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Profile: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's "Supreme Leader"

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Iran's Ali Khamenei

Iran's Ali Khamenei

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Why Ali Khamenei matters:

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is Iran’s self-styled “Supreme Leader,” only the second such in the history of the Iranian Revolution, after Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who ruled until 1989. He’s neither head of state nor head of the government. Yet Khamenei is essentially a dictatorial theocrat. He is the ultimate spiritual and political authority on all matters foreign and domestic, making the Iranian presidency—and indeed the entire Iranian political and judicial process—subordinate to his will. In 2007, The Economist summed up Khamenei in two words: “Supremely paranoid.”

Khamenei’s youth and formative years:

Ali Khamenei was born on July 17, 1939, in a largely pious family in Mashhad, a large, pious city in eastern Iran. Like numerous families throughout the Middle East, Khamenei’s traced its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. He is married, has six children, and considers himself a poet.

By 1958, Khamenei was studying in the “Shiite Vatican” city of Qom, at the feet of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. Khamenei was deeply influenced by the jailing of Khomeini in 1963, when Khomeini’s criticism Reza Pahlevi, the brutal shah of Iran, led to three days of rioting and a bloody crackdown by the shah that killed some 200 people.

Khamenei’s Early Anti-Americanism:

It was around that time that Khamenei’s anti-Americanism was seeded, also through the influence of Khomeini. Khomeini was bitterly critical of a status of forces agreement between the United States and Iran. The SOFA gave Americans in Iran total immunity from Iranian law, prompting Khomeini to protest: “Are we to be trampled underfoot by the boots of America simply because we are a weak nation and have no dollars?” Khomeini was exiled in November 1964. Khamenei himself was imprisoned six times between 1964 and 1975, which radicalized him further and devoted him to Khomeini.

The Iranian Revolution:

In 1977, Khamenei joined the Society of Combatant Clergy, founded by future Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and known by its Iranian acronym, JRM, which worked to overthrow the Shah of Iran and played a pivotal role in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. He mobilized many of the demonstrations that led to the shah’s overthrow in 1979 and the return of Khomeini that Feb. 1. Khamenei identified himself with the most radical and violent elements of the revolution—as a member of the secret Revolutionary Council, as Khomeini’s representative to the Revolutionary Guards (the revolution’s shock troops).

He supported the taking of American hostages at the American embassy in Tehran. As defense minister, he devised strategy in the Iran-Iraq war, including approving the use of child soldiers. He was one of the founders of the Islamic Republican Party and a member of the Assembly of Experts that drafted the Iranian constitution, which enacted Khomeini’s novel idea of merging temporal and spiritual power under one ruler. On June 27, 1981, while Khamenei was leading Friday prayers in a Tehran mosque, a bomb hidden in a tape recorder exploded, but only maimed his right arm and hand, which he cannot use.

President, 1981-1989:

Following the assassination of President Mohammed Ali Rajai, Khameini was elected president in 1981, and reelected in 1985. His rule was overshadowed by the Iran-Iraq war, which diverted overwhelming national resources and energy to the front while crippling the economy, and by the domineering presence of Ayatollah Khomeini, who dictated all domestic and foreign policy. Khamenei’s presidency mirrored his skill: balancing perceptions and playing off foils to his leadership’s benefit without providing innovative, effective or substantial leadership so much as enforcement of brutal, simplistic revolutionary orthodoxy.

Khamenei and the Iran-Contra Scandal:

In a 1987, Khamenei referred to the United States as the “arch-Satan.” But he was by then attempting to distance himself from the U.S., with whom he had secretly negotiated arms sales in exchange for freeing American hostages held by Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished the Reagan administration as much as it did the Iranian regime, as the hypocrisies of both unraveled. Along the way, Khamenei plotted, unsuccessfully, to assassinate the emir of Kuwait and funded terrorism in Lebanon.

More on Iran-Contra:

Khamenei and Rushdie’s "The Satanic Verses":

In 1990, Khamenei, who had supported the death sentence on Salman Rushdie, the British author of The Satanic Verses, refused to lift the decree. “God willing, from now on no one will dare insult the great messenger of God, and Islamic sanctities,” Khamenei said, adding that even if Rushdie “repents and becomes the most pious Muslim on earth, there will be no change in this divine decree.” In 1998, Khamenei lifted the death sentence, suggesting a late-age slouch toward pragmatism.

Khamenei as “Supreme Leader”:

As Hooman Majd writes in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (Doubleday, 2008), Ali Khamenei “has, in the years since Khomeini’s death elevated him to the post, carefully balanced his use of what is arguably unlimited power with the cultivation of a public perception that the elected presidents of the republic are responsible for the ordinary welfare and woes of the people, and their general dissatisfaction, if they have any, with the government.”

In other words, Khamenei continues to take the credit for what goes right with the Islamic Republic of Iran while deflecting all blame on the president, when necessary, for what goes wrong. Khamenei so far fhas fulfilled Khomeini’s intentions—ably maintaining his hold on power, which has been synonymous with the Iranian Revolution, while using the inherently unaccountable political system to delay a reckoning with the economic and social failures of the revolution.

Whether Khamenei is a conservative or a reformer is no longer as relevant as whose side he thinks is best to put forward through the presidency as a means of placating popular will and deflecting dissatisfaction with the ultimate authority in the country: Khamenei himself.

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