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Portrait of Ali Khamenei - Supreme Leader in Iran

ARTICLES - 30 September 2019

The biography

Ayatollah Khamenei was born in 1939 in Mashad, in Northeastern Iran, the city where the tomb of Imam Reza is located, the eighth Shia Imam. He was born to an Azeri father (the Iranian Turkish-speaking minority), within a religious family of clerics. His father, Seyed Javad Khamenei, was born in Najaf, a holy city in Iraq, while his mother Khadijeh Mirdamadi, herself, came from a religious family. Second son of eight children, two of his brothers are also clerics. Khamenei's ancestor was Seyed Hossein Tafrechi, whose lineage is said to date back to the fourth Shia Imam Ali Zeyn-ol-Abedin, giving the family a traditional legitimacy; as a sign of belonging to the Prophet's family, male family members joining the Shia clergy would wear a black turban. Khamenei's family thus acquired its religious legitimacy through its roots in the city of Najaf (another Shia holy city in Iraq, next to Qom and to a lesser extent Machad in Iran), its links to an Ulama family (from Tafrech to 220 km southwest of Tehran and Khoi in Azerbaijan, Turkish-speaking province of Iran), and through its three family members (the future Supreme Leader and two of his brothers) having had undertaken ecclesiastical studies, thus perpetuating the family tradition.

He began his religious studies in Machad under the direction of two well-known Ayatollahs, Sheikh Hashem Qazvini and Ayatollah Milani. He then left for Najaf in 1957 but did not stay there for long as his father sought to bring him back to Iran. He settled in Qom where he attended the classes of Grand Ayatollah Borudjerdi, the spiritual director of the Shiites, as well as Ayatollah Khomeini’s. But his strong politicization distinguished Khamenei from many other clerics. Meeting with the Fada'iyan-e Islam group leader, Seyed Mojtaba Navvab Safavi, was decisive. Navvab Safavi intended to establish an Islamic government in Iran in the 1940s, more or less at the same time as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was seeking to seize power and, under the influence of Seyed Qotb, to establish a revolutionary government in the name of Islam. Seyyed Qotb, part of whose work Khamenei later translated into Persian, directly influenced him.

He first met Ayatollah Khomeyni in 1957 (1336 year of the Iranian solar hegira). His influence  on Khamanei was decisive, and he soon started acting against the Shah's regime. He was arrested six times, sentenced to prison, and in 1977 the imperial regime sentenced him to three years of exile in the city of Iranshahr, but he returned to Tehran sooner than expected as the 1978 Revolution unfolded. He quickly rose through the various ranks: first as a member of the Revolutionary Council; then, appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini, as the Friday Imam in Tehran (the official imam who makes collective Friday prayer), and finally as deputy to the Minister of Defence.

In 1981, as he was giving a lecture in the Abuzar Mosque in Tehran, a bomb exploded and he was seriously injured, losing the use of his right arm to the incident. Although the Furqan group   (an Islamic extremist group whose members were executed by the Islamic regime for murder) claimed the attack, it was also claimed by the Mujahedin of the People, at war with the Islamic regime.

The same year, Khamenei was elected as Tehran's representative in the Islamic Parliament and became President of Iran twice in a row. After Ayatollah Khomeini's death in 1989, the Council of Experts elected him as Supreme Leader (rahbar). Although he had not obtained recognition as one of the "poles of imitation" (maraje'e taqlid) in Qom (i.e. a religious authority that could issue "religious opinions" (fatwa), from 1994 onwards, teachers at the Qom School (howzeye elmiyeh) gave him the title of marja' (imitation pole). Regardless of the tradition that recognizes a cleric as a marja' after the publication of a "Explanation of Problems" (towzih ol masa'el), he was promoted based on the fatwas he issued on various subjects.

Ayatollah Khamenei belongs to the generation of clerics who became radicalized in the 1960s due to the secularizing modernization of the Shah and his policy of creeping de-islamization of society.

Ayatollah Khamenei belongs to the generation of clerics who became radicalized in the 1960s due to the secularizing modernization of the Shah and his policy of creeping de-islamization of society. The more or less implicit recognition of Israel by the Shah and his increasingly radical refusal to recognize the Shia clergy as a key group in society led the latter to harden their anti-Shah posture as well as their anti-imperialist and anti-Western attitude. In 1963, in Qom, protests instigated by Ayatollah Khomeini were held against the agrarian reform, but also against women's rights and Iran's turn towards secularization.

