This past week I participated in a conference on Iran convened by the Henry Jackson Society of London and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy of Washington, DC.
As the executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, Alan Mendoza, put it, “Having breakfast with the Supreme Leader of Iran is not something many people can boast of. But the account of just such an occasion by Rafael Bardaji – former national security advisor to the Spanish Prime Minister – stood out as a highlight of the HJS Iran conference in Westminster earlier this week. Bardaji relayed to a packed hall his story of the meeting.”
The story is this: The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, invited then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to breakfast while he was visiting Iran. The Spanish official party decided to begin by asking the ayatollah a friendly or neutral question rather than a hostile or critical one. The idea was to get the meeting off on a better footing, so they began with a question about the complex government and religious power structure in Iran. Given all the official civil and religious bodies and positions and their various responsibilities, they asked him to describe what exactly is his job. ‘My job’, the Supreme Leader replied, ‘is to set Israel on fire.’
Aznar visited Iran in 2001, and has elsewhere said this about his conversation with the Ayatollah Khamanei:
Israel to him was a kind of historical cancer and anomaly, a country … condemned to disappear. At some point he said very clearly, though softly as he spoke, that an open confrontation against the US and Israel was inevitable, and that he was working for Iran to prevail in such a confrontation. It was his duty as the ultimate stalwart of the Islamic global revolution.
As we think through the likelihood of arriving at a good negotiated solution with Iran, and the possibility of persuading and pressuring the Supreme Leader to abandon his nuclear weapons program, it is worth keeping this rare encounter with him by a Western democratic leader very much in mind.