-Analysis-

BERLIN - In Teheran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word. But is the “No” of Iran’s spiritual leader really his last word when it comes to negotiating directly with the U.S. in the conflict over his country’s nuclear program?

Maybe not. His position must be seen in the context of Iran’s domestic politics – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is not in Khamenei’s good books, only has four more months in office. Taking such a huge step as starting to reconcile with the U.S. – something most Iranians want – is not going to take place while Ahmadinejad is in office.

In this conflict, now over a decade old, so many red lines have been crossed, so many opportunities wasted, so many deadlines frittered away, that there is no longer such a thing as “never.” Israeli leaders have been seeing the imminent advent of an Iranian bomb since the mid-1990s.

On the other hand, a few years ago Khamenei himself said that if it served Iran to cultivate relations with the U.S., he would be the first to do so. And if things get that far he wants the credit to go to him, not to reformers or populists. Now however, the Americans have tightened sanctions against Teheran so from his standpoint talk is useless. "I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary," he says.

A solution to the conflict is possible despite Khamenei’s deep-rooted mistrust of the Americans. Settling the exasperating dispute about uranium and centrifuges would end economic sanctions – and then nothing more would stand in the way of broader reconciliation between the two countries. But here’s the rub – the spiritual leader fears nothing as much as he fears free exchange between people, free exchange of thought and goods. Every chance he gets, he warns of “cultural invasion.”

In Khamenei’s view, the spread of cultural values would lead to moral corruption, promiscuity and the destruction of social fabric. In that sense such values are far more dangerous to him than military attack. Washington pundits are credited with saying that mini-skirts would be more effective than bombs in Iran. This fear is what has led to the recent increase of pressure on Iranian journalists, artists and intellectuals, and the demonization of opposition leaders as “deviants.” For Khamenei, economic sanctions are the lesser of two evils.

When the Ayatollah speaks

Khamenei himself does not feel the consequences of such sanctions. For over three decades he has been either president or supreme leader, separated from the reality of everyday Iranians by the security measures and personality cult that surround him. He doesn’t believe that the sanctions can hurt the country in the long-term. On the contrary, he says: the sanctions foster independence, the development of Iran’s own potential, and a sense of self-determination.

The reality is a little less rosy. For followers of the spiritual leader, Iran’s independence and national dignity may be a fetish, but the truth is that nearly all Iranians suffer from the sanctions. But Khamenei has the last word.

The Western media doesn’t seem to have picked up on the fact that Khamenei recently read Iran’s political classes the riot act. Never have the president, parliament, high-ranking clerics, revolutionary guard and business leaders been so divided. Never have there been so many accusations of corruption, protection and despotism.

The most recent conflict between Ahmadinejad and the powerful clan of parliamentary chairman Ali Larijani was only stopped because Khamenei ordered a stop to it. Until the presidential elections, all critical discussion in public is forbidden. To Khamenei, anyone who disregards this is a “traitor.”

Various institutions will be making sure that Khamenei has the June presidential elections well under control – first and foremost the Guardian Council that vets all candidates and weeds out the ones deemed unsuitable.

For President Ahmadinejad it will be difficult in the time he has remaining to find puppet candidate – someone to carry on his policies – through all the hurdles. Among conservatives, it’s not yet clear who of the many contenders will get Khamenei’s seal of approval. And whether former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, the big outsider in the Iranian power tussle, gets into the race again is presently unclear. Meanwhile, moderate reformers appear to be betting on Hassan Rowhani, a former Iranian nuclear program negotiator.