Ali Khamenei

Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of Iran, making him the highest religious and political authority in the country.Akbar Ganji, “Who is Ali Khamenei?” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139643/akbar-ganji/who-is-ali-khamenei. He became Supreme Leader in 1989 following his term as Iran’s president from 1981-1989.James Reynolds, “Profile: Iran’s ‘unremarkable’ supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei,” BBC News, August 4, 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14362281. In Foreign Affairs, Iranian journalist and dissident Akbar Ganki describes him as Iran’s “single most powerful figure,”Akbar Ganki, “The Latter-Day Sultan,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/64606/akbar-ganji/the-latter-day-sultan. stating that “formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government all operate under [Khamenei’s] absolute sovereignty.”Akbar Ganji, “Who is Ali Khamenei?” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139643/akbar-ganji/who-is-ali-khamenei. In early December 2020, Khamenei reportedly handed authority to his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, amid growing health concerns.Darragh Roche, “Journalist Claims Iran's Supreme Leader Transfers Power to Son as Health Deteriorates,” Newsweek, December 5, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/fakhrizadeh-iran-1552586. Iranian officials have denied that Khamenei’s health is declining.“Iranian official close to Khamenei's office says leader is in good health – Fars,” Reuters, December 7, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN28H113. Rumors of Khamenei’s failing health again circulated in September 2022 after Khamenei reportedly had bowel obstruction surgery.Farnaz Fassihi, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Cancels Public Appearances After Falling Ill,” New York Times, September https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/16/world/middleeast/irans-supreme-leader-ayatollah-ali-khamenei-ill.html.

Khamenei controls Iran’s military including its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), responsible for defending the Islamic Republic against internal and external threats.Greg Bruno, Jayshree Bajoria, and Jonathan Masters, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 14, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/iran/irans-revolutionary-guards/p14324. According to Iran analyst Alireza Nader, Khamenei and the IRGC have formed a “symbiotic relationship that buttresses the Supreme Leader’s authorities and preserves the status quo.”Alireza Nader, “The Revolutionary Guards,” United States Institute of Peace, accessed March 24, 2015, http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/revolutionary-guards. Khamenei’s control extends to the IRGC’s Quds Force, the IRGC’s external wing responsible for liaising with Iran’s global proxies including Hezbollah and Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.“Treasury Targets Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 11, 2011, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1320.aspx. Khamenei has used the Quds Force to build and support relationships with violent international groups that oppose the U.S. and/or support Iran’s hardline Shiite policies. He has offered Iran’s support to essentially any group engaged in hostilities with Israel, which he calls a “cancerous tumor” that should be “cut off.”Thomas Erdbrink, “Ayatollah Khamenei says Iran will back ‘any nations, any groups’ fighting Israel,” Washington Post, February 3, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iran-says-it-launched-satellite/2012/02/03/gIQARNuDmQ_story.html.

Iranian forces have also fought on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war. As early as June 2011, Khamenei pledged his support for Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime, declaring, “Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist, and anti-American, we support it.”Geneive Abdo, “How Iran Keeps Assad in Power in Syria,” Foreign Affairs, August 25, 2011, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/68230/geneive-abdo/how-iran-keeps-assad-in-power-in-syria. In 2012, Khamenei ordered the Quds Force to increase attacks on Western targets in retaliation for U.S. support of Syrian rebels.Con Coughlin, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Orders Fresh Terror Attacks on West,” Telegraph, August 22, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/9490878/Irans-supreme-leader-orders-fresh-terror-attacks-on-West.html.

Khamenei directly influences Iranian elections through his control of Iran’s Guardian Council, the body responsible for overseeing the election process.“Profile: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” BBC News, June 17, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3018932.stm. In 2004, conservatives won 70 percent of the Iranian parliamentary elections after the Guardian Council disqualified thousands of more moderate candidates.“Profile: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” BBC News, June 17, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3018932.stm.

Islam and Islamism have been central tenets of Khamenei’s life. At age 13, Khamenei heard the anti-Shah fundamentalist cleric Navab Safavi speak at his school.“Biography of the Life of His Eminence Ayatollah Khamenei, Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, December 27, 2007, http://english.khamenei.ir//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=57&Itemid=20. This started Khamenei down a path of radicalization and he began supporting the ideology of Safavi’s Fadayan-e Islam movement,Masoud Kazemzadeh, “Ayatollah Khameini’s Foreign Policy Orientation,” Comparative Strategy, November 8, 2013, 446, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01495933.2013.840208. which justified terrorism against the Shah’s government and its supporters. Khamenei went on to translate two books by Sayyid Qutb,Masoud Kazemzadeh, “Ayatollah Khameini’s Foreign Policy Orientation,” Comparative Strategy, November 8, 2013, 446, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01495933.2013.840208. the father of modern Islamism. In 1962, Khamenei became a disciple of the radical Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and joined Khomeini’s protests against the Shah.“Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei Fast Facts,” CNN, July 8, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/30/world/meast/ayatollah-seyyed-ali-khamenei---fast-facts/index.html. Khamenei went on to hold leading roles in Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, including serving two terms as Iran’s president.

