Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: An Introduction

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, only two individuals have held the role of Supreme Leader of Iran. The first was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who served from the beginning of the Islamic Republic in April 1979 until his death on June 3, 1989. His successor, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, was a member of Khomeini’s inner circle who took over as Supreme Leader the following day and has held the role since. Khamenei, a lover of poetry and literature, became a Shi’a cleric at the age of 11. At the time of his succession, he was thought to be a soft-spoken pragmatist who might lead the country in a more moderate direction than his firebrand predecessor. However, his leadership instead has been defined by brutality, corruption, and increased enmity toward the West. Under Khamenei’s helm, Iran’s human rights situation has deteriorated, the country has come to be regarded as the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism, and its illicit nuclear program remains one of the most vexing challenges to global security.

Khamenei’s ascension to the pinnacle of power in Iran was improbable. Profiles of Khamenei refer to him as an “unremarkable” figure who lacked the charisma, popular support, or religious stature and credentials of his predecessor. In fact, the Islamic Republic had to amend its constitution to allow for his succession, as Khamenei, a mid-ranking cleric who had not even attained the rank of ayatollah, did not meet the prerequisite that the velayat-e faqih (highest juror) be a marja e-taghlid (source of emulation). Khamenei’s rise to Supreme Leader was orchestrated by other senior regime officials, most notably his chief ally-turned-rival, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who assumed Khamenei would be weak and easy to control. However, Khamenei’s longevity in the position, achieved despite the country careening through a series of economic, diplomatic, and political crises during his tenure, demonstrates that his detractors have consistently underestimated his wiliness and authoritarian instincts.

As Supreme Leader for more than three decades, Khamenei has cemented his standing as one of the two most consequential figures in the history of the Islamic Republic in terms of shaping the country’s trajectory at home and on the world stage, the other being Khomeini. In many respects, Khamenei’s tenure has been characterized by continuity with Khomeini’s hardline, conservative legacy. Khamenei’s primary objective as Supreme Leader has been ensuring his own political survival, but stewarding the continued dominion of the revolutionary regime and advancing Khomeinist ideology have been his close secondary priorities in the decades following Khomeini’s death.

Khomeini is the preeminent figure in the annals of the Islamic Republic, and his image and influence remain ubiquitous in Iran. More than 40 years after the Islamic Revolution, many of his ardent loyalists from the revolutionary period remain entrenched in the upper echelons of the military, political, and clerical elite. His ideology, Khomeinism, continues to serve as the guiding ethos for Khamenei and the revolutionary regime, heavily influencing Khamenei’s rhetoric, worldview, and governance.

Khamenei frequently invokes the professed principles of Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution in his public statements. He emphasizes the importance of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamist jurist), advocates for an independent course for Iran (expressed in the slogan “neither East, nor West”), and expresses support for oppressed Muslims against various forms of tyranny, whether it be from capitalist classes, regional monarchies, secular dictatorships, or Western imperialist powers. Khomeini’s legacy holds a position of perpetual influence, with Khamenei and the ruling elite making major decisions based on how they believe Khomeini would advise.

The main sources of tension in Iran’s political trajectory have revolved around whether the country should pursue accommodation with the West, particularly through limited negotiations over the regime’s nuclear program, as a means to protect the regime and the revolution. Influenced by his desire to maintain power at any cost and to govern in line with Khomeini’s vision, Khamenei has occasionally entertained engagement with the West, but has ultimately taken a confrontational path.

Khamenei has employed typical strongman tactics to secure his continued rule within Iran’s revolutionary regime. One of the hallmarks of Khamenei’s reign has been the tightening of restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and the press. Under its hybrid authoritarian system with republican elements, the Islamic Republic allows for the existence of limited, controlled dissent as a safety valve to mollify those who wish for more political, cultural, and economic freedoms. Khamenei has provided political space for both hardline and moderate/pragmatic factions to survive and thrive, while retaining ultimate control.

However, the Iranian political arena remains heavily restricted, as participants must demonstrate unwavering loyalty to the revolutionary system. Criticism of Islam, the Islamic Revolution, the revolutionary regime, the Supreme Leader, and the Khomeinist conception of velayat-e faqih constitute clear red lines and crossing them are considered seditious acts. Throughout his tenure, Khamenei, known for his thin-skin, has increasingly constricted the boundaries of acceptable dissent, and responded with increasingly brutal suppression of political protestors, labor and environmental activists, and journalists. The regime has also exhibited growing hostility towards the rights of women, LGBTQ citizens, and religious and ethnic minorities.

