Khamenei’s Tenure as Supreme Leader

Throughout Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s tenure as Supreme Leader, his central preoccupations have been amassing more power, ensuring the continuity of Iran’s revolutionary regime, and gaining the upper hand for his hardline conservative ideology in the factional disputes over the Islamic Republic’s trajectory. Khamenei himself has proven a nimble autocrat adept at navigating the vicissitudes of Iran’s dynamic political terrain. Gradually, he penetrated all of Iran's main power centers, installing his men and ensuring institutions such as the judiciary, intelligence and security services, and the IRGC and military were aligned with his agenda. They could be wielded as tools to intimidate and punish their opponents. At times when Khamenei was personally weak among the political and clerical elites, or when popular opinion demanded, he evinced a pragmatic streak, half-heartedly pursuing policy paths personally disagreeable to him, such as greater openness domestically and internationally. After undermining each of these attempts at reform or moderate Iran’s revolutionary regime, Khamenei would revert to his tried-and-true playbook of repression and belligerence.

In the twilight years of his life, Khamenei’s hostility to the republican elements of the Islamic Republic has come to the fore, and he has shed any pretense of commitment to reforming the system. By engineering the 2021 election of Ebrahim Raisi, who was widely believed to be his favored candidate to succeed him, Khamenei has heavy-handedly moved to sideline pragmatic and reformist voices once and for all and ensure that the country upholds his hardline legacy after he departs the scene.

Khamenei’s machinations to assert personal and ideological dominance over the Iranian political scene can best be understood by examining his relationships with the presidents who have served under him. Apart from Iran’s current president, Ebrahim Raisi, who was elevated largely based on his loyalty to Khamenei and acted as a rubber stamp for the Supreme Leader, each president assumed office, claiming popular mandates and seeking to enact an independent agenda. Khamenei provided significant latitude during their first terms to pursue signature initiatives. All the while, Khamenei oversaw the devolution of the Islamic Republic into an increasingly repressive and closed society, backed Iran’s transformation into the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, and pursued an illicit suspected nuclear weapons program, leading to Iran’s international isolation and spreading immiseration among the Iranian populace. Khamenei has used the presidents, who have had larger public profiles than he, as a vector for public anger to shield himself from accountability. Each president thus ended his second term disgraced and out of favor with Khamenei and the ruling regime.

The end of the Iran-Iraq War and the subsequent death of Ayatollah Khomeini on June 3, 1989, ushered in a period of uncertainty for the Islamic Republic. The war effort and the singular personage of Khomeini had been the central unifying and stabilizing force in Iranian post-revolutionary society, and the regime had to navigate a transition from radicalism and war footing to peacetime and reconstruction. Khomeini’s charisma gave him unique authority to strike a balance between Iran’s political factions, letting the conservatives and Islamic Left each play an active role in governance without either faction fully dominating the other. In his absence, the conservatives had the upper hand, given the institutional levers of power under their control.

The conservatives’ control over the Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts, as well as the upper ranks of the Khomeinist clergy after the marginalization of Ayatollah Montazeri, allowed this faction to engineer Khamenei’s appointment to the Supreme Leadership. The 1989 constitutional amendments had strengthened the role of the faqih and had also done away with the post of prime minister in favor of a stronger, centralized presidency. The Islamic Left’s primary wellspring of power in Iranian politics was its control of the majles, and in turn, the prime minister position, which it had now lost. In the aftermath of Khomeini’s death, the left was unable to muster any opposition as the conservative-dominated Guardian Council maneuvered to ensure that power would be effectively split between two of his closest lieutenants, Khamenei as Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani as president.