Transformation of the Office of the Supreme Leader

Khamenei recognized the need to tread cautiously when he first assumed power, and he assured the political and clerical elites who loyally served Khomeini that they would retain their positions and status. As he grew more confident in the role of Supreme Leader, however, he began replacing many key officials, showing favoritism to the generation that came of age during the revolutionary period and Iran-Iraq War rather than his peer group, only tolerating those who “acknowledged their inferiority to him,” according to Khamenei biographer Mehdi Khalaji.

Khamenei’s first order of business was transforming the Office of the Supreme Leader (OSL) into a sprawling bureaucratic apparatus that, while secretive and opaque, effectively functions as the Islamic Republic’s nerve center. Whereas Khomeini presided over the Islamic Republic through sheer charisma and the authority afforded by his political and religious credentials, Khamenei took on a much more active role in the minutiae of governance by expanding the bureaucracy at his disposal and turning the OSL into the primary location from where all political, military, foreign, and domestic policy decision-making emanates. As the foremost political analyst and decision-maker in the land, Khamenei has preferred to staff his office with loyal commandants who provide him with raw information rather than sophisticated political advisors who would bring their own biases and factional considerations to bear. Khamenei’s inner circle of advisors acts as an echo chamber rather than challenging his worldview or decision-making.

One of Khamenei’s innovations was the creation of various institutions under the unaccountable control of the OSL, with functions that overlapped those of parallel institutions under the control of the republican elements of the state and the clergy. This has served to weaken the republican elements in the Iranian system and undermine the independence of religious seminaries to Khamenei’s benefit, allowing the Islamic Republic to evolve in a more dictatorial direction.

Khamenei reshaped the OSL into a mechanism for enforcing his authority in every province in the country and every government ministry and institution, including the majles, military, and clergy, by dispatching a network of loyal representatives who could act as his eyes and ears, and ensure that his bidding always prevailed. Khamenei additionally utilized the OSL to dispense patronage through the prodigious assets under its control, carving out fiefdoms for privileged family members and other clerical and military elites, which they could use to amass influence, ensuring their indebtedness to Khamenei. Khamenei effectively sits atop a massive informal economy, controlling a network of foundations and religious endowments known as bonyads, which benefit from governmental subsidies but are not subject to taxation or parliamentary oversight. The OSL has also been a vital instrument in subduing opposition and repressing dissent through its oversight and control of state security institutions.

Because of his insecurity over being accepted as the leading religious and political figure in Iran, Khamenei has prioritized loyalty to him as the main factor in staffing the OSL. He eschewed appointees with prominent ties to Khomeini in favor of creating an inner circle comprised of figures junior in stature to him whom he had familiarity with from his previous roles in the Islamic Republican Party, the defense ministry, and the presidency. For his chief of staff, he selected Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, a lower-ranking cleric who was one of the founders of the intelligence ministry and a former deputy intelligence minister. His deputy chief of staff for intelligence and security affairs, Asghar Mir-Hejazi, similarly came from the intelligence ministry before becoming Khamenei’s enforcer. Such appointments would foreshadow Khamenei’s securitization of the OSL, using the office’s resources to keep tabs on potential rivals and settle scores.

Khamenei’s transformation of the OSL into the fulcrum of power in the Islamic Republic reflects his skill as a bureaucratic micromanager. Khamenei’s primary preoccupation is always keeping and expanding his power, and he has masterfully sidelined potential rivals from the clergy and elected government to vest all key final decision-making authority in the OSL. The presidents who have served since Khamenei’s assumption of power have had larger public profiles, especially regarding foreign perception. However, Khamenei is truly the operator behind the scenes, directing the ship of state in an unaccountable manner while setting up the presidents to absorb the brunt of dissatisfaction over Iran’s endemic corruption and mismanagement.