This fraction of the radicalized clergy shared many features with the extreme Marxist left and a significant part of Iranian Third World intellectuals, notably through its anti-Americanism, its opposition to Westernization, Israel, secularization and the loss of Islamic identity.

In the 1960s, the book by the intellectual Jalal Ale-Ahmad, L'Occidentalite (or Westoxification) was published, denouncing the preponderance of the Western cultural model as an insidious form of domination over Muslim societies. Ale-Ahmad, from a clerical family, had been deeply influenced by Marxism, but gradually realized that only Islam could promote a revolution in Iran that would overthrow the pro-Western and pro-imperialist power of the Shah. Similarly, Ali Shariati, an intellectual from a religious family, believed that authentic Shia Islam was revolutionary (red Shiaism, against black Shiaism, quietist and dolorist). Between the 1960s and 1970s, ideas progressively converged between the extreme Marxist left and radical Islamists. Ayatollah Khamenei was thus immersed in an environment where, despite fundamental differences (indeed members of the far left were secular), those two groups nearly came to share the same vision of religion: the opium of the people. Meanwhile, the supporters of revolutionary Islam advocated a version of Islam intended to establish a theocracy, at least in the Khomeinist fringe (the Shariati partisan fringe was implicitly anticlerical).

The anti-Western vision of this generation is reflected in Ayatollah Khamenei's overall conception, arched on an Islamist posture and based on the idea that Islam and the West are naturally incompatible.

This conception of radicalized Shiism culminated with Ayatollah Khomeini's "velayat-e faqih" (the power of the Islamic Jurisconsult), in which he advocated an Islamic power whose leader would be a Shia cleric involved in political life. This theocratic conception of Shiism is to a large extent equivalent to the notion of "Hakimiyah" in Sunnism, advocated by the Pakistani Abul Alâ Mawdudi and radicalized by the Egyptian Seyed Qotb. Ayatollah Khomeini's exile in Iraq following the unrest of the early 1960s has a powerful impact on society, and awakened a revolutionary spirit among some of the clergy, such as Rafsanjani (a prominent member of the Khomeinist clergy), Motahhari (killed in early 1978 by Islamic extremists of the Furqan group) and Khamenei himself. These religious figures were convinced that Islamic theocracy was the only way to redeem Iran. This idea, dating back to the 18th century, gained momentum among this fraction of the clergy during the revolutionary crisis and was able to establish itself as the dominant version of Shiism. Ayatollah Khamenei belongs to this radical, theocratic and revolutionary trend (in the sense of a conservative revolution), his conception of the world and Iran’s relation with the West being indelibly marked by this militant vision of Islam.

Ayatollah Khamenei has risen as an intellectual stature by publishing books and translations that distinguished the new clergy from the old. He has published or lectured on art, daily prayers, good understanding of religion, the spirit of Tawhid (divine oneness) or the denial of idolatry, cultural aggression (a theme common to Third World intellectuals in the 1960s-1970s and traditionalist or fundamentalist clergy such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, leader of fundamentalist and theocratic clerics), knowing the enemy (dochman chenassi), jihad for autarky (djahad khod-kafaï), or the need to return to the Koran; but he also published translations from Arabic, especially from Seyed Qotb, but also on Muslims and their role in the liberation movement in India (from Abdul-Mun'em Namri)...

He has a significant literary culture and has read a large number of Iranian and foreign poets and writers, some of whom, like Victor Hugo, have had a profound impact on him according to his own words (especially Les Misérables), as well as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russel. According to him, revolutions are mainly characterized by remarkable literary works and Iran is no exception.

However, his vision on the various issues facing the modern world is deeply conservative, even authoritarian. In his view, women's role is to raise children and support the patriarchal family rather than to engage in the public sphere or claim equality with men. Like many of the Third World intellectuals of the 1960s-1970s, he was convinced that Western democracy was invented to weaken Muslim societies and ensure their subordination to the West.

The relationship to power

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader since 1989, has maintained his power by restructuring the Islamic theocracy and imposing his own conception.