Khamenei subscribes to the ideology of Khomeinism, Khomeini’s philosophy focused on themes of Third World unity, liberation from the oppression of the West, and the embrace of state planning as a tool for social engineering. Khomeini framed the Islamic Revolution as not only a struggle against the Shah but also a fight against perceived Western domination.David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey, “Mullahs, Guards and Bonyards. An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics,” National Defense Research Institute, p. 13, 2010, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG878.pdf. He warned against the alleged dangers of foreign interference in Iranian affairs,Ervand Abrahamian, “Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic,” Cambridge University Press, 2008, 116. and called for resistance against foreign actors he believed were responsible for injustices against Iran.David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey, “Mullahs, Guards and Bonyards. An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics,” National Defense Research Institute, p. 13, 2010, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG878.pdf.

Khomeini’s 1970 book, Islamic Government: The Government of the Jurist,An English translation of the book by Dr. Hamid Algar is available online, accessed July 8, 2014: http://www.al-islam.org/islamic-government-governance-of-jurist-imam-khomeini. argued that Islam required political power to be placed in the hands of religious leaders. This doctrine of clerical political power, known in Farsi as “Guardianship of the Jurist” (velayat-e faqih), remains an essential tenet of Iran’s ruling order. Current Iranian law makes “belief and practice of velayat-e faqih” a prerequisite for membership in the IRGC.Charter of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, ratified by Iran’s legislature (Majles-e Shura-ye Eslami) on September 6, 1982. Article 34, accessed July 8, 2014, http://rc.majlis.ir/fa/law/show/90595. Khomeini popularized the idea of theocratic rule by a single religious scholar, claiming near-dictatorial powers for himself. Upon Khomeini’s death in 1989, Khamenei became Khomeini’s spiritual successor.

Khamenei has cast Iran’s relationship with the West—and the U.S. in particular—as a battle between good and evil. Like Khomeini, Khamenei is paranoid of Iran’s relationship with the West, and believes the U.S. is a source of aggression that seeks Iran’s “submission and surrender.”Karim Sadjadpour, “Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader,” Carnegie Endowment, 2007, 14, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/sadjadpour_iran_final2.pdf. He sees Iran’s nuclear pursuit as a statement of Iran’s independence from Western (i.e. U.S.) hegemony.Karim Sadjadpour, “Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader,” Carnegie Endowment, 2007, 14, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/sadjadpour_iran_final2.pdf. Even as Iran negotiates with the U.S., Khamenei continues to call for “death to America.” The supreme leader describes the United States as a “bully” that “[takes] advantages of the weakness of Islamic countries,” while Iran fights for regional peace.Sam Wilkin and Babak Dehghanpisheh, “Iran’s top leader rejects U.S. ‘bullying’ in nuclear talks,” Reuters, March 21, 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/03/21/uk-iran-nuclear-khamenei-idUKKBN0MH0GX20150321; “Leader’s Speech to the Residents of Qom,” The Office of the Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei, January 8, 2007, http://www.leader.ir/langs/en/index.php?p=bayanat&id=3587.

In October 2014, Khamenei accused the U.S. and the U.K. of creating ISIS as a tool to fight Iran and “create insecurity” in the region.Michelle Moghtader, “Khamenei Blames United States, ‘Wicked’ Britain, for Creating Islamic State,” Reuters, October 13, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/13/us-mideast-crisis-khamenei-idUSKCN0I217220141013; “Khamenei calls ‘Death to America’ as Kerry hails progress on nuke deal,” Times of Israel, March 21, 2015, http://www.timesofisrael.com/khamenei-calls-death-to-america-as-kerry-hails-progress-on-nuke-deal/. Consequently, Khamenei believes Islam is in a “righteous” fight against the U.S., “the Great Satan,” which controls “the avaricious arrogant policies of the satans of the world.”Masoud Kazemzadeh, “Ayatollah Khameini’s Foreign Policy Orientation,” Comparative Strategy, November 8, 2013, 450, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01495933.2013.840208.

