- In-Country Power
- International Power
- Military Strength
- Special Skill: Indestructible Imam
- Official Title: Supreme Leader
- Government: Theocracy
- Years Left in Office: Life
- Political Classification: Extreme right
- Education: Islamic Cleric
- Age: 80 (born July 15, 1939)
Ayatollah Khamenei Facts and Information
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei! The Ayatollah of rock-and-rolla! The main Iranian man! In all respects too! He is the Supreme Leader of Iran, and a Shia Marja, and he previously served as President of the Iranian Republic from 1981 to 1989. He has covered all the bases of power in this place for over 3 decades! And his influence isn’t limited to Persian lands: In 2010, Forbes magazine selected him 26th in the list of ‘World’s Most Powerful People’, a position he regularly achieves. Not the least of which is because Iran is one of the world’s biggest oil exporters, a foundation stone of OPEC itself, and affects world oil prices…but also because Iran is a regional power-player that supports Syria & Hezbollah, hates the Saudis and most other Arab leaders, and is a constant source of friction and frustration in the Persian Gulf. Despite being considered the center of the ‘Axis of Evil’ by the mighty USA, this dude does have a lot of global clout. So who the heck is he?
Probably demonized more than any current world leader (possible exceptions: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or equally whacky Kim Jong-Un of North Korea) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is probably also the least understood character on the world stage. Part of this is because of shrill political punditry which paints him as an ultra-conservative demagogue and radical terrorism-lover. Whatevs. Those people usually have no idea what they’re talking about. As the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary legacy and the virtual head of an Iranian state lurching into a bright new future and/or war which will see the state razed to the ground, this controversial fellow needs a little more attention.
Wait! Let’s do what no one ever does though and explore, briefly, what the hell an ‘ayatollah’ is and what Khamenei’s position as “Supreme Leader” means exactly. Just as with pizza, there is a wide variety of toppings that set each kind of pie apart, so within Shi’ism there are a wide variety of levels of religious scholarship. The highest ranking of religious scholar, that of ayatollah, is, yes, very much of the “supreme” variety, that is, he’s got a nice mixture of all the available toppings and is delicious. The Iranian political pizzeria, devised by Khomeini in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution (forget Argo), is divided into two giant political slices: an elected part of the government headed by the President (the political part in the normal sense) and an unelected portion headed by the Supreme Leader, or highest ayatollah…the religious or cultural part analogous to our Supreme Court; there’s that delicious word again!
The position of the ayatollah/Supreme Leader isn’t elected by the people, but is chosen by a part of the government called the Assembly of Experts, a group of religious scholars who are elected. The Assembly is sort of the check on the Supreme Leader in the Iranian checks and balances system. So it isn’t entirely undemocratic—just, well, different. American pundits like to bitch about this since in America there is no unelected political institution that decides the moral and social bent of the nation (there is; it’s called the Supreme Court).
What does the Supreme Leader do, besides make your mouth water? He appoints the head of the judicial system, the members of the Guardian Council (another unelected part of the Iranian government) and weighs in with his learned religious opinion when necessary, as with important international and domestic political issues.
What about the sauce for the Supreme? Yes, what of it? Well, let’s say the sauce is the man. So who is this sauce of the Iranian supreme pizza? That’s Khamenei, who brings his own unique, some would say bland, flavor to the pizza.
Khamenei was born in 1939 and comes from an old-school traditional religious family, meaning previous generations were scholars too. He kept on the family tradition although this was a time when the Shah (aka ‘the King’; Iran was a hereditary monarchy of sorts) was hell-bent on secularizing Iran and careers in religion were sniffed at aloofly. Khamenei didn’t care. His early career wasn’t very exciting, and all we can really say is that he smoked a lot and loved poetry, but this was no Iranian Charles Bukowski in the making. For with the rise of Ruhollah Khomeini and the religious opposition to the Shah’s repressive policies, Khamenei came forth to—well, sort of shine? A follower of Khomeini, Khamenei propagated his teachings after the former was exiled and the younger cleric even got himself arrested periodically for his activities.
After the triumph of Khomeini and others and the toppling of the Shah in 1979 (the 1979 Iranian Revolution that is), shit got real for Khamenei, a cleric in a new cleric-led Iran. He became the prayer leader in Tehran and was involved tangentially somehow, (no one is quite sure to what degree), in the American hostage situation in the early 1980s. During these same years, the Mojaheddin-e-Khalq, a Marxist terrorist group had begun assassinating religious figures associated with Khomeini’s government-in-the-making, and an attempt was made on Khamenei’s life, permanently damaging his arm. Well, I guess that’s why Allah gave him 2 of them.
Fast-forward: In 1981, Khamenei was elected President. I said ‘President’, not ‘Supreme Leader,’ that is coming soon. And back in 1981, the Iran-Iraq War was really getting heated up, and muchos death was occurring on both sides of the conflict. Khamenei’s slavish devotion to Khomeini, and the fact that lots of his peers were getting whacked by terrorist opposition groups, made him the perfect man for the job of political head honcho. Probably his most distinctive contribution to Iranian politics of the time was his idea of “neither east nor west”, an open-minded foreign policy approach which suggested that even Great Satans like the US could be pals with the new Iran (remember Iran-Contra?), a pretty progressive approach to global politics, all things considering.
