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.Khamenei has always distrusted of foreign powers, especially the USA, and security has been a key area for his own priorities and political survival. In order to maintain his leadership, Khamenei has appointed a new generation of politicians and a close inner circle in security and military issues and bolstered ties with other state and non-state actors with the same geopolitical interests as Iran.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 security related decisions are based on his personal experiences during Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s era (1941-1979). During the last years of Reza Pahlavi’s reign, Washington and London had the last word on Iranian internal and foreign policy. Consequently, Khamenei has had a constant fear that foreign countries, especially the US will make the key decisions in Iran’s domestic and foreign related topics.
Khamenei views the world as a hostile environment and has a high distrust of others. This pessimism can be explained by his witnessing of different events such as the 1953 Iranian coup (Ajax operation), the Iran-Iraq war, the fall of the USSR, US interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 and 2011 Arab Revolts. As well as his predecessor, Khomenei, Khamenei had little trust in the regular iranian army, as the army had supported the Shah before the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Therefore, Khamenei has made a deal with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is the second armed forces within Iran and this body was key to carry out the 1979 revolution and have historically protected the core principles of the Islamic Revolution, since Khomeini took power. Additionally, the IRGC is paramount for the regime’s survival, a second army with Iran for keeping the regime.
Khamenei fears his own political survival. Thus, he has cooperated with foreign allies and non allies, when convenient. It is important to highlight that in the Middle East and among the Muslim world, there are 3 core branches: Sunni, Shia and Ibadi. During centuries these branches lived peacefully together. Nevertheless, the violence among Sunni and Shia will erupt since 1979.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 gave Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini the opportunity to implement his vision for an Islamic government ruled by the “guardianship of the jurist” (velayat-e faqih), a controversial concept among Shia scholars that is opposed by Sunnis, who have historically differentiated between political leadership and religious scholarship. Khomeini tried to inspire further Islamic revival, preaching Muslim unity, but supported groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Pakistan that had specific Shia agendas. Sunni Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, admired Khomeini’s success, but did not accept his leadership.
As the IRGC first deployed abroad in the Iran-Iraq War, it began sponsoring non-state armed groups in the region. The expeditionary Quds Force emerged as the IRGC’s de facto external affairs branch, and it has developed ties with armed groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories. The Quds Force provided these groups training and military advice to project its power abroad.
After the Arab Revolts in 2011, the rivalry among Sunni and Shia got into a new level and since 2011. Shia groups supported by Iran have recently won important political victories and consequently, Saudi Arabia has been worried about their own grips on power in this region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in a war using proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen mainly.
To begin with, in Syria, the al-Assad family has ruled this country since the 1970’s. Al-Assad relies on Alawis, a heterodox Shia sect that makes up about 13 percent of Syria’s population. They dominate the upper reaches of the country’s military and security services and are the backbone of the forces fighting to support the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war.
Secondly, in Iraq, since the 2003 invasion of Iraq unseated Saddam Hussein and instituted competitive elections, the Shia majority has dominated the parliament and produced its prime ministers.
Thirdly and most important in Lebanon and Yemen, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political movement, is the strongest party in Lebanon. Plus, the Houthis, Shia militants in Yemen tenuously linked to Iran, have toppled the country’s internationally recognized government. Iran, a majority Shia country, has seen its regional influence swell as its allies in these countries have accumulated power.
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 for Khamenei's survival
Since Khamenei came to power, he has aimed at making Iran the leader of the Muslim world by uniting them that will increase Iran’s regional power and fortifying Khamenei’s leadership position through the use of nationalism. A clear example of this goal of uniting the Muslim world has been the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and up to this day, Iran has not only withdrew its recognition of the Israeli state. Although Khamenei has an ideological and theological preference for Shia majority countries, he has been flexible and pragmatic in his aspirations. For instance, Iran helps the terrorist group, Hamas (suni majority) against Israel. Nevertheless, this situation has approached the Gulf States and Israel against Iran. For instance, in 2020, the Abraham Accords were signed, between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, with USA intervention. Additionally, under the table Israel and Saudi Arabia have improved their bilateral ties and thus, becoming Israel from the enemy among the Gulf Countries as an ally.
US intervention in Iraq and in 2011 Arab Revolts provided a key opportunity for Khamenei to increase Iran’s influence in the Middle East and to develop a Shi’a corridor towards the Mediterranean. Ali Khamenei has supported groups that share the same similar interests as Iran, such as: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shi’a based groups in Iraq, Houthi in Yemen and was key to Al-Assad’s stay in power in Syria. Khamenei has also invested in Islamic economic, political and cultural centers throughout the region.
Especially since 2018 Iran has looked east and strengthened its ties with China and Russia, for Khamenei’s survival. These three states do not share U.S interests in containing Iran and stifling its economy. Moscow, Beijing and Tehran work together to undermine Washington’s interests in the Middle East. In late 2021, Iran was accepted into the Shanghai Coordination Organization and thus, enhances Tehran’s ties with China and Russia. In January 2022, Iran, Russia and China held joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman.
Nuclear development as deterrence
Khamenei has continued with Iran’s nuclear programme, started in the 1960’s as a tool to bolster national pride, technological advancement and to meet Iran’s internal energy demand. This tool and nuclear modernization has allowed Khamenei to strengthen his power and his political position. Another key reason for Iran’s nuclear development is based on security concerns. Since the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran relations with the US, Israel and Europe worsened. Under Khamenei’s rule these ties worsened even more. In order to contest US, Israel and other western powers leverage in the Middle East, the nuclear bomb development is key. Furthermore, Khamenei is concerned that Saudi Arabia and Turkey could also develop their own nuclear weapons.
Khamenei has always kept a strategic ambiguity regarding if Iran has already developed its own nuclear weapons or not. In 2015, the US, European Union, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, the People’s Republic of China and Iran agreed on a nuclear deal, commonly known as JCPOA.
The JCPOA portrayed Iran’s willingness to collaborate with the West and ensured that its nuclear programme was barely restricted to a mere civilian use, in exchange of a sanction lift. Not all parties were happy with 2015’s Iran Nuclear Deal, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and especially, Israel. These three countries share the distrust and fear that Iran could become the regional power in the Middle East.
Israel lobbied against this deal and in 2018 US President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions against Iran. This marked a new chapter of US-Iran open hostilities that culminated in the assassination of IRCG, General Soleimani. In 2019, Khamenei announced that Iran would start enriching more uranium, as a tool of pressure. In august 2021, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran accelerated its uranium enrichment to 60%.
Since the end of 2021, negotiations have restarted in Vienna. These negotiations have the goal to restore the 2015 international agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. All eyes are kept in Vienna and, even though Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are not formally part of the diplomatic talks; they are making all the necessary cautious moves to safeguard their national interest to avoid a strong Iran that could minimize their footprint in the Middle East.