The Loneliness of the Supreme Leader’

On November 22, I was a guest at a barracks of the Islamic militia (officially called the Basij, or the Mobilization of the Oppressed) in a suburb of Tehran. Some thirty militiamen in their late teens and early twenties had gathered to celebrate the birthday of Ali Ibn-Abu Taleb, the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, the first Imam of Shia Islam. Before the ceremony started, a middle-aged man entered the room, holding a copy of Keyhan, the main newspaper of the conservative establishment. From the polite greetings he received and the superior manner of his responses, it was clear that he was a figure of authority. Without noticing me, the only foreigner in the room, he sat on the floor, cross-legged, and began speaking.

At the time, Iran’s politics had been convulsed by nationwide student demonstrations protesting against the death sentence that had been given to a freethinking academic, Hashem Aghajari, for apostasy. The demonstrations—which began the day after Aghajari’s sentence was made public, on November 6—were supported by the reformist government of President Muhammad Khatami, and were mostly confined to university campuses. Although none of the demonstrations is thought to have attracted more than five thousand participants, they were Iran’s most serious protests since 1999, when the suppression of riots at Tehran University left one student dead. Alarmed by the scope of the current demonstrations, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a review of the verdict against Mr. Aghajari, but he issued a warning as well. If trouble continued, he would not hesitate to deploy “popular forces.” He was partly referring to the Ansar Hezbollah, a fellowship of Islamic thugs who take orders from senior conservatives. But most of the regime’s “popular forces” are members of the Islamic militia, such as the young men I was visiting.

In this modest Tehran suburb, Khamenei’s words hung in the air. The speaker assured the militiamen that the Islamic Republic faced mortal danger. They should not, he urged, suppose that the campus demonstrations were spontaneous expressions of dissent; they had been meticulously planned by Iran’s enemy, America. America’s aims, he said, were to make Iran seem divided and, eventually, to bring down the Islamic regime. “Do you think,” he asked rhetorically, “that America intends to stop after it has dealt with Iraq? Do you think that’s the sum of George Bush’s ambitions for the region?”

Supported by America, he said, Israel also posed an immediate danger. Its ambition was to expand as far as the Euphrates, putting it on Iran’s doorstep. Everyone knew, he said, that over the years Iran had supported the oppressed Palestinians and opposed Israel. In a week’s time, on Jerusalem Day, which falls on the last Friday in Ramadan, and was used by the late Ayatollah Khomeini as a means of showing Iran’s solidarity with the Palestinians, it was vital that Iranians exhibit their resolve.

This Jerusalem Day,” he went on, “must be …

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