Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accumulated formidable authority within Iran’s political system since he became supreme leader nearly 25 years ago, mainly through transforming the Revolutionary Guard Corps into a key political and economic player. But even Khamenei has had to “devise sophisticated measures for keeping the president in check,” according to a new report by Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Khalaji argues that the supreme leader “is not omnipotent, and various factors and individuals have affected his decisions over the years.” The following are excerpts from the executive summary with a link to the full text.
To better understand Iranian decision making, one must first look at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s background. He was by no means a typical cleric -- his acquaintances, interests, and ambitions were shaped more by intellectual currents than by clerical tradition. After the 1979 revolution, such interests developed into an enthusiasm for military affairs that would greatly influence his approach to consolidating power in later years.
Once Khamenei succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, many of his appointees hailed not from the first generation of the Islamic Republic but rather from a new generation of politicians with military or security backgrounds. Since then, this approach has gradually transformed the country’s top military structure—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—into a key player in Iranian politics and economics, allowing Khamenei to establish a very powerful centralized authority. This in turn gives him the last say on foreign policy, the nuclear issue, and many other matters.
To be sure, the Supreme Leader is not omnipotent, and various factors and individuals have affected his decisions over the years. Attempts to unify the government and completely dissolve factionalism within the ruling elite have failed, often generating crises instead. Yet Khamenei has established numerous mechanisms to manage schisms and exert his authority.
For example, Khamenei’s “house”—the Office of the Supreme Leader—has from its inception been led and staffed by personal acquaintances and loyalists, most of whom are bureaucrats rather than politicians. Thus, while the office influences him by determining what information he receives, Khamenei has sought to keep political factors from seeping into that information by personally managing the office and bringing close friends into his inner circle. A look at the structure of this “house” can therefore help explain how the Supreme Leader thinks, what he believes, and whom he trusts.
Khamenei has also kept his office distant from the clergy, unlike Khomeini, who surrounded himself with clerical disciples. Over the years, a new bureaucracy was imposed on the once-independent clerical establishment. The nature of the Islamic Republic, combined with Khamenei’s efforts to consolidate control, made the seminaries completely dependent on the regime for financial and political support. Today, Khamenei is responsible for appointing the council that manages Iran’s major seminaries and related religious institutes. He has also revolutionized the clergy’s administrative structure, replacing the traditional order based on oral culture with a modern, computerized system that gives him great control over the private lives, public activities, political orientation, expenditures, and property holdings of clerics.
Other coercive mechanisms (e.g., the Special Court of Clerics; the “Statistical Office,” an organ of the Ministry of Intelligence; a special militia brigade composed of guerrilla clerics) have further helped him repress opposition. Hundreds of clerics have been imprisoned and executed as a result of such structures, which often disregard Iranian legal procedures.
At the same time, many clerics are rewarded with a wide array of amenities, privileges, and business opportunities. Today’s clerical establishment is both the wealthiest in Iran’s history and the least likely to call for a secular, democratic government that would remove many of these benefits.
On the political front, Khamenei has had to navigate tensions with the country’s other top office, the presidency, even going so far as to question whether the position should be abolished. While the president’s powers are limited to the executive branch and greatly constrained by institutions under the Supreme Leader’s control, he can challenge the ruling jurist’s authority in many cases. Khamenei lacks Khomeini’s charisma and popularity, so he has been forced to devise sophisticated measures for keeping the president in check—at times with nearly disastrous results.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency best illustrates how such tensions can play out, and how the Supreme Leader failed in his goal of ending factionalism by spearheading the election of a subservient president. Despite paving Ahmadinejad’s way to electoral victory, Khamenei felt compelled to turn on him once he began to exert independence from the Supreme Leader and the IRGC and to develop his own sphere of economic and political influence. For example, Khamenei allowed the judiciary, intelligence, and media apparatuses to accuse various people in Ahmadinejad’s circle of economic or moral corruption, connection with opposition movements, or links with Western governments.
In the end, such efforts have harmed both Khamenei’s personal image and that of the Islamic Republic. The mass protests that followed Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 reelection forced the Supreme Leader to resort to violence against peaceful demonstrators, leading many Muslims throughout the world to question the regime’s religious legitimacy. Moreover, his subsequent efforts to control Ahmadinejad effectively forced him to discredit the same person he wanted to keep in power in 2009.
Early signs suggest a less perilous relationship with Hassan Rouhani, who was elected president in June 2013. Rouhani has sought common ground with the Supreme Leader on issues such as reducing the IRGC’s role in the country’s economy. The Supreme Leader, in turn, has been generally supportive of Rouhani’s efforts in the nuclear talks with the West. No doubt, keeping up such a dynamic will depend on the president’s sustained deference.
The Supreme Leader has also kept other branches of the government under his thumb. He frequently intervenes in legislative deci sions, whether through direct letters to the speaker of parliament or by sending word through the Guardian Council and his personal office. More important, he controls the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), a small group responsible for designing Iran’s defense and security policies and responding to internal and external threats. Although the president is the council’s titular head, Khamenei’s personal representative is the one who truly leads its deliberations, and most of the other members are his appointees.
Today, the council has sway over many foreign policy matters, including the nuclear issue. In recent years, Khamenei has taken pains to disavow the approach that former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani took on the issue. In particular, he has claimed that he is not responsible for policies he regards as soft and ineffective—in his view, the “flexibility” shown by past nuclear negotiators without his approval only encouraged “the enemy” to make bolder demands. Since then, he has taken steps to assume ownership of the nuclear portfolio, such as establishing control over the SNSC and forming a negotiating team stocked with loyalists.
Finally, Khamenei’s relationship with the IRGC is perhaps the most complicated factor in regime decision making. Since assuming power, he has transformed the Guards from a military force to a religious, political, economic, and cultural complex, one that controls the country’s media and educational system. But despite the IRGC’s power and numerous internal rifts, there is no evidence that any of its commanders are in a position to challenge the Supreme Leader’s authority. Among other measures, Khamenei has kept the Guards in check by purging old commanders, deploying his personal representatives throughout the ranks, and appointing each commander’s deputies himself; in fact, many of these deputies report directly to him.
Going forward, it is important to remember that Khamenei has changed his views on certain issues in the name of political expediency. For example, when he first became Supreme Leader, he found it necessary to put aside his (private) opposition to actively anti-American policies. He did so not out of any grand ideological shift, but simply to confiscate political capital from the leftists who had grown powerful during Khomeini’s reign. By becoming more anti- American than the anti-Americans, so to speak, he was able to marginalize them and increase his own authority. His hold on power is much stronger today, however, so a major shift is less likely unless domestic pressures increase dramatically. He may not be able to eliminate his critics within the political elite, but he has protected his interests thus far by curbing the influence of those seeking to remodel Iran’s anti-American, anti-Israel, and nuclear policies, including each of the last three presidents.
for Mehdi Khalaji's chapter on politics and Iran's clergy.