To begin with, he relied on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (pasdaran), whose prosperity he ensured by granting it increasing economic privileges. By doing so, he paved the way to a real parallel economic empire under their aegis, escaping the government and equipped with many prerogatives, including several free ports exporting without the executive power controlling their activities.

The Pasdaran Army and its various branches (Basij, its antenna in the popular districts, the Islamic militias called "Hezbollah"...) were able to quell anti-government protests during the multiple crises that shook the regime: the 1999 student movement, the reformist movement under President Khatami (1997-2005), the 2009 Green Movement, President Ahmadinejad's attempts to empower himself (2012-2013), but also the 2017 "bread" movement (protests broke out in more than 100 cities against power because of high prices and the growing gap between social classes).

In addition, Ayatollah Khamenei relied on the Revolutionary Funds and that of Astan Quds Razavi, who manages Imam Reza's death-dealing assets in Khorassan province in northwest Iran and has several billion dollars in assets, not only in Iran, but also in India and Pakistan. These funds provide him with extremely significant financial resources that allow him to bypass the government and his declared revenues, and to finance his policy in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other parts of the world. The financial means at Ayatollah Khamenei's disposal make him a powerful man, but unlike in Saudi Arabia, where the state's coffers and those of the king are identical, his resources come from a hegemony acquired on the job, as he manages to secure control over these only through more or less opaque schemes. The executive has no means of control over them and the Supreme Leader can use them as he pleases and without having to report to anybody.

Ayatollah Khamenei has also secured the control of the judicial system. In Iran, the latter is completely beyond the control of the executive and legislative branches. Despite its "democratic" aspect, it is a repressive and opaque system: any individual challenging the theocratic power can be sentenced to sometimes very harsh sentences.

These instruments of power, concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Guide, greatly  diminished the power of the President, the parliament or other elected institutions. Ayatollah Khamenei has been able to involve each of them in a way that makes it inconceivable to challenge his hegemony. Almost all ministries have their equivalent in the "court" of the Supreme Leader; this duplication and control over key ministries (the Ministry of the Interior, intelligence, but also national education and especially foreign affairs) make the Supreme Leader the true power holder in society. He has reproduced a power structure that has similarities with that of the Makhzen in Morocco, where the king holds power through more or less visible levers by manipulating different authorities and neutralizing any desire by formal institutions to win over the leadership.

When the founder of the new regime, Ayatollah Khomeini, died in 1989, Khamenei, then cleric, was elected by the "Council of Experts" and gradually forged an autocratic identity under the name of Ayatollah Khamenei.

For Ayatollah Khamenei, the reformists are the most dangerous institutional enemy. They intend to change the nature of the regime from within, opening it to a more democratic version where the power of the Supreme Leader would be challenged in the name of popular sovereignty. He was able to neutralize the movement that had brought President Khatami to the forefront in 1997 and then control the Green Movement by gradually suffocating it and imprisoning its leaders (Moussavi and Karrubi), through political repression (around 150 dead and 4500 tortured and several thousand exiled outside Iran). Ayatollah Khamenei's dexterity in overcoming the internal opposition was paradoxically based on the Presidents, who, until now, have had to assume the deficiencies of the system and exempt him from responsibility for the consequences of his foreign policy. With the Trump era and his exit from the Iranian nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the dissension between reformists and conservatives faded, but by an apparent paradox, Ayatollah Khamenei appears as the sole leader, now responsible for Iran's marginalization on the international scene. So far, he has avoided war with the United States, but the extremely fragile economic situation and the obvious impoverishment of Iranian society progressively delegitimizes a power that has nothing to offer but decline and descent into hell. Nevertheless, this regime is less and less contested because of a feeling of fatality and loss of economic power of the middle classes, suffering from American politics and corruption, but also of the intransigence of the theocracy in power. As long as Ayatollah Khamenei is in office, unless there is a war with the West, his power remains uncontested but delegitimized, due to the lack of an opponent and the absence of a credible opposition to his supremacy.