Part of the enduring legacy of Khamenei’s predecessor is Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa calling for the death of British author Salman Rushdie on charges of insulting Islam with his novel The Satanic Verses. Though former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami rebuked the Rushdie fatwa in 1998, Khamenei clarified in 2005 that the death sentence remained in effect. When the United Kingdom knighted Rushdie in 2007, Pakistani radicals—including members of the government—clamored for his death. In February 2016, 40 Iranian state-run media outlets offered a $600,000 joint reward for Rushdie’s murder.Samuel Osborne, “Salman Rushdie: Iranian state media renew fatwa on Satanic Verses author with $600,000 bounty,” Independent (London), February 21, 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/salman-rushdie-iranian-state-media-renew-fatwa-on-satanic-verses-author-with-600-000-bounty-a6887141.html; “Day of Pakistan Rushdie protests,” BBC News, June 22, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6229506.stm. In October 2022, the United States levied sanctions on the 15 Khordad Foundation, an Iranian charity under the auspices of Iran’s supreme leader that has maintained a multi-million-dollar reward for Rushdie’s death since 1989. In 2012, the foundation raised its reward to $3.3 million and promised the full sum would be immediately paid to whoever kills Rushdie.“Treasury Sanctions Iranian Foundation Behind Bounty on Salman Rushdie,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 28, 2022, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy1059.

Questions about Khamenei’s health have followed him for several years. In 2015, he was allegedly hospitalized with stage four prostate cancer.“Iran supreme leader said to be in critical condition,” Times of Israel, March 5, 2015, http://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-supreme-leader-said-to-be-in-critical-condition/. On December 5, 2020, Iranian journalist Momahad Ahwaze claimed on Twitter that Khamenei had transferred authority to his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, amid growing health concerns. According to Ahwaze, Khamenei canceled a December 4 meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani because of his deteriorating health. Ahwaze claimed Khamenei’s conditioned worsened overnight, leading to the transfer of power. He did not state specifics of Khamenei’s illness, but various media reports suggested the supreme leader may have prostate cancer.Darragh Roche, “Journalist Claims Iran's Supreme Leader Transfers Power to Son as Health Deteriorates,” Newsweek, December 5, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/fakhrizadeh-iran-1552586. On December 7 on Twitter, Iranian official Mehdi Fazaeli denied rumors of Khamenei’s declining health and claimed Khamenei was “busy vigorously carrying out his plan according to his routine.”“Iranian official close to Khamenei's office says leader is in good health – Fars,” Reuters, December 7, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN28H113. If Khamenei dies while still in power, a transfer of authority to his son would be temporary as Iran’s Assembly of Experts is constitutionally charged with selecting the supreme leader’s permanent successor.Yonah Jeremy Bob, If Iran’s Khamenei must step down, who will replace him?,” Jerusalem Post, December 6, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/if-irans-khamenei-must-step-down-who-will-replace-him-651279.

Media reports circulated again in September 2022 of Khamenei’s failing health. On September 6, Khamenei’s office cancelled all public appearances. Khamenei reportedly had surgery in the first half of that month for bowel obstruction after suffering extreme stomach pains and high fever. According to one source cited by the New York Times, Khamenei was in critical condition at one point, but he was showing signs of improvement.Farnaz Fassihi, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Cancels Public Appearances After Falling Ill,” New York Times, September https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/16/world/middleeast/irans-supreme-leader-ayatollah-ali-khamenei-ill.html. Despite the reports, Khamenei made public appearances on September 17 and September 21. Sources close to Khamenei denied rumors of the ayatollah’s failing health.“Iran’s supreme leader appears at religious event, following period of absence ,” Reuters, September 17, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/irans-supreme-leader-appears-religious-event-following-period-absence-2022-09-17/; “Iran’s Khamenei gives second speech after report of illness,” Reuters, September 21, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/irans-khamenei-gives-second-televised-speech-after-report-illness-2022-09-21/.

