When most Americans think of Iran, they probably think of its incendiary president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since his election in 2005, Ahmadinejad has gleefully shocked the world with his defiance over Iran’s nuclear programs, his ravings about a Shiite messiah, his jeremiads against Israel and his denial that the Holocaust occurred. But while Ahmadinejad is surely the regime’s face, he’s not its boss. Since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, the real power in Tehran has belonged to Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad makes the noise, but Khamenei pulls the strings.
It’s not just ordinary citizens who assume that Ahmadinejad calls the shots in Tehran. Last Tuesday, as President Bush tried to explain away a new National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran had shuttered its nuclear-weapons program in 2003, he argued at an awkward news conference that his administration’s “carrot-and-stick approach” toward Iran had been working — “until Ahmadinejad came in.” But under the Iranian system, a president matters far less than the supreme leader. For all Ahmadinejad’s bluster, he is not “the decider.” It’s the unelected and unaccountable Khamenei who sits atop Iran’s labyrinthine political structure. He gets the last word on whether Iran should try to get the bomb or try to talk to the United States. So to deal with Iran, the West must get to know Khamenei.
The supreme leader is an enigma even to most of Iran’s 70 million people. In fact, he’s far more cautious, conservative and pragmatic than the bellowing Ahmadinejad. Khamenei wants a “Goldilocks” kind of Islamic Republic — not too hot, not too cold. He’s reluctant to tilt too far in any one direction and keen to keep squabbling factions on board. He says that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic but heartily approves of the knowledge and fuel required to build them. And he is even willing to work with the United States to bring stability to Afghanistan and Iraq — as long as Iran gets to expand its regional influence by keeping its feeble neighbors under its thumb.
Born in 1939, Khamenei followed his father into the ranks of the Shiite clergy and soon joined Khomeini’s radical Islamic movement to topple the stifling monarchy led by the shah. For years, Khamenei lived underground or in jail. When revolution erupted in 1979, he emerged as one of Khomeini’s chief lieutenants, and he became president of the new Islamic Republic two years later. Like many other firebrand clerics of the time, he was more a child of revolution than a scholar of religion, more at home on the barricades than in the seminary. Khamenei was then a leftist by temperament, well read in the literature of dissent that circulated in Iran and the Arab world. He even translated into Persian the works of the Egyptian extremist Sayyid Qutb, the Sunni intellectual who became the godfather of al-Qaeda and radical Islam in the Arab world.
Khamenei was a very different type of president from Ahmadinejad, a turbanless layman. Khamenei also gave fiery speeches before the U.N. General Assembly, but unlike Ahmadinejad, he never regaled the world body with mystical tales about the return of the “Hidden Imam,” a messianic figure whose reappearance is said to herald the apocalypse. In government circles, Khamenei was known as a policy wonk with a keen interest in defense matters, budget reports and administrative details. He guided Iran through its long, bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s, bonding with many now-powerful Revolutionary Guards. He won some additional street cred in 1981, when he lost the use of his right arm during an assassination attempt by terrorists from Mujaheddin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group now under U.S. military protection in Iraq. When the revered Khomeini died in 1989, Khamenei became the compromise choice to succeed him.
Khamenei transformed the top job, taking many of the powers of the presidency with him and turning the office of the supreme leader into the omnipotent overseer of Iran’s political scene. Today, mandarins around him manage the interplay among the country’s bickering centers of power: the parliament, the presidency, the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, the military, the intelligence services, the police agencies, the clerical elite, the Friday prayer leaders and much of the media, not to mention a constellation of formal and informal foundations, organizations, councils, seminaries and business associations.
That all makes him an unusual sort of dictator. He has a down-to-earth image and calm demeanor that sit uneasily with the praise he often heaps upon Iran’s militants. His austere lifestyle stands in jarring contrast to the corruption and ostentatious wealth of many other Iranian leaders.
