Pre-Revolutionary Political Activism

The first signs of unrest between the Shah and Khomeini’s supporters emerged in March 1963 when the Shah’s agents violently attacked a protest against his rule at the Fayziyyah seminary in Qom, killing several students. In May 1963, Khomeini tasked Khamenei with delivering a confidential letter to Shi’a clergymen in Mashhad, revealing the true nature of the Shah’s regime and its crimes at Fayziyyah. During the same trip, Khamenei was arrested for the first time by the Shah’s authorities in the city of Birjand for propagating Khomeini’s views. Khamenei spent the night in jail and was ordered not to speak out from the pulpit again. According to Khamenei, he realized from that point onward that he would be subject to regular surveillance by the secret police.

In June 1963, Khomeini delivered a speech at the Fayziyyah seminary in Qom to commemorate the Shi’a holiday of Ashura, a day of mourning that commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Hussein, in Karbala. Khomeini’s speech marked a turning point in terms of amplifying public and religious opposition to the White Revolution, catalyzing a process that would ultimately lead to the overthrow of the Shah and the victory of the Islamic Revolution. In his speech, Khomeini used religious symbolism, drawing parallels between the Shah and the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, who was seen as an illegitimate usurper. He likened Hussein, the leader of a revolt against Yazid’s rule, to himself and called on his followers, as rightful heirs of Hussein’s legacy, to follow his example and be willing to sacrifice themselves in the revolutionary cause against the Shah. In fact, thousands of Iranian Shi’a heeded this political call to action, which derived its potency from the Shi’a commitment to Hussein. Many of them confronted the Shah’s military and police forces, and saw their sacrifice for Khomeini’s cause as martyrdom.

Khomeini further railed against the Shah’s tyrannical rule, his alliances with the U.S. and Israel, and accused him of seeking to destroy Islam and the Shi’a clergy. Simultaneously, an estimated 100,000 of Khomeini’s supporters and other anti-Shah activists held a march in Tehran that ended at the Shah’s palace and featured chants of “Death to the Dictator! Death to the Dictator! God save you Khomeini! Death to your bloodthirsty enemy!”

Two days after Khomeini’s speech, the Shah’s authorities arrested him, sparking nationwide demonstrations in support of Khomeini around the country. Many of his supporters dressed in white shrouds, religiously symbolizing their willingness to be martyred for the cause of revolution against the Shah. The Shah ordered a violent crackdown on the uprising, known as the 15th of Khordad movement, resulting in hundreds of Iranians from various backgrounds losing their lives at the hands of his forces. Khamenei was arrested for a second time for his activities relating to the uprising, spending 10 days in prison in harsh conditions.

While Khomeini remained under house arrest for eight months, Khamenei and his revolutionary cohort continued to promote the Islamic movement and engage in anti-Shah political activism. In January 1964, Khamenei joined with other members of Khomeini’s inner circle and traveled around the country to agitate against the Shah. After delivering speeches in southern Iran opposing a planned referendum on the Shah’s reform program, Khamenei was arrested again by agents of SAVAK, the organization of Iranian intelligence and security. He was transferred to a prison in Tehran known for housing political prisoners, where he spent two months in solitary confinement and faced torture.

In 1964, Khamenei opted to cut short his ongoing seminary education in Qom to return home to Mashhad and care for his ailing father, who had lost sight in one eye. This became a justification for why Khamenei never obtained the requisite religious credentials to serve as the Supreme Leader under the Islamic Republic’s constitution. Because his activities were based out of Mashhad for much of the pre-revolutionary period, it should be noted that Khamenei had less frequent contact with Khomeini and was more peripheral to Khomeini’s movement than many of the revolutionary clergy based in Qom and Tehran.

During this period, Khamenei began teaching Islamic subjects and continued his revolutionary political activities. He also married his wife, Mansoureh, in 1964 as well. Little is known about Mansoureh, and there are no known photographs of her, as wives of senior regime officials typically avoid the spotlight. In a rare public interview with a woman’s magazine, Mansoureh stated that, marriage did not temper Khamenei’s intense revolutionary fervor: “In the first months of our marriage, my husband asked me, ‘How would you feel if I was arrested?’ I was very upset at first. But he spoke about the clashes, the risks and problems, and how this is the duty of all people, and that convinced me completely.” Of her own participation in the revolutionary cause, Mansoureh downplayed her own activism, saying her primary contribution was “to preserve a calm atmosphere in our home so that he could do his work in peace. I would sometimes visit him in prison without telling him about our problems. Of course, I was also active in distributing pamphlets, carrying messages and hiding documents, but I think [these actions] are not worth mentioning.”

