil deal with Beijing that will allow China to dig for oil at the southern Fars oil field. Since then, however, China has announced that the project is on hold.

The Web site, which specializes in the South American oil industry, reported last week that China had bowed to American pressure and even though it was not announcing this publicly, it had made it clear to Washington that it would restrict its activities in Iran. It is also possible, though, that this is a Chinese tactic to get better conditions in the deal. Iran is dependent on China for gasoline imports and also needs its support against further international sanctions.

According to a report on an Iranian opposition website, in one of its large deals with the United Arab Emirates, Petro Nahad enjoyed the partnership of the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari. According to the conditions of the deal, Iran will sell the UAE oil at below market value in return for $89 billion in cash and $89 billion in goods. If true, the report refutes the announcement by the UAE that it has cut down business dealing with Tehran.

Khamenei is not an oil expert but he knows how to build political and family coalitions to ensure that his regime survives and that the staff continues to be dependent on him. Reports from Tehran say that Mojtaba is not merely the axis around which the oil deals revolve but also the one whom Khamenei is grooming as his successor. He is the person who was behind the success of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections of 2005, and he also took care of his position in the 2009 elections.

While the 42-year-old Mojtaba does not at present have more than a middle ranking position in the religious hierarchy, he has studied with "the right ayatollahs" and is well connected with the hard-line religious elite.

Ayatollah Aziz Khoshvaght, for example, a senior member of the committee of experts which has the authority to appoint (or dismiss ) the supreme leader, is the father-in-law of Mojtaba's brother Mustafa. He is an avid supporter of Mojtaba, who is considered even more extreme than his father.

This complex and corrupt system of ties - according to reports in the West, the main players have hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts abroad - is managed from the modest bureau of Khamenei, who reportedly requires loans from his friends. This is a staff that is already preparing the 2012 parliamentary elections with the goal of dismissing reformists from all the political power centers.

In view of this enormously powerful group, the leader of the Green movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, stated last week that "there will be no point in competing in the elections."

Khamenei will be able to continue to stroll in the mountains, to breathe in fresh air and to borrow money.