The fate of Iran’s Islamic revolution now rests in the hands of an enigmatic cleric who is little understood at home, let alone by the outside world. For the past 20 years, pictures of Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, with his oversize glasses, black turban and untrimmed white beard, have adorned shops, government offices and living-room walls throughout Iran. His modest childhood home in Mashhad has become a virtual shrine, his edicts are binding and his powers absolute. Yet protesters forced from the streets this week have taken to shouting “Death to the dictator” and “Death to Khamenei” from their rooftops. Endowed with the infallible powers of a political pope, Iran’s leader has suddenly discovered that his authority has also made him vulnerable.
Since June 19, Khamenei’s controversial decision to dismiss all allegations of vote rigging and throw his weight behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has produced the most serious challenge to his rule and ultimately to the very concept of a Supreme Leader since the 1979 revolution. Protesters have spurned his claim that foreign powers are behind the demonstrations, while opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi continues to demand that the disputed election be annulled. Khamenei once again warned on June 24 that “neither the establishment nor the nation will yield to pressure at any cost.” Demonstrations have abated under the unprecedented show of force by riot police and the paramilitary Basij vigilantes, but amid signs that the cost is a growing crisis of confidence in the Supreme Leader.
Despite his powers to overturn parliamentary laws, judicial decisions or presidential decrees, Khamenei has never been a very public figure, either as President between 1981 and 1989 or as Supreme Leader since then.
“There is perhaps no leader in the world more important to current world affairs but less known and understood than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” writes Karim Sadjadpour in Reading Khamenei, a publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Neither a dictator nor a democrat but with traits of both Khamenei is the single most important individual in a highly factionalized, autocratic regime.”
Khamenei first emerged in politics as the Islamic republic’s third President in 1981, during a period of violent political turmoil that saw a President, a Prime Minister, 10 Cabinet officials and 27 members of parliament killed in massive bomb attacks. He was among the victims. He has walked with a cane, his right hand dangling uselessly at his side, ever since a small bomb inside a tape recorder went off as he was giving a Friday prayer sermon in 1981. He depends on aides or family to cut up his food.
Khamenei’s election marked the consolidation of clerical control over the state. Revolutionary leader Imam Khomeini originally banned the clergy from running for the presidency, but as he lost confidence in squabbling technocrats, he urged his protégé to run for office. The result was Iran’s first “government of God.” Tensions with Mousavi, who at the time held the more powerful position, of Prime Minister, date back to this period. Throughout the 1980s, Khamenei and Mousavi clashed repeatedly on key political and economic issues.
It was also during those early years that Iran’s political spectrum began to take shape. At one end were ideologues like Khamenei, who wanted Iran to play the role of a revolutionary “redeemer state,” championing the cause of the world’s downtrodden, pursuing Islamic political rule throughout the Muslim world and creating a new Islamic geopolitical bloc capable of challenging both East and West.
At the other end were realists and leftists, like Mousavi, who favored institutionalizing the revolution and creating a model Islamic government. Although they supported an Islamist political system and social order as well as independence from the great powers, they also called for a pragmatic foreign policy. The difference boiled down to whether the Islamic republic’s top priority was the revolution or the state. That debate remains at the heart of the current crisis.
Khamenei became Iran’s second Supreme Leader after Imam Khomeini died in 1989. As a midlevel cleric with little theological standing among his peers, he was in many ways an unlikely choice. Because he inherited the Imam’s political powers but little of the religious authority, Khamenei tried to compensate by forging alliances with the security establishment, particularly among the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia. That relationship has been central to the attempts to put down the uprising since June 20.
Khamenei has also exerted his influence on Iranian society through thousands of fatwas aimed at regulating everyday life. Although he is widely reported to like poetry and play an instrument, Khamenei ruled that music can cause deviant behavior and moral corruption among the young. Foreign news, he ruled, should be outlawed if it in any way “lessens trust in Islamic government,” while he deemed neckties part of a “cultural assault” on Muslims. When riding bicycles or motorcycles, Khamenei ruled, women must avoid actions that lead to the wrong kind of attention. He sanctioned clapping on “joyful occasions” but forbade it where religion is involved. Nose piercings, while not forbidden, would have to be covered.
Some of Khamenei’s micromanaging of the everyday was very practical: he condoned oral contraception for women and vasectomies for men to help bring down Iran’s high birthrate. And he allowed stem-cell research and cloning, which led to the birth of Iran’s first cloned sheep in 2006.
The Supreme Leader’s traditional role has been to balance rival factions. Having aligned himself so closely with one political faction in a fiercely contested election, however, Khamenei’s greatest challenge may now also come from some of his fellow clerics who have long questioned both the principle of a Supreme Leader as well as the role for the clergy in government.
In the current crisis, most of the senior Ayatullahs in the theological city of Qum have refrained from either endorsing Ahmadinejad’s re-election or publicly supporting Khamenei’s handling of the crisis. The diversity of opinion among Iran’s clerics is reflected in Khamenei’s younger brother Hadi, a cleric and former member of parliament who has long advocated cutting back the powers of the Supreme Leader.
“The most important thing we’re looking for today in Iran is the rule of law,” Hadi Khamenei said in 1999. “And that means no one, whatever his position, is above it. Unfortunately for the rest of us, there are still people at the top who don’t accept that basic right.”
Despite the challenge to his rule, Khamenei appears prepared to take an increasingly tough stand, leaving little room for retreat or political compromise and forcing him to rely even more heavily on both hard-line allies and Iran’s security forces. The outcome of Iran’s crisis is likely to affect his political standing as well as whoever ends up as President.