Another defining characteristic of Khamenei’s authoritarian rule has been the establishment of patronage networks among the country’s clerical and military elite to ensure their support for his ongoing political survival. As mentioned earlier, power brokers such as Rafsanjani endorsed Khamenei’s ascension to the Supreme Leader post, assuming he would be weak and easily controlled. Through the bonyad system, Khamenei has co-opted influential clerics, granting them independent power bases and the opportunity to enrich themselves in exchange for their continued loyalty.

In a similar vein, Khamenei has elevated the role of the national security apparatus within Iran. One of the key strategies he pursued immediately after assuming power was to strengthen his ties with the leadership of the IRGC, by making them the most powerful economic force within Iran. Due to his conspiratorial mindset, Khamenei harbors distrust towards both foreign powers and his own population. This has led to the development of increasingly symbiotic relations between the Supreme Leader and the security services. Following the highly irregular 2009 elections, during which protestors openly criticized the Supreme Leader and the revolutionary system, Khamenei relied even more on the IRGC and intelligence agencies to suppress the uprising and maintain his legitimacy. A power struggle has emerged between the IRGC and Iran’s elected institutions for economic and political dominance, but the IRGC has maintained the upper hand due to Khamenei’s support.

Despite being the most powerful figure in Iran according to its constitution, in Western media coverage, Khamenei has generally been overshadowed by the elected presidents who have served during his tenure, including Rafsanjani (1989-1997), Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), and Ebrahim Raisi (2021-present). This is primarily because Khamenei has not traveled outside of Iran since becoming Supreme Leader, while the presidents have had a more outwardly public-facing role. The presidents also take a public-facing role in governance, leading them to absorb accountability for the Iranian system’s governance failures. Khamenei skillfully deflects blame onto the presidents to shield himself from accountability. He has also intensified his criticism of the presidents when their actions or policies deviated from his preferred direction for the Islamic Republic.

With the exceptions of the hardline and populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for his Holocaust denialism and calls for the elimination of Israel, as well as Ebrahim Raisi, who has focused on creating a resistance economy and regional economic connections, Iran’s other presidents during Khamenei’s reign have pursued agendas based on domestic reforms and economic engagement with the West. While they remained committed to upholding the revolutionary regime and Khomeinist principles, each president concluded that it was necessary to alleviate repression and create more economic opportunities in order to set the Islamic Revolution on a sustainable path. As Supreme Leader, Khamenei frequently adopted a hedging approach, allowing the presidents space to pursue their agendas, such as Khatami’s “Dialogue Among Civilizations” or Rouhani’s nuclear deal with the P5+1, while simultaneously advocating for resolute resistance. By doing so, Khamenei has protected himself and his office, while leaving the presidents to face the disappointment and bear the blame for unmet expectations.

Hardline allies of Khamenei within the clergy and national security apparatus, keen to protect their economic and political power, have actively undermined efforts towards liberalization and engagement with the West, ensuring that even modest reform aspirations have fallen flat. The failures of these initiatives to deliver tangible benefits have further entrenched Khamenei’s conspiratorial and anti-U.S. outlook. All of Iran’s presidents have left office discredited and fallen out of favor with the Supreme Leader. Even Ahmadinejad, who was ideologically aligned with Khamenei and has maintained a significant support base within certain segments of the Iranian population, fell out of favor. While Iran has continued on its theocratic and authoritarian trajectory path without interruption, the presidents have been made to shoulder the blame for Iran’s continued economic woes and mismanagement and Khamenei remains untarnished.

In recent years, Khamenei has aimed to suppress factionalism and guarantee the dominance of his hardline vision for Iran even after his departure from the scene. Khamenei has filled key positions across Iran with his loyalists, culminating in the rigged presidential election in June 2021, which resulted in the victory of his ally and potential successor, Ebrahim Raisi. With Raisi’s ascension to the presidency, all major power centers in Iran are in the hands of Khamenei and his conservative loyalists.