From the early stages of the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Khamenei played a key role. For instance, as he commanded the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), Ali Khamenei was elected as the Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989. Khamenei is a political figure, where he fought against the Shah that was a close US ally. As a religious cleric, he views Islam as a tool to protect Iran from foreign intervention and an element of internal cohesion. Unlike his predecessor, Khomeini; Khamenei holds a secular intellectualism in his political and religious beliefs that make him an unusual religious leader.
Throughout his more than 30 years as a head of state, Khamenei has extended his influence over all aspects of Iranian politics. In order to avoid his uttermost fear of an external power dictating Iran’s internal and foreign policy, he has taken key decisions on security and military issues, such as a nuclear programme development. Therefore, Khamenei has the last word in Iran’s policies and thus, it is relevant to understand him.
Early Years and Khamenei's Religious Radicalisation
We should highlight a key year on Iran’s modern history, 1953. Khamenei was 14 when the democratically-elected and beloved Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup. This coup was orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence (Operation Ajax). The aim of this successful coup was to reverse Mossadegh’s decision of nationalizing Iran’s oil wealth, which was contrary to the interests of British oil companies (Anglo-Iranian oil company). Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was close to the West, replaced Mossadegh as a key actor in Iran, and Tehran became a repressive absolute monarchy.
In the 1960’s, the Shah implemented the White Revolution. This programme consisted of speeding up secularization and economic policies that reflected Western values. A part of Iran’s population outside of the major urban areas considered these policies as forced modernization or westernization. This opposition was led by clerics that arose against the regime and were targets of the SAVAK, a police state. This autocratic regime would lead to anti-Western sentiments and religious radicalization that gained popular support in the following years. The SAVAK did not hesitated to go through massive unjustified arrests, torture and censorship of any expression of opposition, from religious and secular views against the Shah. This ambiance would lead into massive and violent protests throughout the country.
Khamenei moved to Qom in 1958. Qom is one of the centres of Shi’i Islam and has the largest madrasah (theological college) in Iran. Khamenei came into contact with Khomenei and key religious and secular, Marxist-leaning intellectuals that opposed the regime and viewed the Shah as a US puppet. He was an active dissident and he was arrested and tortured by the SAVAK. Consequently, the Shah’s repression radicalized even more Khamenei.
Imperialism and Becoming Iran's Supreme Leader
Khamenei’s experiences under the Shah’s repressive regime nurtured Khamenei’s foundations of his distrust of foreign powers, especially of the United States. During the 1960’s, Khamenei was influenced by secular and religious ideas before the Iranian Revolution, which viewed the Shah as a western puppet. As a result, imperialism became Khamenei’s main fear and obsession, and the fight against foreign interference in Iranian internal and foreign policy boosted his political career and thus, his mandate as a Supreme Leader.
As a key figure of the current Islamic regime and animosity towards the US and Israel, Khamenei’s main foundation and principle that still shapes Iranian politics has been expelling any foreign influence in Iran in order to safeguard the country and its agenda. According to Khamenei, under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, White Revolution meant a forced westernization and secularization policies. This agenda was a clear example of such foreign influence.
Once the Shah was ousted in 1979, Khomeini’s new goal was to ensure through independent domestic and foreign policies that Iran’s affairs would not be interfered by external forces or states again, nor the affairs of any other Muslim country. These values are explicit in 1979’s Iran constitution. These principles are highlighted in articles 153 and 152. Article 153 states: “Any form of agreement resulting in foreign control over the natural resources, economy, army, or culture of the country, as well as other aspects of the national life, is forbidden”.
Additionally, article 152 says: “The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based upon the rejection of all forms of domination, both the exertion of it and submission to it, the preservation of the independence of the country in all respects and its territorial integrity, the defense of the rights of all Muslims, non-alignment with respect to the hegemonist superpowers, and the maintenance of mutually peaceful relations with all non-belligerent States”.
Throughout his political career right after the triumph of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Khamenei has witnessed and dealt with numerous incidents with Washington and US tensions in other countries, including in Iran. For instance, Khamenei was a key negotiator during the Iran hostage crisis (1979-81). He also faced Iraq-Iran’s war (1980-1989) and US military and intelligence backup of Sadam Hussein. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, which Khamenei partially blamed on the US. This demise deeply impacted Khamenei and his views on how to govern Iran and his determination to avoid the same scenario in Iran. The US intervention in Iraq and Libya to remove their leaders, Sadam Hussein and Muamar Qadaffi in 2003 and 2011, respectively heightened Khamenei’s fear of the US attempting the same policy in Iran. Khamenei’s distrust of the US has increased over time.
Khamenei’s distrust of other countries is shown by his intense interest in military and security issues. Indeed, when he became Supreme Leader, Khamenei appointed a new generation of experts in security and heavily relied on the IRGC in order to maintain his regime. Before the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Army had been loyal to the Shah and to avoid any regime change, the IRGC has been the key tool for Khamenei on security concerns. Consequently, Khamenei has slowly concentrated decision-making power on security issues. This is especially the case with regard to Iran’s nuclear development.
Khamenei’s domestic decisions have also been conditioned by the ultimate goal of protecting Iran from US attempts at regime change. For instance, his relationships with Iran’s presidents have been determined by the level of friendliness that they showed to the US and finding a Nuclear Deal.
Islam and Politics as Tools for Cohesion
Islam is the key pillar for Khamenei’s, and his family background is the first source of this religious inspiration. Khamenei was born in 1939 to a poor and religious family in Mashhad, an important holy city in northeast Iran. Khamenei has kept a low profile and became a cleric when he was very young, at the age of 11, following his father’s steps. Some sources claim that Khamenei also undertook limited paramilitary training in Palestinian camps in Lebanon and Lybia.