Ayatollah Khamenei's personality has undoubtedly been decisive in the shift to a more authoritarian form of power in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeyni's death in 1989. Beyond this personal dimension, we can only observe the durability of authoritarian powers in Iran since the period of modernization of Reza Shah. The latter was an autocrat, creator of a centralized and modern state, breaking with the past in many ways but rooted in despotism. Similarly, his son Mohammad-Réza Shah, after a period of gestation, and following the nationalist movement of Mossadegh (1950-53) and the Anglo-American coup to overthrow him, became a modernizing despot, especially after the elimination of large landowners by the agrarian reform of the early 1960s. The 1979 Revolution was largely the result of his excesses and hubris. This led to an Islamic theocracy and began with the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini and unanimous populism under his reign. The war unleashed by Iraq in 1980 consolidated his power by uniting Iranian society against the common enemy that had invaded part of the territory to the southwest, Khuzistan, Iran's main oil province. When the founder of the new regime died in 1989, Khamenei, then a cleric, was elected by the "Council of Experts" and gradually forged an autocratic identity under the name of Ayatollah Khamenei. Like the Shah, he has gone through the turbulence of protest, both under Khatami's presidency (1997-2005) and also by the Green Movement (2009), which had disputed his legitimacy.

In a sense, these authoritarian personalities have pushed the Iranian state and society towards a defensive posture; in another sense, the very nature of this oil-rentier state does nothing but push towards authoritarian rule, facilitating the task of despotic power holders through an autonomous oil rent vis-à-vis the economic activity of the society.

Ayatollah Khamenei, imbued with Islamist and Third World ideology marked by anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism and the pro-Palestinian tendency of the 1960s and 1970s, succeeded in creating a regional dynamic centred on Syria (supporting the Assad regime), Lebanon (supporting Hezbollah), Iraq (defending the various Iraqi Shiite tendencies) and even some Palestinian factions (Hamas). The combination of authoritarianism and a power that takes society hostage, notably by Basij and various organizations resulting from the 1979 revolution, constitutes in large the contribution of Ayatollah Khamenei. He was able to lay the foundations of a personal power in spite of the strong contestation from various fringes of society (in particular the middle classes, especially in their youth).

The despotic nature of the Iranian oil state, at least as much as the authoritarian personality of Ayatollah Khamenei, built together a power marked by a dynamic that perpetuates and reinforces autocracy. This dynamic makes it easier for the Pasdaran Army to take over in the eventuality of the current Supreme Leader stepping down. Under the aegis of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Pasdaran Army has evolved into a gigantic economic conglomerate beyond the reach of the legal government and endowed with all the privileges assuring it financial power free from any legal control.


Ayatollah Khamenei showed acute political intelligence in the face of power crisis, whether after the death of Ayatollah Khomeyni, the advent of reformist President Khatami in 1997, the student protest movement in 1999, the advent of President Ahmadinejad (he tried to establish an autonomous power base before the end of his second term in 2013) and above all, the Green Movement in 2009. Whenever his power was challenged, he acted wisely, faced with presidents who were unfamiliar with the subtleties of power (notably Khatami, more of a teacher than a political figure). He knew how to use the various levers of power (the judicial system under his control, the Pasdaran army which he bought with bribes, the revolutionary or pious funds) in order to control his internal opponents. The nature of the Iranian regime favours opposition between the President and the Supreme Leader: the legitimacy of the former is popular (with the restrictions of a regime where the election reflects the state of opinion even if it is not democratic) while the latter is theocratic. Ayatollah Khamenei had to face, and was able to neutralize, not only the reformers, but also Ayatollah Rafsandjani, who aimed to open up the political regime at the cost of the Supreme Leader's marginalization. The more political opponents were dominated, the more the authoritarian tendencies of "velayat-e faqih" theocracy increased and the more Ayatollah Khamenei was confirmed in his role as Supreme Leader. While in 1997 the civil society’s awakening movement and the Khatami presidency had for a time challenged the autocratic nature of power, the President's lack of political courage, his lack of political experience, but also the fear of bloody repression by the Basij paralysed opposition to Islamic theocracy. Ayatollah Khamenei has been able to consolidate his personalised power, and now rules unchallenged. However, in the face of American hegemony in the region, after the United States left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with Iran, and the European imposition of sanctions that followed, the regime is facing a new generalised crisis.

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

Copyright : ATTA KENARE / AFP


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