Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Who Is Ali Khamenei? the Worldview of Iran's Supreme Leader

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Who Is Ali Khamenei? the Worldview of Iran's Supreme Leader

Article excerpt

In June, Hassan Rouhani was elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rouhani ran as a reform candidate, and many have interpreted his victory as a harbinger of a possible liberalization or rationalization of Iranian domestic and foreign policy. But the dominant figure in Iranian politics is not the president but rather the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranian constitution endows the supreme leader with tremendous authority over all major state institutions, and Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, has found many other ways to further increase his influence. Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government all operate under his absolute sovereignty; Khamenei is Iran's head of state, commander in chief, and top ideologue. His views are what will ultimately shape Iranian policy, and so it is worth exploring them in detail.

Khamenei was born in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in 1939. His father was a religious scholar of modest means, and Khamenei, the second of eight children, followed his father's path to seminary. (Two of his brothers are also clerics.) He studied in Qom from 1958 to 1964, and while there, he joined the religious opposition movement of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1962. He played an important role in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and went on to become Iran's president, from 1981 to 1989, and then Khomeini's successor as supreme leader.

Khamenei has always been in contact with the world of Iranian intellectuals, and the basic outlines of his thinking were laid down in his youth and young adulthood, during the 1950s and 1960s. Iran was then a monarchy and an ally of the United States; according to the Iranian opposition at the time, the shah was nothing but an American puppet. Unlike many other Islamists, Khamenei had contact with the most important secular opposition intellectuals and absorbed their prerevolutionary discourse. But he was also a seminary student, whose chief focus was learning sharia, Islamic law. He became acquainted with the theoreticians of the Muslim Brotherhood and was influenced by the works of Sayyid Qutb, some of which Khamenei himself translated into Persian.

As a young man, Khamenei saw a tension between the West and the Third World, and these views hardened during his dealings with the United States after the Iranian Revolution. He concluded that Washington was determined to overthrow the Islamic Republic and that all other issues raised by U.S. officials were nothing more than smoke screens. Even today, he believes that the U.S. government is bent on regime change in Iran, whether through internal collapse, democratic revolution, economic pressure, or military invasion.

Khamenei has always been critical of liberal democracy and thinks that capitalism and the West are in inevitable long-term decline. Moreover, he sees Washington as inherently Islamophobic. Nevertheless, he is not reflexively anti-Western or anti-American. He does not believe that the United States and the West are responsible for all of the Islamic world's problems, that they must be destroyed, or that the Koran and sharia are by themselves sufficient to address the needs of the modern world. He considers science and progress to be "Western civilization's truth," and he wants the Iranian people to learn this truth. He is not a crazy, irrational, or reckless zealot searching for opportunities for aggression. But his deep-rooted views and intransigence are bound to make any negotiations with the West difficult and protracted, and any serious improvement in the relationship between Iran and the United States will have to be part of a major comprehensive deal involving significant concessions on both sides.


To understand Khamenei's worldview, it helps to start by looking at the history of U.S. intervention in Iran. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration helped engineer a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq, and Washington was the chief supporter of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's authoritarian regime, until its overthrow in 1979. …

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