Khamenei’s hostility towards Trump: Can he continue to surprise us?

  • Khamenei fears a military conflict with the US as hostilities rise.
  • Trump unintendedly risks uniting Iranians behind Khamenei.
  • Based on past behaviours, Khamenei’s moderate reaction isn’t surprising.
Student News Daily

Once again, a humiliating move of US interference in Iranian affairs: assassinating one of its most beloved figures, Major General Qsem Solemaini. The reason? According to a former Trump advisor: he was a “super-bad guy”. Acknowledging that there are no saints in a world of anarchy and self-interest led by powerful men with aggressive tendencies, the question is: Which “super-bad” guys have the upper hand now – those from the US or Iran?

Solemaini was the leader of the Quds Force, a unit from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in charge of foreign operations. He was recognized as the second most important leader in Iran after Khamenei. During one of Solemaini’s operations in Iraq, a US drone strike killed him, raising the tension between Iran and US (and the fears of everyone else watching) to an unprecedented level.

Another humiliating but failed decision

With this decision, Trump has ignored previous mistakes in US foreign policy. His goal with this assassination?

  • Diverting attention from his impeachment. 
  • Hopefully being re-elected in the 2020 elections for his ‘patriotism’. 
  • Regime change in Iran for a friendlier administration towards the US. 

Publicly, Trump has based his assassination decision on alleged past and future attacks that Soleimani had planned in the Middle East. These attacks would have affected US citizens. However, the intelligence that led Trump to this decision has not been declassified. Deterring Iran from further conflict escalation in the region was apparently another objective (quite a rare explanation given that Trump decided to begin the conflict with his withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). 

On the other hand, recently declassified memos sent to former National Security advisor, John Bolton, show that the ultimate aim of Trump’s administration has always been destabilizing Khamenei’s rule. As the memo stated, such an attack against Iran would “rattle the delicate internal balance of forces and the control over them upon which the regime depends for stability and survival.”

Whether a dictatorship or democracy should follow Khamenei’s rule, the US has not shown a preference for either. Back in 1953, the CIA replaced the first democratically-elected Iranian president with a domestically brutal but internationally friendly dictator. What was the outcome? A subsequent backlash: the 1979 Iranian Revolution that established the current regime of which Khamenei is the Supreme Leader. A regime that does not like the US at all, nor does its population or Khamenei.

The outcome of Trump’s decision will probably have the same counterproductive effect as in 1979: uniting an increasingly fragmented nation and benefitting Khamenei as a result. Iranians have been heavily protesting against Khamenei’s rule, which is marked by corruption and economic instability. However, Trump’s humiliating attack on Soleimani, who was viewed by Iranians as a heroic national leader, has distracted them from domestic issues. The US is their main enemy again, and Soleimani their martyr. Khamenei has strategically used this martyr image in public statements: the US officials are “criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.” Ten of thousands of mourners marched to pay their respect to Soleimani.

Khamenei is as scared as we are

Meanwhile, Khamenei is rising as the moderate and reasonable party to the conflict. A significant change in an old game in which Iran and its leaders have been depicted as aggressive evils

Yet, Khamenei’s reaction continues to surprise his observers. Khamenei promised “forceful revenge”. So far, the main retaliatory action taken has been a missile attack on the US military bases in Iraq. Only a few were injured and, apparently, Khamenei even intentionally tried to minimize casualties. Indeed, nothing comparable to killing Pompeo. This is not an expected reaction from the leader of a country categorized as the “Axis of Evil”. 

So, why does this relatively moderate response surprise us? Probably because of the persistent “othering” of Iran’s regime by media and politicians’ discourse. Contrary to the usual image that has been portrayed of Khamenei, internationally he has always been a supporter of cooperation and avoiding military conflict. For instance, when the US President George Bush declared Iran “Axis of Evil” in 2003, Khamenei tried to appease the US by proposing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear development. Regarding his actions domestically, however, it’s a different conversation to be had (see the most recent protests met with a brutal state crackdown). 

Khamenei’s moderate reaction should not surprise us, because he is as scared as we are of a potential WWIII. The fear of imperialism and regime change has haunted Khamenei’s mind since the 1953 coup. He has observed how fragile authority is when a powerful country is resolved to disturb it. The continuous experiences Khamenei has had with US interventions in Iran and other countries have only heightened Khamenei’s distrust of the US even more.

The strategy behind Khamenei’s moderate reaction

While regime change in Iran is one of Trump’s goals, Khamenei’s ultimate objective is regime maintenance. Every policy or stance Khamenei takes is carefully considered in the name of stability, which in his mind is the key to protecting Iran (and himself) from foreign intervention. 

Although unexpected from a revolutionary man that was an active figure in the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei’s distrust of the US does not come out in the form of conflict-based and threatening strategies. Quite the contrary, Khamenei wants to ensure that all risks of a full-on military conflict with the US are avoided. Indeed, we could say he is a ‘risk-avoider’ type of leader.

Iranian’s dissatisfaction towards Khameini’s regime could heighten even more if Khamenei uses Iran’s already scarce resources to fight the US. That is, if there are any resources to be used at all. Given Iran’s poor economic situation under the US sanctions, successfully defeating the world’s most powerful army is unlikely for Iran. Khamenei recognizes these risks very well, and he prefers to ensure security at home.

What future moves can we expect?

Khamenei still struggles with dissatisfaction at home, especially after the recent unintentional downing of a civilian airplane. Regardless, Trump has decided to put a halt to his dangerous game and claims he wants peace. Putin and Xi JinPing have come out in defence of Khamenei and Pompeo has been in dialogue with them to give assurance that Trump aims at de-escalation of this crisis. 

Despite this halt, in a world where no leader can claim to be a foreign-policy angel, Trump’s assassination decision leads to a dangerous precedent. Which “super-bad guy” will be next? And more importantly, will the next time lead to a less moderate reaction?

Adriana Rodriguez

Executive Director of Research and Analysis