Khamenei’s political position as Supreme Leader is strong due to his concentration of power over the main state bodies. Although he allows for leaders with opposing views to enter positions of power such as that of the President, when any policies or decisions go against Khamenei’s interests, he is willing to actively discourage them. Khamenei’s political strength has faced two main obstacles: foreign intervention and popular backlash.
Khamenei’s Political Powers
Khamenei’s political position as Supreme Leader is highly secured, both legally and in practice. Sharia law is the basis of Iran’s political system, which can be considered an in-between theocracy and democracy. While there are presidential and parliamentary elections, the unelected Shi’i clergy has an important control over the democratic institutions,
A main constitutional principle in Iran, based on Sharia law, is the centralized governance of the religious jurist (velāyat-e faqīh)- in other words, the Supreme Leader. As the Supreme Leader, Khamenei has lifelong tenure. In accordance with the constitution, Khamenei is the head of state and commander in chief. He can appoint the heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and of the police.
The president and head of government answers to the Supreme Leader, although there are instances in which both leaders have had public disagreements. Indeed, Khamenei allows for the president’s discourse and policies when they don’t represent a security threat to Khamenei’s regime. While the president executes on a daily basis domestic and foreign policy, Khamenei as Supreme Leader establishes the political direction of policies. In practice, security issues are Khamenei’s priority and he directs his own influence towards them..
Through two important bodies, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council, Khamenei can also exert his influence over the president and over the parliament. He can appoint half of the Guardian Council members and all of the Expediency Council members. These appointment powers are important because the Guardian Council checks whether the laws passed by parliament are in accordance with Sharia law, and the Expediency Council mediates between the parliament and the Guardian Council. In brief, the constitution allows Khamenei to have a strong influence over the executive and the legislative powers of Iran. Legally, the Supreme Leader’s powers are limited by the Assembly of Experts, which is a body that oversees, elects and dismisses the Supreme Leader. Its members are elected by the population. However, in practice, Khamenei still has indirect influence over the Assembly of Experts. This is because the Guardian of Councils can veto candidates to the Assembly of Experts, and, as mentioned above, Khamenei has an important power over the Guardian of Councils. Therefore, in practice, the Assembly of Experts has never put into question the Supreme Leader’s actions.
Main threats to Khamenei’s Political Power
The main threat to Khamenei’s power is regime change due to two extreme situations: foreign military invasion or population revolt. Khamenei perceives these threats, and given his past experiences with imperialism, they have become his utmost fear.
Khamenei has observed how foreign powers, and particularly his archenemy the US, have provoked regime change through foreign military intervention in other countries. Iraq and Libya are two recent examples. As a result, Khamenei highly distrusts foreign powers and he perceives them as high risks to his rule.
Moreover, the Iranian Revolution that ousted the Shah, and in which Khamenei actively participated, showed Khamenei that leadership is unstable when dissatisfaction reigns among the people. When popular opposition has arisen against Khamenei’s rule, he has blamed it on foreign interference. In fact, due to foreign interference, Iran’s population has suffered socially (such as the US-supported Sha and his brutal repression) and economically (such as the US “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign). Therefore, Khamenei’s fears are warranted in reality.
However, the current Iranian regime has also encountered population dissatisfaction due to its own political and economic corruption. For instance, the biggest challenge to Khamenei’s rule has been the 2009 Green Movement, which arose due to suspicions that Khamenei had interfered in the presidential election. As a response to this movement, there was a brutal deployment of police and paramilitary groups that led to the killing of protesters and opposition members. To divert attention and avoid further dissatisfaction, Khamenei blamed the origin of protests on foreign interference and the US sanctions.
How Khamenei deals with threats
These threats to his political survival, which Khamenei mainly blames on foreign powers, explain why he supersedes any political decisions to security and foreign policy. Regionally, Khamenei wants Iran to become the main power in order to avoid threats from the other regional US ally, Saudi Arabia.
Domestically, when Khamenei considers Iran and his regime are being threatened, he becomes active behind the scenes and he may decide to: restrict politicians and appoint/promote allies or fire opposers; put obstacles on presidential elections; veto foreign policies; and trigger repression domestically. Overall, Islamic rule is Khamenei’s tool to ensure security. Consequently, Khamenei publicly vows support to principalists in Iran, who are more aligned to his conservative views on how Iran should develop internally and behave internationally. While Khamenei accepts reformists entering the presidency and implementing liberal reforms (a way of appeasing the more liberal parts of the population), his tolerance is tested when these reforms could lead to what Khamenei views as security threats. For instance, Khamenei had a turbulent relationship with reformist President Mohammad Khatami due to his US-friendly policies. Moreover, under circumstances of foreign threat, Khamenei becomes active in influencing domestic politics. When the US declared Iran as “Axis of Evil” in 2003, Khamenei decided to support the conservative president Ahmadinejad instead of the reformist Rafsanjani. Also, in Iran’s 2020 parliamentary elections, which were a time of high conflict level with the US, the Guardian Council vetoed many reformist candidates. Given Khamenei’s influence on the Guardian Council, it could be suggested that he encouraged this vetoing.