WASHINGTON -- CIA analysts tasked with studying the geopolitical gamesmanship now at play over Iran's nuclear program have expensive and highly classified tools at their disposal, but one of their best sources is free and readily available: public utterances of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Like much of the information about Iran's secretive and enigmatic regime, Ayatollah Khamenei's remarks are sometimes contradictory and always subject to different interpretations. But as negotiations over the country's nuclear program begin today in Istanbul, efforts to divine where he really stands on the nuclear issue have taken on critical importance.
Underscoring the ayatollah's direct involvement in the issue, Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, arrived in Turkey with a new title: "personal representative of the supreme leader."
Ayatollah Khamenei, who is leader of Iran's government and the final authority on Islamic law, often uses religious language when he talks about the nuclear issue, which can jar Western analysts trying to gauge the meaning of such strong statements.
With tensions over the nuclear program rising in February, he used such words to signal his opposition to nuclear weapons. "Iran is not seeking to have the atomic bomb, possession of which is pointless, dangerous and is a great sin from an intellectual and a religious point of view," he said.
Last month, the ayatollah was reported to have said, "We do not possess a nuclear weapon, and we will not build one." He also issued a fatwa, an Islamic edict, against Iranian acquisition of a nuclear bomb.
But those comments are at odds not only with some of Iran's behavior, but also with what Ayatollah Khamenei has said in the past. Analysts can point to remarks he made last year that it was a mistake for Libya's late dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, to have given up his nuclear weapons program.
Referring to Gadhafi, the ayatollah said, "This gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, 'Take them!' Look where we are," he added, "and in what position they are now."
Complicating matters, some analysts say Ayatollah Khamenei's denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called "taqiyya," or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.
Dennis B. Ross, who stepped down last fall after coordinating Iran policy for the White House, said Ayatollah Khamenei's comments ultimately revealed a leader who may be hedging his bets about acquiring a nuclear bomb. "The value of looking at Khamenei's statements is that he has written a lot and said a lot," Mr. Ross said. "There is a certain consistency about what he has said."
His language, Mr. Ross added, shows that he has always viewed the nuclear program as a sign of Iran's technological advance, the way Iran will achieve independence.
"This is someone who has consistently said if you make concessions, you only whet the appetite of the arrogant powers," Mr. Ross said. "He is committed to the nuclear program, but he is also someone who is obviously centered on preserving the system that he has created -- and he has left himself an out, in that he says he isn't interested in nuclear weapons. And that creates a context in which to evaluate the choices he may make."
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khom-eini, leader of the revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, ended the secret nuclear weapons program the shah had begun.
But the Iran-Iraq war that lasted from 1980 to 1988 changed the Iranian regime's thinking about nuclear weapons. Khomeini secretly restarted the nuclear weapons program in 1984. Ayatollah Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader.
In 2003, probably in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered suspension of Iran's nuclear weapons program, though uranium enrichment continues.