Due to Khamenei’s experience with the Shah repression and his forced Khamenei experienced the Shah repression against any form of dissidence against this monarchy, from the 60’s, the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became an absolute monarch and speeded up his White Revolution. The White Revolution boosted modernization policies and westernized society throughout the 1960’s. After the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Khamenei’s paramount goal was preserving Iran’s cultural and religious tradition. Through culture, he believes he maintains Iran’s national dignity and could protect Iran from his utmost fear of foreign intervention, especially from the USA.
Islam as the basis of the Iranian System
Islam has been used by Khamenei to unite the country and thus, a tool to legitimaze Khamenei’s rule against the West, both domestically and internationally. Sharia law applies in Iran, and, within Iran’s Constitution the state religion is Islam, Shi’a base and the Islamic law is above the secular law. Although there are other religious minorities, such as Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians within Iran, apostasy is banned and these religions are monitored.
Khamenei opposes introducing social secularization reforms that reflect western values. He perceives western culture to be in a decadence stage, although he admits that it has its positive side too, such as sciences and arts. Indeed, he is a fan of Western, left-leaning literature. Examples of Islam’s influence in Iran is the prohibition of homosexual marriage; homosexuality is illegal punished, up to the death penalty.
Khamenei has promoted the enforcement of strict laws and punishment regarding Islamic dress codes. Iran reduced the legal marriage age to just 9 years old and women had to leave several government positions. Due to increasing public pressure, the marriage age has changed to 13 years old. Daughters cannot inherit land, married women cannot leave the country without their husband’s approval and schools are separated by gender.
Alcohol is strictly prohibited in Iran, but a third of iranian population occasionally drink alcohol. Over 60% of the population do not perform the obligatory Muslim daily prayers and not observed the fast during Ramadan.
Although change has occurred in women’s attendance at men’s sporting events. In 2019, under Fifa’s pressure and women’s rights campaigners, Iranian authorities earmarked around 3,000 tickets for women to the World Cup Asian qualifier against Cambodia.
In 1999, Khamenei decreed the intervention of a third party legitimate, whether by sperm or egg donation, or a surrogate mother. Plus he was one of the first Islamic clerics allowing stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Nevertheless, Khamenei still represents and defends a convervative side of Iranian traditions. He does not have a positive view on women’s sexual empowerment and he has lined this topic to Iran’s security: “Designating women as goods & means of pleasure in the western world, most probably, is among Zionists’ plots to destroy human community.”
Indeed, gender inequality in Iran is reflected in its legal system. Although women may hold high positions within the Iranian parliament and government, they cannot serve as judges and are not allowed to run for president. Men have significant legal authority over women. For instance, Iranian authorities disregards violence and sexual assault against women. Another example, despite women making up more than half of the students in Iran, they comprised 14,9% of Iran’s workforce in 2016-17.
On the other hand, it must be noted that during Khamenei’s rule, literacy rates have risen and women’s education has improved. For instance, in 2012, women made up 60% of university students. Additionally, in 2016, Iran had the 5th highest number of STEM graduates worldwide with 335,000 annual graduates. In 2020, Iran produced the third highest number of engineers in the world. Around 70% of engineering graduates are women, one of the highest figures worldwide.
At the same time, levels of internet penetration in Iran are comparable to those in Italy, with around 60 million users and the number grows relentlessly: 70% of adults are members of at least one social media platform.
Religion as a tool for Foreign Policy
Khamenei has followed his predecessor Khomenei in using Islam to unite Muslim countries against imperialist powers, especially the United States. This is known as the “Islamic Awakening” and it aims at expreading Iran’s Islamic revolution both regionally and globally. Through Islamic Awakening, Khamenei aims at increasing Iran’s sphere of influence.
After the Iran-Iraq war, Khamenei learnt and exploited into his advantage the use of irregular warfare and proxies to gain geopolitical leverage. For instance, during the ongoing civil war in Yemen (2014-nowadays), Khamenei’s ideas greatly influenced the influence of the Houthis founder, Hussain al-Houthi, was inspired by the Iranian Revolution but envisioned having his own Islamic revolution based on Zaydi principles.
In 2011, Yemen faced political instability, when its long-time authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi was unable to tackle to keep the country unified and the Houthis, a Shia Muslim minority took leverage of Hadi’s weakness and thanks to Iran’s backing and training, the Houthis controls the Western part of Yemen.
Khamenei has a preference for Shia majority countries, thus Iran’s conflicting relation with Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Turkey. However, Khamenei has been flexible to achieve his goals, and he sponsors, terrorist group Hamas (Sunni majority) against Israel. At the same time, Khamenei actively denounces Israel due to its conflict with Palestinians, which provides one explanation of the bitter rivalry between Iran and Israel.