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How Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, sees the world

Ayatollah Khamenei has preserved his view of the revolution in postelection clampdown, analysts say – but perhaps at great cost to the office he occupies.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2009

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, which toppled with breathtaking speed Iran's corrupt and secular shah, the country has had two rulers.

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One is the package – standard in modern republics – of head of state and parliament. And then there’s the supreme leader, who, in practice, has to work with the consent of the nation’s formally democratic institutions but who, in theory, has the power to overrule them if he feels their actions run counter to God’s will. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the political hierarchy in Iran.]

The supreme leader today is Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, for 20 years now the successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, the charismatic preacher who defined the contours of the theocratic Iranian state and who died in 1989.

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called Mr. Khamenei "the single most powerful individual in a highly factionalized, autocratic regime" in a paper on the cleric last year.

High cost of controversial decision

It is Khamenei who has the ultimate responsibility for the apparent decision to skew Iran's presidential election in favor of his preferred candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and for unleashing the security forces that have killed at least 17 Iranians protesting the outcome in the past week, sending Iran into its greatest political crisis in 30 years.

Khamenei is preserving his vision, say analysts, of what the Islamic Republic should look like in the short term by denying the popular will. But he has taken that step, they say, at a cost so great to his own image and to that of the office he occupies that the Islamic Republic is unlikely to be the same again.

"It's easy to stop a riot or demonstration with violence, but it's not easy to regain moral authority once it's been chipped away by your actions," says Juan Cole, a historian of the Middle East and an expert on Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan. "This is the kind of thing the shah used to do. The revolution has always said it stands for justice and the rule of law, but a large segment of the public is not going to think that anymore."

Scholars of Iran say that while Khamenei has for most of his 20 years in power sought to avoid confrontation and played a behind-the-scenes role, he has always been devoted to adhering to Khomenei's call for a velayat-e-faqih, or "rule of the jurisprudent," which in practice means one man like Khamenei acting as "jurisprudent," or interpreter of God's rule on earth.

Adding word 'absolute' to his powers

Indeed, after Khamenei rose to Iran's most important position in 1989, he went further than Khomenei had, leading a successful effort to have the role of the faqih, or jurisprudent, defined more specifically in the Constitution with the insertion of the word "absolute" as in the "absolute rule of the jurisprudent."