Khamenei and his wife have four sons and two daughters: Mostafa, Mojtaba, Masoud, Meysam, Hoda, and Boshra. Khamenei’s siblings include Mohammad Khamenei, who later served in parliament; Badri Khamenei, with whom the Supreme Leader had a falling out over her husband’s anti-revolutionary activities; Hadi Khamenei, with whom the Supreme Leader has feuded given his reformist tendencies; and Hassan Khamenei, his only non-clerical brother, who later worked in the culture and oil ministries after the revolution.

In the autumn of 1964, the Shah passed a controversial new law that granted U.S. military personnel stationed in Iran immunity from prosecution in Iran. Khomeini strongly opposed this law, viewing it as a violation of Iranian sovereignty and an acceptance of American dominance. Khomeini gave his most fiery speech to date against the new law, calling on religious leaders to unite in resistance to its implementation and the encroachment of Western cultural values. In his speech, he exhorted, “They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog. If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, or the marja [source of emulation] of Iran, or the highest officials, no one will have the right to object.”

Following this speech, the Shah grew impatient with Khomeini but refrained from executing or assassinating him due to fears over the unrest it would provoke. Seeking to curtail his influence within Iran, the Shah opted to rearrest Khomeini and exile him to Turkey. Khomeini would spend 11 months in Turkey, chafing against the society’s enforced secularism, before settling in Najaf, Iraq, where he would remain in exile until 1978. While in Iraq, Khomeini taught at seminary, continued evolving his religious and political philosophies, and served as the spiritual and symbolic leader of the anti-Shah movement. In 1970, he published his seminal treatise, Islamic Government, in which he renounced the concept of monarchy as un-Islamic and illegitimate, arguing power should be vested with the Shi’a clergy with ultimate decision-making authority in the hands of a Supreme Leader (velayat-e faqih). Paradoxically, exile helped Khomeini grow his profile and influence within Iran. Throughout this period, Khomeini’s anti-Shah, anti-Western preachments continued to be smuggled into Iran via cassette tapes and other media, provoking frequent demonstrations and unrest. According to his official state biography, however, “Imam Khomeini was careful not to publicize his ideas for clerical rule outside of his Islamic network of opposition to the Shah which he worked to build and strengthen over the next decade.”

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, anti-Shah sentiment continued to grow across various sectors of society, with the Shi’a clergy emerging as the most organized element of the opposition. This was largely due to the Islamic network of opposition, built by Khomeini, which operated through mosques, seminaries, and other religious centers. Unlike other nascent civil society institutions, the Shah could not crack down on organized religion without engendering a massive widespread backlash. Consequently, Khomeini and his revolutionary clerics were in the best position to seize control of Iran when the broad-based Iranian Revolution finally occurred in 1979.

During Khomeini’s exile, Khamenei and his fellow clerical backers intensified their opposition to the Shah. However, their struggle extended beyond opposing the Shah. They also sought to increase religiosity in Iranian society and to reform the Qom seminary. Their aim was to enable Khomeini’s young and enthusiastic backers to gain influence at the expense of older, more quietist establishment clerics, thereby orienting Qom in a more revolutionary direction. They concluded it was necessary to act in a more organized fashion to spread their ideology more effectively and to mitigate efforts by the Shah’s authorities to suppress their revolutionary activities.

One such initiative was the formation of a secret group of eleven young Qom seminarians in 1965, that included Khamenei, his brother, Sayyid Mohammad Khamenei, Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi. The group aimed to organize revolutionary activities and steer the Qom seminary in a more revolutionary direction. SAVAK discovered the group’s activities in early 1967 and moved to disband it, arresting some members. Khamenei “was forced to go underground” for a period as a result.

