Khamenei’s Election to the Presidency

The Islamic Republic of Iran held its third presidential election on October 2, 1981. The Guardian Council whittled the field of 46 applicants to four candidates permitted to stand for election, all of whom ran under the banner of the Islamic Republican Party. Ali Khamenei, who at the time was 42 years old and had attained the mid-ranking title of hojatoleslam (Authority of Islam), won the non-competitive election with more than 95 percent of the vote in a contest with nearly 75 percent eligible voter turnout.    

Ayatollah Khomeini installed Khamenei into office on October 13, 1981. Khamenei outlined his presidency's primary objectives as prosecuting the external war against Iraq and the internal conflict against the remnants of leftist and MEK opposition, framed as proxy battles in the larger ideological conflict against the U.S. and the West. At the outset of Khamenei’s presidency, an additional objective was continuing to advance the Cultural Revolution to ensure the hegemony of Khomeinist ideology over all facets of life in the Islamic Republic. These themes were front and center during Khamenei’s inaugural address, a fiery speech in which he vowed to eradicate ''deviation, liberalism and American-influenced leftists” amid cries of “death to America” from the gathered crowd. In his address, Khamenei declared the public’s large-scale participation in the election “disgraced and quashed the propaganda networks affiliated with the Zionists and the world Imperialists, who meant to destroy the Islamic Revolution through their poisonous propagandas.” He branded himself as a faithful executor of Khomeini’s Islamist vision for Iran, further asserting that he understood his duties as president as “ensuring that God would guide all decisions for the purposes of Islam. … Thus, I make a commitment to do my part and strive in the path of establishing the rule of Islam, which is the desire of our revolutionary nation.”

Immediately upon assuming office, Khamenei was faced with the limitations of his power, as he lost a dispute to appoint his favored candidate for prime minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, who eventually became the longest-serving foreign minister of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei would later install Velayati as his foreign policy advisor after he became Supreme Leader. With all other parties effectively banned, the only space for state-sanctioned ideological contestation was within Iran’s single party. Previously existing fissures came to the fore within the IRP, leading to the emergence of two distinct factions, the Islamic Left and the Conservatives. Both factions were in alignment over the core issues of loyalty to the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini and support for velayat-e faqih. However, they differed in terms of their economic, cultural, and foreign policy outlooks and their interpretations of how velayat-e faqih should be practically applied. Over time, the factions would evolve and even swap positions on certain issues, most notably, relations with the U.S. Nevertheless, in general terms, the Islamic Left was the antecedent for today’s moderate and reformist factions while the conservatives form the current hardliner or principlist camp.

At the time, the Islamic Left favored a populist, redistributive economic approach benefiting working-class Iranians predicated on land reforms, strong government intervention in the economy, central planning, and nationalizing key industries. Socially, they favored more tolerant and egalitarian attitudes and wanted less religious domination over daily life. The conservatives’ primary constituencies were the bazaari merchant class and highly religious segments of society, reflected in their economic and cultural program. The conservatives supported a free market economic approach with the protection of private property rights, extremely limited state economic intervention, and minimal taxation of the private sector. Culturally, they favored state enforcement of strict adherence to sharia.

The left at the time was more antagonistic to the U.S. due to strong anti-imperialist currents in leftist thought and latent sympathies for the Soviet Union. At the same time, the conservatives also mistrusted the U.S. but were more pragmatic about the need to cultivate economic ties with the West to weather isolation. These positions would effectively reverse down the road. The left also more strongly favored exporting the Islamic Revolution to neighboring countries, while the conservatives eschewed foreign policy adventurism. Perhaps the major philosophical difference between the left and right, which would later lead Khomeini to issue a rare public rebuke of Khamenei, was the role of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). The left favored the notion of dynamic fiqh, meaning that sharia would need to evolve and adapt to deal with new societal issues that did not exist during the life of the Prophet. At the same time, the right believed in a static notion of fiqh whereby the state and society would need to adapt to the existing, immutable Shi’a orthodox jurisprudence.

