The dour, austere visage of Iran's ultimate religious and political authority, spiritual ruler Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, hides quite a different man, according to three recent defectors from his office and household. Their reports are being carefully pored (or pawed) over by analysts of the US Central Intelligence Agency for insights on what makes the ultimate boss of Iran's nuclear program work.
DEBKA-Net-weekly's intelligence sources reveal the defectors, who were regular fixtures at Khamenei's side, are being debriefed at an American military base near Frankfurt, Germany. Parts of their evidence are authenticated by other sources.
One key finding is that the spiritual ruler's powers have been systematically eroded in the five years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency. Nevertheless, he is still the most powerful man in the country and the unchallenged arbiter of decisions in critical matters of state.
But this holy man's lifestyle, which is crammed with pleasures of the flesh rather than the spirit, is the most intriguing part of the defectors' accounts:
Khamenei is described as rising at 04:00 AM to say his morning prayers.
He starts work at 06:00 AM with updates from Mohammad Hejazi, his chief of staff for military affairs, on important business. He then takes visits by his deputy executive assistant nicknamed Vahid, followed by his son Mojtaba.
Although only the second son, he is Khamenei's favorite and they usually spend an hour together every other day. Mojtaba has been sent to study at a religious seminary in Qom to collect enough scholarly credentials to succeed his father when the time comes. He therefore makes the trip to see his father in Tehran only on alternate days.
Despite his unfettered powers, Ali Khamenei has never made it to grand ayatollah for lack of religious scholarship.
Attention to affairs of state and $600 m private fortune
After those visits, the ayatollah spends two and-a-half hours reading updated reports on Iran's economy, security and political situation.
By 10.30 AM, he is ready for his daily nap until noon. The defectors explain at this point that the spiritual ruler is a regular opium user.
Between 12:00 and 13:00 PM he eats his midday meal and says his prayers.
The time-slot between 13:00-15:00 PM is devoted to important meetings and the handling of unexpected crises.
In mid-afternoon he turns to personal affairs. Toward evening, he keeps appointments scheduled days in advance.
At 20:00 PM, he dines and receives an oral update on events in Iran and around the world.
At 21:00 PM, Khamenei retires for the night.
This schedule is scrupulously observed unless it is disturbed by extraordinary events, like the opposition unrest which swept Tehran and other cities from Sunday, December 27, the day of Ashura on the Shite Muslim calendar.
In between, he receives the armed forces and Revolutionary Guards chiefs Sunday, and dines with President Ahmadinejad Mondays.
Tuesday mornings are devoted to discussing his private investments, estimated at $600 million, with his financial managers.
These meetings are attended almost invariably by his brothers, his cousins and those in charge of investing the vast fortune amassed by the spiritual ruler's family.
Powerful old-timer Rafsanjani is out of the loop
Until July of this year, Tuesday dinners were set aside regularly for Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, which is empowered to select and sack the spiritual ruler (and the richest man in Iran). But Rafsanjani's sympathy for the opposition charge that the presidential election was rigged and its protest movement has cost him this regular dinner date with the supreme ruler and thrust him outside Khamenei's circle of contacts.
Wednesday afternoons, the ayatollah usually spends time with members of the powerful Constitutional Guardian Council which oversees the Majlis' parliamentary work and makes sure new legislation is compatible with strict Shiite Islamic tenets.
Once a month, Khamenei receives Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani in his chambers to discuss current events. Other once-monthly visitors are the man in charge of the religious courts and religious advisers, or senior clerics, who come from Qom especially to see the spiritual ruler.
Khamenei's diet is pure gourmet although supervised by his personal physicians.
It is based on caviar and the white fish native to Iran's rivers, as well as rare species of fowl considered the finest of delicacies.
Because of his ever-present fear of poisoning, the chef must taste every dish in the spiritual ruler's presence before he partakes of it. Iranian secret service agents test the food with special powders and compounds imported from abroad.
100 thoroughbreds, dirty jokes and secret meetings
Turning to the spiritual ruler's hidden interests and secret pursuits, the defectors presented some eye-popping revelations:
Khamenei is a consummate equestrian and maintains stables housing close to one hundred horses, some of them exceedingly valuable racing Arabians, in the palace grounds. On long trips, he takes with him two favorite horses for himself and his son Mojtaba to ride. They follow him to his destination aboard a C-330 military cargo aircraft.
Ten years ago, he fell off a horse and broke his left arm. His right arm was damaged in an attack by the Mujahidin Khalq dissident organization in the early years of the Islamic Revolution, so that he has trouble using his hands and prefers to hide them in his robes. .
Khameini is also revealed here as having a fondness for dirty jokes, in which he is entertained by a cleric called Rashed Yazdi renowned for his stock of risque humor.