For Iran’s top cleric, Khamenei also has scant religious authority — a surprising deficiency for the chief of a theocracy and a stark departure from Khomeini. Most Shiites in Iran and abroad now look elsewhere for spiritual guidance, to a handful of bookish ayatollahs or to neighboring Iraq’s most respected Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. All this has made the supreme leadership into an office that’s far more political and Iran-focused than had been intended by Khomeini, who wanted to run not merely a country but a pan-Islamic revolution.
So how does Khamenei get along with Ahmadinejad? For now, at least, the supreme leader is standing behind his demagogic president. Khamenei decidedly prefers the populist, hard-line Ahmadinejad to his relatively moderate predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. The supreme leader frustrated Khatami’s attempts at reform and ensured that Ahmadinejad (then Tehran’s mayor) would win the 2005 presidential elections. Khamenei has praised Ahmadinejad’s administration as the best yet, partly because the two men share a soft spot for militant types and dream of rekindling the revolutionary fervor of the Islamic Republic’s early days. The supreme leader even seems to find Ahmadinejad’s theatrics useful for keeping up revolutionary appearances and endearing Iran to the Arab world.
Still, the two men’s agendas differ. Ahmadinejad, for example, aspires to be more than a mere administrator. Khamenei, however, already holds all the power he wants and merely needs to keep it away from ambitious presidents, whether hard-line or reformist. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s brand of rabble-rousing may be a useful strategy for a newcomer trying to elbow his way toward greater influence within the tangles of the Iranian political system, but it has deepened Iran’s isolation abroad in ways Khamenei resents. For instance, he bristled during Ahmadinejad’s December 2005 visit to Mecca, when the president embarrassed his welcoming host, Saudi King Abdullah, with a Holocaust-denying, anti-Israel harangue. Closer to home, when Ahmadinejad recently had the country’s former top nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, arrested on espionage charges, an irked Khamenei made sure that the judiciary dismissed the charges.
So Khamenei is keeping his options open. He has helped boost Ahmadinejad’s rivals in the 2005 race, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, by giving the former’s Expediency Council (a key clerical panel) more powers and by backing the latter’s bid to become Tehran’s mayor. Both men remain serious contenders for power and take every opportunity to snipe at Ahmadinejad. So do a growing number of Iran’s elite, who abhor Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy and fear that his bluster has increased the chances of war with the United States. The president’s foes hope to drub him in the parliamentary elections coming up in March.
Meanwhile, the decider is getting old. As Khamenei pushes 70, rumors abound that his health is deteriorating. One of the usually dull elections to the Council of Experts, the mysterious body that will choose his successor, recently turned into a closely watched race. (Moderates won.) Still, experts can only guess at who will follow Khamenei — and about whether Iran’s next supreme leader will reign supreme.
For now, Khamenei sees enemies all around: dissidents at home eager to reform the Islamic Republic out of existence, Sunni Arab states galvanized by the rise of Iranian influence, a Bush administration still obsessed with regime change despite last week’s National Intelligence Estimate painting Tehran as toothless. Khamenei’s greatest fear has always been that his enemies at home and abroad would join forces. (Little wonder, then, that he rejected talking to the United States when it looked as though the Clinton administration wanted to engage only Khatami and the reformists whom the supreme leader so fears.) Khamenei has done a nasty, effective job of sidelining the reformists, but he still faces the challenge of the United States.
In the past, Khamenei has not been averse to talking to Washington. He gave tacit support to an ill-fated memo offering direct U.S.-Iranian talks in 2003, and a year later, he publicly endorsed discussions over Iraq. But times changed after Iran dug in its heels over the nuclear issue and found itself looking down the barrels of U.S. guns. The threat of war has abated after this dramatic week, but for the man who rules Iran, two overriding concerns linger: ensuring that his regime survives and ensuring that he remains at the head of it. As the National Intelligence Estimate itself put it, “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” But Tehran’s decisions are also guided by one man, and anyone serious about understanding the sources of Iranian conduct needs to keep an eye on him.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.