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.
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.
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.
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/.