After an active political career during the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ali Khamenei became the Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989. Khamenei is a product of his turbulent times: the fight against imperialism has dominated his agenda. A religious man, Khamenei views Islam as the tool to protect Iran from foreign intervention. However, the influence of secular intellectualism in his political beliefs make Khamenei an unusual religious leader.
Throughout his long ruling, Khamenei has been able to extend his influence over all aspects of Iranian politics. Particularly due to his imperialism fear, Khamenei has concentrated power on security and military issues, such as nuclear development. Therefore, Khamenei is an important decision-maker in Iranian foreign policy and as such his political beliefs should be better understood.
The Shah’s repression and Khamenei’s radicalization
In 1953, Khamenei was 14 when he witnessed the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh being overthrown in a coup. The coup was orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence. The goal was to reverse Mossadegh’s decision of nationalizing Iran’s oil wealth, which was contrary to the interests of private US and British oil companies that had controlled the region’s oil until then. The Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was friendly to foreign powers and thus favoured by them, replaced Mossadegh as the most powerful actor in Iran.
The Shah went on to implement secularization policies that reflected Western values. A part of Iran’s population viewed these policies as forced modernization or westernization. A strong opposition led by clerics arose against the regime, which was met with the Shah’s brutal repression. The Shah’s oppressive regime would then lead to anti-Western sentiments and religious radicalization. A police state had begun its reign: what followed were massive unjustified arrests, torture and executions, as well as censorship of any expression of opposition. At the same time, the Shah implemented policies that favoured the US. Massive and violent protests erupted as a result.
Among those affected by radicalization in Iran’s society was Khamenei, especially when he moved to Qom in 1958. Khamenei came into contact with both religious and secular, Marxist-leaning intellectuals that opposed the regime and viewed the Shah as a puppet of the US. Khamenei became an active dissident, for which he was arrested and tortured. Consequently, the Shah’s repression marks the beginning of Khamenei’s radical ideology, which is an entanglement of religious and Marxist anti-imperialism beliefs.
Imperialism: Khamenei’s utmost fear
Khamenei’s experiences under the Shah’s repressive regime established the foundations of his distrust of foreign powers, and particularly of the US. Both the secular and religious influences that he came across before the Iranian Revolution, which viewed the Shah as a puppet of the West, helped shape Khamenei’s distrust and heighten it. Imperialism will become Khamenei’s fear and life obsession, and the fight against foreign interference in Iranian politics will become the basis of his regime as Supreme Leader.
As one of the creators of Iran’s current regime, Khamenei’s political agenda is reflected in the Iranian Revolution and the consequent Islamic State: their most basic foundation was expelling any foreign influence in Iran in order to protect domestic interests. The Sha, with his forced westernization and secularization policies, was the representation of such foreign influence.
Once the Shah was ousted, the new objective became ensuring through domestic and foreign policies that Iran’s affairs would not experience foreign interference, nor the affairs of any other Muslim country. These revolutionary and anti-imperialism values are explicit in Iran’s constitution. Article 152 of the Constitution states that: “The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based upon… the defence of the rights of all Muslims, nonalignment with respect to the hegemonist superpowers, and the maintenance of mutually peaceful relations with all non-belligerent States.”
Throughout his political career after the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei has observed and has had to deal with numerous instances of US interference in other countries, including in Iran. When Khamenei was Minister of Defence and chair of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, he had to face Iraq’s 1980 military attack supported by the US. In the late 1980s, Khamenei also dealt with the US attack on Iranian oil rigs and the shooting of an Iranian passenger plane. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, which he partly blamed on the US, and the US intervention in Iraq and Libya to remove their leaders Hussein and Qadaffi in the 2000s, probably heightened Khamenei’s fear of the US attempting such regime change in Iran. Khamenei’s distrust of the US could only increase as a result.
Khamenei has publicly agreed with Iran’s constitutional goals, and his foreign policy regarding Muslim allies and US allies portray this. 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. 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, particularly when dealing with the 2015 Nuclear Deal.
Islam and politics: The tool to fight Imperialism
Islam is Khamenei’s muse, and his family is the first source of such inspiration. In 1939, Khamenei was born to a poor Persian and religious family in Mashhad, Iran. His dad, Seyed Javad Khamenei, sticks out as the first religious influence that Khamenei had during his childhood.
Javad was a Shia cleric that led Khamenei into his early religious education: 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 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 represents 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, the city where the largest Shi’ite theological college is located. 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.
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 even went as far as translating 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. Khamenei is a supporter of such form of government in which life and politics are both ruled by Islam. As Khamenei wrote in the introduction to his translation of Qutb’s The Future of This Religion: “This lofty and great author has tried in the course of the chapters of this book (…) to first introduce the essence of the faith as it is and then, after showing that it is a program for living … [confirm] with his eloquent words and his particular world outlook that ultimately world government shall be in the hands of our school and ‘the future belongs to Islam.”
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. As Khamenei states in a speech before the 2013 Iranian presidential elections: “They also know the regime of the Islamic Republic can protect and defend the country’s interests and national dignity. The problem of some world governments is that they cannot defend their nations, interests, and dignity against international pressures and greedy [enemies]. The Islamic Republic is solid and vigorous like a lion and can stand against its enemies and defend the interests of the nation…”
The fact that Khamenei uses religion as a political tool 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 towards Iranian opposition to the Islamic State, which is common among the reformists.
In an unprecedented move before the 2013 presidential elections, Khamenei publicly stated that: “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.” For Khamenei, domestic unity is essential to fight foreign powers, and the religious nature of the regime should not be an impediment to achieve that unity.
Moreover, Khamenei does not view the struggle against foreign powers as a religious one of Christians vs. Muslims. Instead, Khamenei wants to portray that the struggle is solely political, and avoid that the “enemies” suggest Iran to be the fanatic Muslim state in a crusade: 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.
A secular deviation: The other face of Khamenei
Not only did Khamenei’s stay in Qom lead to his religious radicalization, but it also shaped his ideology into secular-based beliefs. Although unusual for a cleric, Khamenei was in contact with secular Iranian intellectuals that opposed the Shah, such as the communist writer and philosopher Jalal Al-e Ahmad and the sociologist ‘Ali Shari’ati. Khamenei learned and adopted the marxist-based revolutionary discourse and beliefs of most of the secular opposition.
As a result, 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 behaviours also portray the influence of Western secular ideologies, which made him a deviation from the traditional cleric. For instance, he smoked a pipe, wore a wristwatch and grew his hair under the turban.
Furthermore, Khamenei’s distrust of the West and his religious beliefs did not prevent him from enjoying and admiring 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 favourite book is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
Such statements show that Khamenei is not a one-sided religious fanatic, and so his policies should be interpreted in light of a much more complex ideological context. Khamenei represents the intricate human mind and the possibility for two apparently opposite political beliefs to coexist.