His practical approach to Iranian regional and international politics actually pissed off the religious conservatives in Iran, especially when, going against Khomeini himself, he suggested that Salman Rushdie could make amends with Muslims. Despite nearly alienating everyone he possible could he was still chosen as Khomeini’s successor in , replacing another ayatollah deemed too liberal for conservatives’ tastes. At the time of his ascension, Khamenei actually had to be grandfathered in since he wasn’t actually at the level of ayatollah awesomeness that the position of Supreme Leader required, and a lot of other clerics criticized his election. His real value, though, lay in his political experience, not his religious experience, it was quietly understood at the time. Keep in mind, this was just after the end of the highly destructive Iran-Iraq War which decimated Iran’s society and economy, the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of the US-centered strategic shift in the Middle East, specifically the Persian Gulf.
The 1990s was a period of economic and political liberalization and Khamenei as Supreme Leader walked a fine line between liberal and conservative tendencies, trying to hold everything together, a more difficult task for any successor to Khomeini who lacked his charisma and revolutionary staying-power. He simultaneously criticized Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the overwhelming US response. Domestically, he tried to maintain a conservative cultural stance, chasing down supposed Western influences but only succeeding in stoking the fires of liberal opposition forces which wanted Iran to open ties with the West. This was spearheaded by new President Mohammed Khatami who beat Khamenei’s chosen candidate in the 1997 presidential elections. The following period of social liberalization and hesitant openings to the West were complex and Khamenei went back and forth as to his degree of conservatism.
By the elections to parliament in 2004, which saw a heavy-handed Guardian Council disqualifying a shitload of liberal candidates, Khamenei’s own brother was criticizing clerical action. What Khamenei’s own view of this is, is ambiguous. A few years earlier he had intervened to commute the death sentence of a liberal activist, so he was apparently trying to play both sides. Another example of his flip-flopping is the media has been a particular target of religious conservatives under Khamenei’s tenure and he has almost certainly given his political imprimatur to attacks on the opposition press which often attacks him and his position openly.
Needless to say the liberal opposition hasn’t fared well under his supreme leadership either, with Khamenei openly backing whack-ass crazy full-on right-wing Ahmedinejad’s campaign for the presidency and publicly endorsing the Prez during the protest tumults a few years ago. BUT, there was also a well-publicized dispute between President and Supreme Leader over political appointments which saw Ahmadinejad cave in to an ultimatum of Khamenei’s which many observers see as strengthening the Supreme Leader vis a vis the Prez.
In fact, I will give you a little Plaid Avenger insight and opinion on this Persian relationship: it has been my belief for some time now that the Ayatollah has allowed Ahmadinejad to spout his right-wing rhetoric and be an international poster-child pariah completely on purpose. Why? I think Khamenei has given Mahmoud just enough leash to hang himself! By allowing Ahmadinejad to be right-wing bat-shit nuts, it makes the Ayatollah and his crew appear actually much more sane and rational…and even more moderate! How clever! And now that international sanctions are pinching the Iranian economy, the Ayatollah and crew are now conveniently scapegoated Ahmadinejad for all those woes too. Suddenly the Ayatollah looks moderate, understanding, and empathetic to the plight of the average suffering Iranian….and they all blame Ahmadinejad for everything. Nice political move, man!
Another contentious issue: The Nukes. Khamenei did issue a fatwa, a religious ruling, banning the development of nuclear weapons by Iran and sent an incredible offer of normalization of relations and discussions over the nuclear issue to the Bush administration in 2003, though they completely ignored it. His public statements don’t rule out accommodation with the West by any means and he has apparently thrown his weight behind elements favoring talks over the issue of nuclear development.
What is the future for such a position in Iran? Can the sanctity of the post of Supreme Leader outlast any progressive and liberal tendencies? America still has an unelected judiciary, so maybe there’s hope for Khamenei or his successor.
Having to balance so many different internal tendencies while dealing with a miasma of international economic sanctions and a continual American and Israeli threat of war is probably a little taxing on one’s patience. It is, therefore, not having hindsight’s advantage, difficult to assess Khamenei at this point. Iran is under severe strain economically, is socially changing fast and the cleric class is clueless to this societal stuff, and Iran’s best buddy and ally Syria is about to fully implode. This Ayatollah has a lot on his Persian plate, not the least of which is trying to keep the dream of a theocratic Iran alive…while exporting their version of an Islamic state to other Middle Eastern countries.
All that is a tall order in chaotic times to say the least. And the idea of an Islamic-run state in modern times is unique to the Iranian experience, but is a model that may be adopted by other countries currently undergoing revolution in the Arab Spring….and thus good ol’ Ali Khamenei has influence well beyond the halls of his mosques…. And since he has all the real power in the state, Khamenei has the ultimate power to declare war, or not declare war; to develop nuclear bombs, or not develop nuclear bombs; and to open relations back up with the outside world….or not.
That is who Ali Khamenei is, what the Ayatollah is grappling with, and why he is such an important figure to know in the world, whether you like him or not! Great Satan, you have been informed!