Khamenei was a somewhat heterodox figure who did not completely fit the mold of the Islamic Left or conservative factions. Leftist ideals had partly influenced his worldview during his time spent in literary and intellectual circles, and the left’s anti-imperialism especially colored his anti-Americanism. As a seminarian, he also applied a revolutionary Marxist framework to Islamic religious precepts, such as the unity of God. Reflective of his desire to fit into the more liberal intellectual world, he adopted mannerisms such as smoking a pipe in public, wearing a wristwatch, and growing his hair under his turban that cut against the grain of the more conservative clerical world. But as a cleric, he never fully fit in nor was trusted in the intellectual world, and his ideology was also shaped largely by conservative Islamist thinkers. Essentially, he never fully gained acceptance in either world.

Despite being influenced by leftist intellectual thinkers, as the Khomeinist Islamic revolutionaries consolidated power, Khamenei increasingly identified with and belonged to the conservative faction. The populist Islamic Left faction dominated the majles at the time of his accession to the presidency, setting the stage for internecine power struggles. The first of these occurred over Khamenei’s choice for prime minister. Khamenei put forth Velayati, a U.S.-educated pediatrician from the conservative faction, for the role, but the parliament voted 80-74 to reject Velayati, with 38 members abstaining.

Faced with rejecting his preferred candidate, Khamenei reluctantly nominated Mir-Hossein Mousavi, affiliated with the leftist, populist bloc of the IRP, for prime minister. Mousavi was one of the founders of the IRP along with Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and Beheshti and served as the editor-in-chief of Jomhouri-e Islami (Islamic Republic), the party’s newsletter which Khamenei had founded in 1979. Mousavi was a distant relative of Ali Khamenei (his full name was Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khamenei, as he came from the same northwestern city of Khameneh to which Ali Khamenei’s family traced its lineage) and would go on to become Khamenei’s primary nemesis. The ideological differences between the two highlighted the fault lines between reformists and hardliners characteristic of Iranian politics, eventually translating into a deep personal animus toward Mousavi by Khamenei.  

While Khomeini largely stayed above the political fray and sought to maintain a balance between the IRP’s factions to ensure that neither faction would break with him, his ideology largely aligned with the Islamic Left. He infused his revolutionary Islamism with anti-capitalist, anti-Western Marxist rhetoric and populist economic appeals to society’s dispossessed. Accordingly, it was widely understood that Mousavi was “the Imam’s Prime Minister,” the majles overwhelmingly confirmed him for the position by a margin of 115-39 on October 28, 1981. Khamenei’s efforts to assert himself during his presidency were frequently frustrated by Mousavi, and his role was, therefore, effectively ceremonial. Mousavi would play the dominant executive role, buttressed by Khomeini’s unwavering backing. Still, to assuage the right and encourage unity, Mousavi appointed several conservatives to prominent cabinet positions, including Velayati as foreign minister.

From the outset of the Khamenei presidency, the revolutionary regime’s primary preoccupations were crushing the MEK-led uprising, which had begun in earnest following Banisadr’s impeachment; fully consolidating hegemonic control over the Islamic Republic; and prosecuting the war with Iraq. It accomplished its first goal within 18 months of Khamenei’s presidency. Immediately following the sensational bombing attacks on the IRP headquarters and the Prime Minister’s Office, the regime began employing drastic measures to crush the incipient rebellion. This process continued after Khamenei’s election. The Khomeinist government suppressed street demonstrations, raided numerous “safe houses” used by the MEK and other insurgent groups, and stepped-up mass arrests and executions. Between June 1981-September 1983, Amnesty International reported nearly 3,000 executions carried out by the regime, 90 percent of which were MEK members, while the MEK reported more than 7,500 deaths from executions, street battles, and torture by regime agents.

