Khamenei holds the most important political position in Iran, as he is the Supreme Leader and concentrates all the power over the main state bodies. This idea is born from the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, in which the Supreme leader is above the law and this principle is the basis of the current Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although Khamenei does not strictly apply the principle of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, by allowing political figures with divergent views to enter key positions, e.g., former president, Hassan Rouhani. Khamenei limits certain governmental acts as he fears: a foreign intervention and a 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 makes Iran a mix in-between a religious theocracy and democracy. While there are presidential and parliamentary elections, the unelected Shi’a clergy have the final word and control over Iranian institutions (legal, judicial and executive).
A main constitutional principle in Iran is the centralized governance of the religious jurist (velāyat-e faqīh), known as the Supreme Leader. As the Supreme Leader, Khamenei has lifelong tenure and power. In accordance with article 107 of Iran’s 1979 constitution Khamenei is the head of state and commander in chief. He can appoint the heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC) and of the police.
The president and head of government answer directly to the Supreme Leader. Contrary to his predecessor, Khomenei, Khamenei has allowed certain political figures that had public disagreements with him. However, these figures and their discourses and policies were only allowed when they did not represent a security threat to his regime. While the president executes on a daily basis domestic and foreign policy, Khamenei as Supreme Leader establishes the political direction of policies. Khamenei has the direct and final word on security and military issues, mainly through the IRCG.
Khamenei also relies on two key bodies: the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council, and his influence reaches the president and the parliament. Khamenei 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.
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 never publicly questions 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 situations: foreign military invasion or popular revolt. Khamenei perceives these threats as his utmost fear.
Khamenei noted how foreign powers, and particularly his archenemy the US, have provoked regime change through foreign military intervention in other countries. Iraq and Libya, in 2003 and 2011, respectively. As a result, Khamenei highly distrusts foreign powers, mostly the US and to a lesser extent the European Union and he perceives them as high risks to his rule. Nevertheless, Khamenei has recently approached both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China sharing the same goal to counter the US.
The Iranian Revolution, lead by Khomeini, that ousted the Shah in 1979, and in which Khamenei actively participated, showed Khamenei did not have the same charisma as his predecessor. 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 and especially economically (such as the US sanctions campaign). Therefore, Khamenei’s fears are warranted in reality.
At the same time, Khamenei has also encountered population dissatisfaction due to his own political and economic corruption and mismanagement. 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. Additionally, in 2018-2019, there were general protests that affected key economic sectors. As a response to this movement, there was a brutal deployment of police and paramilitary groups (IGRC) 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
Khamenei mainly blames on foreign powers regarding any threat that could threaten his political survival. This explains why he supersedes any political decisions to security and foreign policy. Regionally, Khamenei wants Iran to become the leader of the Muslim world and regain Iran’s influence in the Middle East to counter the other regional US ally, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Domestically, Khamenei becomes active, but behind the scenes, when Iran and his regime are being threatened. He may decide to: restrict politicians and appoint/promote allies or fire opponents; put obstacles on presidential elections; veto foreign policies; and trigger repression domestically. To maintain the regime’s survival, Khamenei publicly supports principalists, mostly known as hardliners, who are more aligned to his conservative views and his internal and foreign policy. While Khamenei accepts reformists entering the presidency and implementing liberal reforms (a way of approaching more liberal factions within Iran), unless these reforms could become a security threat according to Khamenei.
For instance, Khamenei had a turbulent relationship with former President, Mohammad Khatami due to his US-friendly policies. Under circumstances of any threat, especially a foreign one, Khamenei influences domestic politics. When the US declared Iran as “Axis of Evil” in 2003, he supported former 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 and supported Ebrahim Raisi, a highly conservative political figure who is close to Khamenei.