Khamenei is not above telling racy stories himself at private parties, claiming it's his way of unwinding from the stresses of his position. These private occasions may be attended by his chief of staff for civilian and political affairs, Mohammadi Golpayegani, and senior adviser Vahid Haghanian.
They are frowned on by Mojtaba, who is never invited and therefore feels his position is threatened.
He may be right because the supreme ruler often uses these intimate parties for some private decision-making behind the backs of the president, the Revolutionary Guards chiefs and other top officials, on less jovial matters, like international, domestic, security – or even nuclear – policies.
Biographies, valuable rings and walking canes
He does not neglect the age-old autocrat's habit of not letting the right hand know what the left is doing.
The adage that knowledge is power is also put to good use: It is said that before he turns in at night, he listens to conversations secretly recorded in the offices of top regime officials. Criticisms of himself make him angry enough to sack and punish his defamers.
His favorite leisure reading is biographies of foreign kings, presidents and prime ministers, translated for him into Farsi.
He quit smoking cigarettes last year and took up a pipe using tobacco prepared for him especially under the eye of the secret service.
The Khamenei pipe collection runs to two hundred.
To feed his other hobbies, he has collected more than 300 valuable rings and dozens of walking canes. Visitors wishing to curry favor with the spiritual ruler are advised to bring him a new pipe, a ring or a cane.
At the insistence of supportive conservative clerics, he has ordered Iran's radio station to pare down music programs. However, he has a penchant for classical Iranian music and sometimes reverts to his youth and plays the tar – an Iranian six-stringed plucked instrument related to the Oriental oud.
Visiting shrines – and his harem – in Meshhad
None of these pursuits takes him away from his complicated marital and quasi-marital ties.
Khamenei has a legal wife, a 67-year old contemporary called Khojasteh.
But he also maintains two extra wives in a temporary marriage arrangement known as Sygheh. Sanctioned by ancient Shiite tradition, it permits a man to have in addition to the four legal spouses recognized by Islam an unlimited harem of temporary "wives."
Under this arrangement, the terms of the "marriage" are set in advance by contract. When it is over, the "ex-wife" is sent back to her family taking with her the remuneration fixed in the contract.
According to the defectors, Khamenei keeps his harem of wives-of-the month (or year) in the northeaster shrine city of Mashhad, site of the tomb of Imam Reza. There, the spiritual ruler has a faithful following of radical acolytes, who cherish everything he touches and may even literally kiss the ground he walks on.
So, maybe the Iranian ayatollah does not have a wife in every shrine, but his Meshhad set-up is extraordinarily convenient in that it allows him to combine sacred pilgrimages with exposure to his constituents and quiet visits to his second-class "wives."
At home in Tehran, he treats his reigning wife Khojasteh like a dictator. But her influence is considerable and the household often sees him consulting her on important matters. Mojtaba sometimes asks her to intervene on his behalf with his father on matters in dispute.
In early 2009, Khojasteh went to London for abdominal liposuction and two other surgical procedures. One of her brothers is a black sheep: he joined the dissident Mojahidin Khalq and had to flee fled to Sweden. Three other brothers command an extensive business empire which includes the franchise for Sony products in Iran.
A Praetorian guard of 10,000
The supreme leader's personal security detail numbers nearly 10,000 guards who are housed in facilities ringing his palace. By comparison, the Islamic Revolutionary's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was content with 200 security guards and the US president's 7,000-strong Secret Service protects 24 individuals (current and former presidents, vice presidents and their families) full time.
The two armed guards posted at the doorway to his apartment are named by the defectors as Hossein Jabrai and Din-Shoaari. They have been in his service for nearly thirty years.
The second ring consists of some 200 men. They all reside in large apartments with their families in the palace grounds and are committed to laying down their lives to protect him.
The complement includes 1,000 women, whose duties are kept secret.
He has a personal staff of 500 aides, in addition to 6,000 palace employees.
Under the supervision of Khamenei's personal physician, Dr. Marandi, a former minister of health, a small hospital was established in the palace basement where four physicians work in 24-hour shifts. Specialists may be called in as needed. A bus loaded with medical equipment accompanies him on all his trips.
The spiritual ruler has undergone three surgical procedures in thirty years; his right arm, which was injured in a bombing blast as well as prostate and appendix operations.
An air fleet that would be the envy of any Western ruler stands at the spiritual ruler's command. He has an Airbus 730 for his personal use, two older Boeing 707s for his family, escorts and bodyguards and five Falcon aircraft for short trips. One belongs exclusively to his favorite son Mojtaba.
In addition, the ayatollah has five private helicopters and a transport for his horses.
Six airstrips in Tehran and the religious city of Qom are reserved for the exclusive use of the ayatollah and his retinue and are out of bounds to everyone else.