In June, Hassan Rouhani was elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rouhani ran as a reform candidate, and many have interpreted his victory as a harbinger of a possible liberalization or rationalization of Iranian domestic and foreign policy. But the dominant figure in Iranian politics is not the president but rather the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranian constitution endows the supreme leader with tremendous authority over all major state institutions, and Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, has found many other ways to further increase his influence. Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government all operate under his absolute sovereignty; Khamenei is Iran’s head of state, commander in chief, and top ideologue. His views are what will ultimately shape Iranian policy, and so it is worth exploring them in detail.
Khamenei was born in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in 1939. His father was a religious scholar of modest means, and Khamenei, the second of eight children, followed his father’s path to seminary. (Two of his brothers are also clerics.) He studied in Qom from 1958 to 1964, and while there, he joined the religious opposition movement of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1962. He played an important role in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and went on to become Iran’s president, from 1981 to 1989, and then Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader.
Khamenei has always been in contact with the world of Iranian intellectuals, and the basic outlines of his thinking were laid down in his youth and young adulthood, during the 1950s and 1960s. Iran was then a monarchy and an ally of the United States; according to the Iranian opposition at the time, the shah was nothing but an American puppet. Unlike many other Islamists, Khamenei had contact with the most important secular opposition intellectuals and absorbed their prerevolutionary discourse. But he was also a seminary student, whose chief focus was learning sharia, Islamic law. He became acquainted with the theoreticians of