Khamenei’s Consolidation of Power

Despite his public show of reticence, Khamenei and political leaders such as Rafsanjani, who backed his ascension, immediately undertook to buttress Khamenei’s public image and sell him to the skeptical population and senior clerical elites once elected. Although his religious scholarship was lacking, Khamenei possessed excellent skills as a micromanager and an individual who understood the levers of power in the complex Iranian political system. Over the years, Khamenei has ensured that the heads of all the major institutions in the country – the Assembly of Experts, the Judiciary, the Guardian Council, and the IRGC, to name a few – are either handpicked or unfailingly loyal to him, and as a result, these institutions serve to enhance rather than check Khamenei’s power. The cultivation of patronage networks has been vital to his survival and accrual of power within Iran, and he has forged symbiotic relationships with two main power centers, the clerical bureaucracy and the senior leadership of the IRGC, which have served as the fount of his longevity. Additionally, he has been willing to use intimidation and outright repression when needed to advance his power and to put down threats to his political survival and that of the revolutionary regime.

Because the proposed amended constitution, which had eliminated the requirement that the vali-e­ faqih be a recognized marja, had not yet been ratified when Khomeini passed, Khamenei’s appointment as Supreme Leader lacked proper legal standing. Rafsanjani and other regime officials worked around this by instilling a measure of fear and declaring that disobedience to the new faqih would be seen as counterrevolutionary and would not be tolerated. To sell Khamenei as legitimate and cultivate support would require a methodical process of building up and consistently reinforcing the mythos around Khamenei. Because he was unremarkable in his own right, that mythos was centered on his ties to Khomeini, which were frequently embellished, and his ability to best carry forth Khomeini’s vision for the Islamic Republic. 

Khamenei’s political allies portrayed him as worthy of carrying on Khomeini’s legacy by virtue of being Khomeini’s favored choice for Supreme Leader, whether that was the case or not. Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, was enlisted in the effort to legitimize Khamenei, announcing on June 6, “When Khamenei was traveling to North Korea, the Imam watched the reports of his trip on the television. He was impressed witnessing the welcome of the Korean people, his speeches and interviews. Then Imam said, ‘Surely he is worthy of leadership.’” Ayatollah Meshkini, the head of the Assembly of Experts, declared that Khamenei was the right person for the job based on his close connection to Khomeini, the important roles he had played during the Revolution and as president during the Iran-Iraq War, and his expertise on the “contemporary problems facing the Muslim world,” essentially conceding that his political acumen rather than his religious scholarship factored crucially into his designation as velayat-e faqih.

Khamenei’s political acumen and understanding of the levers of power within the Islamic Republic’s labyrinthine system have enabled him to amass unprecedented power in Iran. Selected partly because of his perceived weakness, Khamenei lacked the broad-based popular support and activist networks from which Khomeini derived much of his power. From the outset of his term, Khamenei built his independent support bases, eventually giving him pervasive control over every institution in the country.