Khamenei attended religious schools until he was 18, when he decided to begin advanced studies on Islam. The rest of Khamenei’s family is also closely linked to Islam: two of his brothers and 3 of his sons are clerics.
It was during Khamenei’s religious studies at school that he met Navvab Safavi, the founder of Devotees of Islam, at the age of 14. Safavi made a revolutionary speech against the Shah and his anti-islamic policies, which will end up being an important framing experience for Khamenei’s political views, as Khamenei himself has claimed. Safavi represented the image of what Khamenei will become: a revolutionary and, at the same time, a religious man fighting imperialism.
The peak of Khamenei’s religious experience began in 1958 when he moved to Qom, a key city for Shi’ite history. Most importantly, in Qom, Khamenei was taught by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, who would then lead the Iranian Revolution and become Iran’s first Supreme Leader, until 1989.
In 1962, Khamenei joined the religious opposition led by Khomenei against the Shah, for which he was arrested and tortured numerous times, as well as forbidden from preaching. Such experience could have radicalized Khamenei against the regime and against those foreign powers that supported the Shah even more.
Another important influence in Khamenei’s political beliefs was theoreticians from the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he met also in Qom. Khamenei particularly admired the work from the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb. Khamenei translated some of Qutb’s work to Farsi.
The concept of an Islamic State, with its basis on the pillars of justice, equality and the redistribution of wealth, was developed by Qutb. However, for Khamenei, an Islamic State is not an end in itself, but a means to protect Iran and other Muslim countries. The Islamic State is a tool to fight imperialism and ensure national dignity and interests. The Islamic State would serve Iran to avoid the imposition of a Westernized culture and values contrary to those of Iran, which is exactly what Khamenei considers that happened under the rule of the Shah.
Khamenei uses religion as a political tool and suggests that he is not the blind religious fanatic that mainstream media usually portrays. While Khamenei’s policies and decisions are based on traditional Islamic values, they aim for carefully crafted non-religious goals. Indeed, and contrary to Khomenei’s previous rule, Khamenei has shown flexibility both internally and on foreign policy and towards Iranian opposition, which is common among the reformists.
Before the 2013 presidential elections, where Hassan Rouhani (reformist) won them, Khamenei stated: “It is possible that some people—for whatever reason—do not want to support the Islamic Republic regime but obviously want to support their country. They should also vote. Everybody should vote and prove his presence…Our country has an enemy, an opponent…In world politics, you cannot defeat your enemy just by making him ashamed. No. The more you show weakness, the more he steps forward and becomes more shameless…We should make our choice and proceed based on the correct and wise view.”. Khamenei believes domestic unity is key to fight foreign powers, and the religious nature of the regime should not block this unity”.
Moreover, Khamenei has been flexible by not viewing the fight against foreign powers as a religious one of Christians vs. Muslims. Instead, he wants to portray that the struggle is solely political, it “has nothing to do with churches or Christianity, and the puppet deeds of a few idiotic and mercenary clerics must not be laid at the feet of Christians and their clergy. We Muslims will never commit similar acts in regard to the sanctities of other religions. The struggle between Muslims and Christians on a general level is what the enemies and plotters of these insane displays want, and the Koran instructs us to take the opposite position”.
As can be seen in all of Khamenei’s public statements, world politics dominate his thinking, even with regard to domestic politics. For instance, in the presidential elections’ speeches shown above, Khamenei continuously supersedes domestic affairs to foreign ones. The fight against imperialism dominates Khamenei’s thinking just as much, if not more, than religion.
Khamenei continuously superseded domestic affairs to foreign ones. The fight against imperialism dominates Khamenei’s thinking just as much, if not more, than religion.
Secularism: the Unknown Face of Khamenei
Khamenei’s stay in Qom led to his religious radicalization, but it also shaped his ideology into secular-based beliefs. However, this is a chapter not widely known and explained, Khamenei was also in contact with secular Iranian intellectuals that opposed the Shah, e.g., the communist writer and philosopher Jalal Al-e Ahmad and the sociologist ‘Ali Shari’ati. Khamenei learnt and adopted the marxist-based revolutionary discourse and beliefs of most of the secular opposition into his governing style and beliefs.
Khamenei tried to give coherence to his opposite religious and marxist beliefs by providing Islamic theological notions with Marxist revolutionary interpretations. He even taught courses based on Marxist-influenced Islamic ideology. The coexistence of these two ideologies is very clear in Khamenei’s continuous revolutionary discourse that includes both anti-imperialist notions with the promotion of the Islamic State.
Khamenei’s behaviors also portray the influence of Western secular ideologies, which made him a deviation from the traditional cleric. For instance, he was among the first Islamic clerics to allow stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Additionally, Ali Khamenei liked to smoke cigarettes and even a pipe, very unusual within the religious circle.
Furthermore, Khamenei enjoys and admires Western culture, particularly left-leaning books. As he publicly stated in 1996: “Read the novels of some authors with leftist tendencies, such as Howard Fast (…) Read the famous book The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck, (…) and see what it says about the situation of the left and how the capitalists of the so-called center of democracy treated them.” He has also made public that his favorite book is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
This proves that Khamenei is a flexible religious fanatic, and so his policies should be interpreted in light of a flexible ideological context that does not threaten his political rule. Khamenei has been able to combine two divergent political beliefs to coexist and into his political advantage and to consolidate his power grip.