Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei (born 1939) followed Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini as supreme spiritual and political leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A favored Khomeini disciple, key revolutionary strategist, and innovative president, Khamenei was elected supreme leader by a Council of Islamic Experts on June 5, 1989.
Born in 1939, Sayyid Ali Khamenei was raised in a family of Islamic scholars in Meshed, a key city in northeast Iran. At 18 he began advanced religious training at Najaf, Iraq. Some sources claim that Khamenei also undertook limited paramilitary training in Palestinian camps in Lebanon and Libya. He moved to Qom, Iran, in 1958, where he became a close student of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1963 Khamenei was involved in the massive student protests against the shah's Western-oriented reforms. The protests were brutally crushed, and Khomeini was exiled. Khamenei continued his studies in Meshed, eventually achieving recognition as hojatolislam ("authority on Islam"), a rank only one step beneath ultimate esteem as an ayatollah.
Khamenei's Farsi, Arabic, and Turkish language skills helped him as a literary critic and translator of works on Islamic science, history, and Western civilization. Khamenei's own books include a study of "the role of Muslims in the liberation of India."
Khamenei's teachings drew the wrath of the shah's agents. Frequent arrests and three years of imprisonment were followed by a year of internal exile in the Baluchi desert region. Undaunted, Khamenei returned to Meshed in time to help orchestrate the nationwide street battles that resulted in the shah's overthrow and the triumphant return of Khomeini in 1979.
Khamenei rose rapidly as the clerics gradually consolidated their control over the revolution. An original Revolutionary Council member, Khamenei cofounded the Islamic Republican Party, was designated the prestigious Friday prayer leader for the capital city of Tehran, and was elected to the Majlis (consultative assembly). Khamenei's early tasks also included the ideological indoctrination of the shah's military and the formation of the autonomous and ideologically driven Revolutionary Guards. Khamenei staunchly defended the militant students who held 52 American diplomats for 444 days (1979-1981). After Iraq invaded Iran, Khamenei was Khomeini's first personal representative on the powerful Supreme Defense Council, from where he helped discredit then president Bani-Sadr for being inclined to accept Iraqi cease-fire offers. Khamenei viewed hard-line stands as beneficially producing a "born again" self-confidence in the Iranian people.
Khamenei was elected president on October 2, 1981, almost by default, since scores of top revolutionary clerics had been killed by bombs planted by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (Islamic-Marxist guerrillas). Khamenei himself barely survived a tape-recorder bomb; his right arm and voice remained damaged.
As president, Khamenei's authority was significantly checked by Iran's complicated constitutional structure. Khomeini's original choice for prime minister, Ali-Akbar Velayati, was rejected by the Majlis in favor of the independent-minded Hussein Moussavi. Like the French system, Iran's divided executive increasingly suffered from bureaucratic confusion and tensions. Velayati, for example, became foreign minister, but many of his deputies were more beholden to Moussavi.
Khamenei's policy positions did not necessarily follow his earlier hard-line reputation. In social matters Khamenei tended to advocate stern social and cultural purity. Yet, he was quick to encourage skilled Iranians to return from abroad, regardless of their fidelity to revolutionary norms. In economics Khamenei's defense of the Bazaaris (merchants) against un-Islamic socialism clashed sharply with Moussavi's enactment of radical land and business reforms. When such disputes became severe, the theoretically supreme Ayatollah Khomeini tended merely to endorse such "constructive debate" and to praise the loyal service of both Moussavi and Khamenei. Though Moussavi's measures were often vetoed by Iran's conservative Council of Guardians, some observers viewed Khamenei's presidency as becoming ceremonial.
Khamenei's most significant presidential contribution was in foreign policy. As Iran struggled to break its pariah status, Khamenei launched in 1984 what became known as an "open door" policy. With Khomeini's blessing, Khamenei transformed the "neither east nor west" revolutionary slogan away from isolationism to mean neither eastern nor western domination. "Rational, sound, and healthy relations with all countries" will help Iran meet its "needs," he said, while aiding in the non-violent spread of Iran's revolutionary message. Khamenei insisted that reciprocity and mutual respect were Iran's criteria for good relations, not ideological conformity. Thus, even unconverted "Satans" like the United States could become friends.
Khamenei's "open minded policy" was frequently denounced by radical hardliners, particularly after the revelations of covert dealings with the United States. Still, the pragmatic analyses of Khamenei and Majlis speaker Rafsanjani arguably were behind Iran's "surprise" acceptance of a cease-fire with Iraq in August of 1988. The Salman Rushdie uproar was a subsequent setback for the pragmatists. When Khamenei suggested that the condemned author could redeem himself, Khomeini publicly reversed Khamenei, saying that Rushdie could not repent from intentional blasphemy.
Despite past controversial stands, the 49-year-old Khamenei was swiftly selected as the new supreme leader after Ayatollah Khomeini's death by an 80-member Council of Islamic Experts. The context for Khamenei's selection had been set by Khomeini's demotion of his previously designated successor, Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, for his hardline international views and brazen criticisms of postwar executions of Mujahedeen leaders. Though elevated to ayatollah status, Khamenei's credentials were challenged by more senior Islamic clergy, including Montazeri. Yet, Khamenei's loyalty to Khomeini and his "skills gained during eight years as president" were deemed to take "priority" over religious training.
As spiritual leader, Khamenei followed Khomeini's tendency to seek conciliation among factions. To placate the marginalized radicals, Khamenei occasionally cautioned the powerful new president, Ali Rafsanjani, not to lose sight of revolutionary principles. Yet Khamenei's sanctioning of careful international financing of reconstruction exemplified his continued emphasis on pragmatic needs.
No longer as immersed in policy making, Khamenei's sermons took on the air of a detached theoretical historian. Such reasoned discourses on the unique and lasting aspects of Iran's Islamic revolution can still be displaced by fiery rhetoric. Amidst the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf crisis, Khamenei proclaimed a "Holy War" against notions of permanent U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, even as he supported "international" efforts to remove Iraq from Kuwait.
Kamenei continued his defiance of the U.S. during the 1990s. In a ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the death of Khomeini, he accused Washington of interfering in the affairs of Iran, saying; "It is very clear that the government of Iran is against U.S. interests." Anything with an American flavor came under his attack. With Khamenei's religious ruling, both Coke and Pepsi were banned in Iran. He launched a drive to make the universities more Islamic, and to increase censorship of newspapers, books, and films. While many in the public sector had little enthusiasm for continuing the revolutionary fervor, Khamenei with an extremist viewpoint attempted to keep Iran from moderating its stance. During the 1997 elections, Khamenei's choice for president, Ali Akbar Nateq-Noori, was defeated by Mohammed Khatami in a referendum by the general public for more freedom and liberty.
Within the growing literature on Iran's revolution and its regional and world impact, several well written and widely circulated English studies stand out: Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (1984); R.K. Ramazani, Revolutionary Iran: Challenge and Response in the Middle East (1988); Robin Wright, In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade (1989); and R.K. Ramazani, editor, Iran's Revolution: The Search for Consensus (1990). English translations of key Iranian speeches can be found in the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, available at most U.S. Government depository libraries. Khamenei's fundamentalism and politics is discussed by David Hirst in the The Guardian (February 3, 1997).