Khamenei’s health raised concerns about who would become the next supreme leader. In June 2021, Ebrahim Raisi won Iran’s presidential elections, confirming his status as a potential successor to Khamenei.Alex Vatanka, “The Supreme Leader’s Apprentice Is Running for President,” Foreign Policy, April 12, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/12/irans-supreme-leader-has-picked-his-candidate-for-president/; Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, “Hardline Iranian cleric consolidates leadership position,” Reuters, March 12, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-judiciary-raisi-newsmaker/hardline-iranian-cleric-consolidates-leadership-position-idUSKBN1QT1GO; “Iran election: Hardliner Raisi will become president,” BBC News, June 20, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-57537027. Khamenei had previously appointed Raisi, in 2016, as head of Astan Qods Razavi, which oversees a multibillion-dollar religious foundation that manages donations to the Iman Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad. The appointment to the high-profile position raised speculation in Iran that Khamenei favored Raisi as the shrine is Iran’s holiest Shiite pilgrimage site and a steady source of revenue for the country.Golnaz Esfandiari, “In Iran, Emerging Hard-Liner Stakes Future On Unseating Rohani,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 6, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-presidential-election-candidate-hard-liner-ebrahim-raisi/28414689.html; Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, “Hardline cleric Raisi to take on Rouhani in Iran’s presidential election,” Reuters, April 9, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-elections-raisi-idUSKBN17B0DZ; Alex Vatanka, “The Supreme Leader’s Apprentice Is Running for President,” Foreign Policy, April 12, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/12/irans-supreme-leader-has-picked-his-candidate-for-president/. In March 2019, Khamenei appointed Raisi head of Iran’s judiciary. Less than a week later, Raisi was elected deputy chief of the Assembly of Experts.Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, “Hardline Iranian cleric consolidates leadership position,” Reuters, March 12, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-judiciary-raisi-newsmaker/hardline-iranian-cleric-consolidates-leadership-position-idUSKBN1QT1GO; “Ebrahim Raeesi Was Officially Appointed as the Chief of Iran’s Judiciary,” Iran International, March 7, 2019, https://iranintl.com/en/iran/ebrahim-raeesi-was-officially-appointed-chief-iran%E2%80%99s-judiciary. The Iranian regime favored Raisi in the June 2021 presidential elections, which observers speculated were designed to give Raisi a victory.“Iranians vote in election all but guaranteed to deliver an ultra-conservative president,” CNN, June 18, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/18/middleeast/iran-election-voting-intl/index.html.

Protests against the Iranian regime spread around Iran in 2022. That May, protests erupted after the government canceled billions of dollars in food import subsidies and overnight doubled and tripled prices for essential food items such as bread and cooking oil. Khamenei blamed the protests on Iran’s enemies, who sought to sow unrest to collapse the Iranian government.“Iran's Khamenei In Speech Tries To Defend His Embattled Rule,” Iran International, June 4, 2022, https://www.iranintl.com/en/202206046932. In September 2022, the IRGC and the Basij joined in violently suppressing protests that erupted after the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died in custody after being detained by Tehran’s morality police earlier in the month for not wearing a hijab properly. Her death sparked protests across Iran and violent clashes between protesters and the IRGC.Arsalan Shahla, “Iran Launches Artillery Against Militants in Northern Iraq,” September 24, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-09-24/iran-launches-artillery-against-militants-in-northern-iraq?leadSource=uverify%20wall; “Exclusive: IRGC Commanders’ Families Placed in Tehran ‘Safe House,” Iran Wire, September 26, 2022, https://iranwire.com/en/iran/107958-exclusive-irgc-commanders-families-placed-in-tehran-safe-house/; “IRGC will not hesitate to target origin of any anti-Iran operation wherever it may be: General,” Press TV, September 27, 2022, https://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2022/09/27/689915/IRGC-will-not-hesitate-target-origin-any-anti-Iran-operation-General; Caitlin McFall, “The Guardian Patrol sent Amini to a detention center to undergo re-education when they claimed she was not wearing a hijab properly. She died three days later.,” Fox News, September 24, 2022, https://www.foxnews.com/world/protestors-clash-revolutionary-guard-northern-iran-torch-irgc-base-reports; “Iran’s Guards Break Their Silence, Warn Protesters,” Iran International, September 22, 2022, https://www.iranintl.com/en/202209229946. On October 3, Khamenei made his first statement about the protests, blaming the United States, Israel, and Iranian agitators.“Leader: Riots engineered by U.S., Israel, and treasonous Iranians abroad,” Tehran Times, October 3, 2022, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/477264/Leader-Riots-engineered-by-U-S-Israel-and-treasonous-Iranians; “Iran’s supreme leader breaks silence on protests, blames US,” Associated Press, October 3, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/iran-israel-middle-east-dubai-united-arab-emirates-25c14800b5b145d850fe3181eb062664.

Also Known As

Extremist entity
Islamic Republic of Iran
Type(s) of Organization:
Government
Ideologies and Affiliations:
Shiite, Khomeinist, Islamist
Position(s):
Supreme Leader of Iran, Former President of Iran, Shiite cleric

  • Designations
  • Rhetoric

United States

  • On June 24, 2019, President Donald Trump issued an executive order imposing financial sanctions on the supreme leader of Iran, the Supreme Leader’s Office (SLO), and any person determined by the secretary of state and secretary of treasury to be a person appointed by the supreme leader or SLO to a position as a state official of Iran, or as the head of any entity located in Iran or any entity located outside of Iran that is owned or controlled by one or more entities in Iran.“Treasury Targets Senior IRGC Commanders Behind Iran’s Destructive and Destabilizing Activities,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, June 24, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm716; “Executive Order on Imposing Sanctions with Respect to Iran,” White House, June 24, 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-imposing-sanctions-respect-iran/.

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