Ultimately, the MEK failed in their mission to ignite a mass uprising against the Khomeinists, with the regime’s ruthless campaign of counterterror dissuading the Iranian citizenry from joining the rebellion. The regime succeeded in decimating the leadership and membership of the MEK, confiscating much of its weaponry and printing presses, and disrupting its organizational networks. By 1983, most urban guerilla activities had ended. The MEK survived due to its large numbers, but its members primarily fled to the restive Kurdish areas of northwestern Iran, where they continued their resistance, Iraq, and Europe. By 1986, the group was expelled from Paris, and Iraq became its primary base of operations, with the group allying with Saddam Hussein’s government against the Iranian regime. Its violent activities during the Iran-Iraq War led to it falling out of favor with the Iranian citizenry. Also, they drove Banisadr to withdraw from the National Council of Resistance.

The Khomeinist government’s experience pacifying the MEK-led uprising strengthened the extremist elements in the party, which advocated for ruthless suppression and legitimized terror, torture, and extrajudicial executions as governance tools. The revolutionary regime and the IRGC, which had remained unwavering in its support for the regime, emerged more firmly in control of the country than ever before. In early 1983, the regime turned on the Tudeh. This leftist party remained loyal to Khomeini throughout the MEK uprising and was accordingly permitted to publish and cultivate influence. Many of the Tudeh’s leaders and members were arrested and/or executed after giving coerced confessions of spying, loyalty to the Soviet Union, and plotting to overthrow the revolutionary government, and the party was thereafter outlawed. With the last remnants of leftist opposition purged, the IRP had finally fully consolidated power.   

The Khomeinists were fully ensconced in power, but the middle class and even the urban working classes began to chafe against the excesses of the IRGC and revolutionary komitehs and tribunals by the end of 1982, particularly against the routine executions of young offenders. The appetite for bloodletting waned as the constant turmoil created economic instability and an inhospitable business environment. The civil service ranks had been thinned by ideological purges and continued emigration by educated Iranians. Pragmatists within the ruling coalition, such as Rafsanjani and Mousavi, implored Khomeini to reign in the excesses and restore a semblance of order, which he did, issuing an eight-point decree in December 1982 that sought to curb the abuses of the IRGC and other extra-governmental revolutionary organizations.  

Khomeini’s December 1982 decree forbade the IRGC and komitehs from entering homes, confiscating property, surveilling citizens, and making arrests without proper legal authorization, and upheld citizens’ rights of due process in Iranian courts. The constitution had guaranteed this right but was, in practice, effectively ignored. The decree succeeded in reining in the regime’s brutality. It signaled to the middle and working classes that they could coexist with the regime and resume their economic activities, provided they upheld Islamic mores in public life. According to Shaul Bakhash, “the new mood of pragmatism did not imply political liberalization, a deemphasis on Islamic orthodoxy, or greater tolerance for political opposition. The instruments of repression remained firmly in place. …The propensity toward extremism was blunted but not eradicated. Rather, the new mood suggested a desire by the religious leaders to restore economic and administrative order and a readiness on their part to allow the technocrats to look after the economy, while the clerics retained power, controlled politics, saw after ideology, and made the basic decisions.”

One byproduct of the limited openings made due to the regime’s full consolidation of power was that the Khomeinists felt secure enough to reopen universities in early 1983, an undertaking overseen by the Committee on the Cultural Revolution, a body on which Khamenei played the dominant role after assuming the presidency. The committee had used the period of university closures to ensure that higher education in the Islamic Republic would thereafter serve solely to buttress the Khomeinists’ cultural and ideological hegemony. In the view of Khomeini and other leading revolutionary IRP officials, Iran’s Islamic universities were meant to have a different purpose from the modern, Westernized universities they replaced. Iran’s universities were to treat scientific advancement and training students for professional life as secondary pursuits. In Khomeini’s fundamentalist view, all useful science emanated from Qom, the seat of Iranian clerical power. According to him, “the science which they [modern universities] have is no good for our Islamic society.”

Iranian universities' primary focus was ensuring that students received the requisite religious and ideological indoctrination to make them committed revolutionary subjects. During the university closures, the Committee on the Cultural Revolution worked to integrate the university system with the system of hawzehs (religious seminaries), ensuring that religious study would be the focal point of the newly “Islamified” universities. Insufficiently revolutionary professors were purged, with the number of lecturers dropping from 16,000 before the closures to 9,000 when universities opened back up.