Also contributing to his need to go underground, in 1967, Khamenei served as a translator for a project to secretly publish and distribute the Egyptian Islamist, Sayyid Qutb’s, book, The Future in Islamic Lands. Qutb, whose theories formed the ideological framework for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and was the inspiration for Al Qaeda and other Salafi jihadi movements, had been executed the year prior by the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Qutb’s ideas on Islam as the basis of governance factored into the formulation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic vision as well. In his introduction to the translation, Khamenei wrote, “This lofty and great author has tried in the course of the chapters of this book . . . to first introduce the essence of the faith as it is and then, after showing that it is a program for living . . . [confirm] with his eloquent words and his particular world outlook that ultimately world government shall be in the hands of our school and ‘the future belongs to Islam.’” Recognizing Qutb’s works as a challenge to the Shah’s monarchical rule, SAVAK thwarted the publication of the book and arrested those behind the clandestine effort, but Khamenei was able to evade arrest at the time.

Several months later, however, Khamenei attended the funeral of a local ayatollah in Mashhad and alerted to his presence, SAVAK agents arrested him yet again. Khamenei spent three months in prison before being released. Upon his release, he immediately resumed organized revolutionary activities, traveling around the country to hold meetings and give sermons from the pulpit in order to recruit and train new revolutionaries – mainly, but not exclusively, among the clergy and university students – into Khomeini’s ideology and movement.

Khamenei differed from his fellow clerical counterparts in that while Islam and Islamism were his guiding lights, he also had a more cosmopolitan outlook. Khamenei drew inspiration from music, poetry, and novels, including from the Western canon, in addition to Islamic legal texts. As part of his revolutionary outreach, Khamenei interfaced with intellectuals and political groups from various walks of life, finding common ground where possible. Since the overthrow of Mosaddegh in 1953, Iran’s intelligentsia was fairly united in opposition to the U.S. and the Shah. Meeting with leading secular intellectuals and reading novels such as the Grapes of Wrath and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which shed light on systemic problems such as racism and wealth inequality afflicting the U.S., helped Khamenei sharpen his anti-U.S., anti-imperialist critiques. He fused these ideas with his faith in Islam and Islamism to arrive at a synthesis whereby Islam would serve as the basis for a rising independent Third World to be liberated from American and Zionist dominance. While Khamenei was influenced by and willing to instrumentally make common cause with non-Islamic factions opposed to the Shah, after the broad-based Iranian Revolution in 1979, Khomeini and his revolutionary cohort would quickly turn against and move to repress their erstwhile allies-of-convenience.

Over the next several years following his 1967 arrest, Khamenei continued traveling around Iran, giving sermons and holding meetings promoting Khomeini’s ideology and opposition to the Shah. These revolutionary activities led to more encounters with SAVAK and subsequent arrests. In June 1970, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohsen Hakim, who was at the time the main marja-e-taghlid (source of emulation) from the Najaf seminary and thus influential among the majority of Shi’a Muslims, passed away. Khamenei advocated for Imam Khomeini to replace him, but a different successor was chosen. As part of this advocacy, Khamenei was imprisoned for a few months, in September 1970, for publishing and distributing pamphlets supporting Khomeini and criticizing the Shah. SAVAK charged Khamenei with following Khomeini as his source of emulation and subscribing to his political beliefs. Khamenei’s speeches and published works insulted the Shah, who concluded, “Hence, he has committed treason.” Khamenei was ordered not to return to the pulpit upon his release. Still, he continued preaching Khomeini’s vision of revolutionary Islamism, inspiring youth around the country to undertake anti-Shah activism. This led to three more arrests for Khamenei in 1971.

Undeterred, Khamenei continued teaching, holding meetings, and preaching, moving from mosque to mosque in an effort to stay one step ahead of SAVAK. Anti-Shah sentiment continued to grow throughout the country during this period. From January to August 1975, he was imprisoned again in Tehran at a prison euphemistically called the Joint Anti-Sabotage Committee, enduring the harshest conditions behind bars yet. His family was not informed of his whereabouts, and he was denied visitors throughout his stint. One of his cellmates, a communist dissident, recalled Khamenei “as a kindly if austere man, gentle enough to feed one of his fellow-prisoners after a torture session. Khamenei would read the Quran aloud and sob, lost in the words of the Prophet, or simply peer at the sky through the bars of his cell.” Nothing about Khamenei’s mild-mannered nature indicated he possessed the ruthless ambition and political instincts needed to eventually amass and maintain absolute power in Iran.