Due to Khamenei’s distrust of foreign powers, security is his main interest and the area where he has concentrated the most power. He has been the most active on this type of policy-making and, when he became Supreme Leader, the first thing Khamenei did was appoint a new generation of politicians with expertise in security and military issues.
Security from Imperialism
Khamenei’s decision-making on security issues is based on his personal experiences with imperialism. He has a constant fear that foreign countries (especially the US) will intervene in Iran’s domestic and foreign issues.
Khamenei views the world as a hostile environment and has a high distrust of others. Khamenei’s point of view is based on the lack of confidence in his own actions and the lack of control he has of others. This pessimism can be explained by his witnessing of different events such as the 1953 Iranian coup, the Iran-Iraq war, the fall of the USSR, the Arab Spring, interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, etc. This fear for his own political survival and what he views as Iran’s interests leads Khamenei to avoid risks and be willing to collaborate with others (allies and non allies, when convenient) as well as appease them in order to avoid conflict. However, behind the scenes Khamenei is willing to actively and militarily support groups or leaders that have mutual interests with Khamenei.
There are two main security concerns Khamenei has dealt with throughout his long tenure: regional power struggles and the nuclear conflict with the US.
Becoming the regional power
Through Islamic Awakening, Khamenei aims at making Iran the leader of Muslim countries’ by uniting them against colonial powers, thus increasing Iran’s regional power and fortifying Khamenei’s leadership position. An example of this Muslim unity objective is portrayed by Khamenei actively denouncing Israel due to its conflict with Palestinians, which explains the animosity between Iran and Israel. Moreover, in practice, Khamenei has an ideological preference for Shi’a countries, thus Iran’s conflicting relation with Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia. The fact that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are allies with the US exacerbates their conflicting relation with Iran.
Another prominent way in which Khamenei has increased Iran’s influence in the Middle East is by encouraging and supporting intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. These interventions, which are in line with Khamenei’s Islamic Awakening, also involve supporting groups that have similar interests to those of Iran. For instance, Khamenei has supported Shi’a Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi’a Houthi in Yemen. Khamenei has also invested in Islamic economic, political and cultural centres throughout the region.
Khamenei has framed nuclear development as a national pride and technological advancement issue. This step towards Iran’s modernization has allowed Khamenei to fortify his political position. However, Iran’s nuclear development is also based on Khamenei’s security concerns: US and other western powers have nuclear weapons, as well as his regional enemy and US ally, Israel. Moreover, Khamenei is concerned with the possibility that also US-ally, Saudi Arabia, develops nuclear weapons.
In any case, Khamenei has publicly denied any desire to develop nuclear weapons. In 2015, the JCPOA was signed, which portrayed Iran’s willingness to collaborate with non-allies and ensure to them that nuclear weapons were not an objective. Although Khamenei was weary of entering a deal with Western powers, he did not stop president Khatami from ratifying the JCPOA. Nevertheless, in 2018 US President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, thus starting again open hostilities with Iran that culminated in the assassination of IRCG General Soleimani. As a retaliation, Khamenei announced that Iran had breached the JCPOA uranium enrichment limits, although it appears that this is more a strategy to pressure European Leaders into safeguarding the JCPOA and fighting US sanctions on Iran.