Khamenei: The Strategic Theocrat (1981-1989)

April 25, 2017
Roland Elliott Brown
9 min read
Khamenei and Rafsanjani (immediate left) were both members of the council for the amendment of the constitution. They did away with the office of prime minister
Khamenei and Rafsanjani (immediate left) were both members of the council for the amendment of the constitution. They did away with the office of prime minister
Khamenei suffered a life-long arm injury in a terrorist bombing. His supporters portrayed him as a "living martyr"
Khamenei suffered a life-long arm injury in a terrorist bombing. His supporters portrayed him as a "living martyr"
Khamenei with Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who was once expected to succeed Khomeini
Khamenei with Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who was once expected to succeed Khomeini
Ayatollah Khamenei with the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini
Ayatollah Khamenei with the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani helped Khamenei to become Khomeini's successor
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani helped Khamenei to become Khomeini's successor

Iran’s presidency has been a strange institution ever since it was established a year into Iran’s Islamic Revolution. While Iran’s early presidents were meant to represent the Islamic Republic to the world, they could scarcely compete with the powerful and imposing personality of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who claimed to represent God on earth. Since Khomeini’s death in 1989, Iranian presidents have established themselves as the international face of an ostensibly democratic Iran, but have remained subordinate to the absolute power and socially conservative vision of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And while all of Iran’s presidents have challenged their supreme leader’s powers in some way, most have paid a high political price. Now, ahead of Iran's elections on May 19, IranWire looks back at Iran's past seven presidencies. 


Ali Khamenei, a favored follower of Ayatollah Khomeini and one of the founding members of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP), became president of Iran on October 13, 1981. He was the first Islamic cleric to occupy the role. Although Khomeini had previously prevented clerics from serving as president to appease less theocratic-minded revolutionaries, a series of bombings targeting IRP members—notably IRP founders Mohammad Beheshti and Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, and the pro-IRP President Mohammad-Ali Rajai—provided him a pretext to increase clerical power. Khomeini began to speak of Khamenei and his fellow IRP founder Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as children with a holy mission.

“I have brought them up,” he said. I know they don’t want to monopolize power. They are not monopolistic. Of course they want the monopoly of Islam. The Prophet of Islam says there is only one God. Is this monopoly? If it is, then all prophets were monopolistic and God is monopolistic.”

Apart from bombings targeting the clergy, Khomeini perceived another threat to his vision for Iran — the threat of liberalism. Iran’s first president, Abolhassan Banisadr, had publicly challenged him earlier that year, criticizing the Islamic government over widespread executions and torture. That summer the IRP-dominated parliament had impeached Banisadr, causing him to flee Iran.

“All along, Khomeini’s intentions were to create a clerical despotism,” says Abbas Milani, professor of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. “Khomeini’s experience with Banisadr convinced him that non-clerics might get ideas that they can challenge the clergy. As we know from the memoirs of Rafsanjani and letters that were made public, they kept writing to Khomeini and pressuring him, asking him for a bigger piece of the economic and political pie.”


A “Living Martyr” with Limited Powers

The presidency Khamenei assumed was an as-yet unformed institution whose first occupant had fled in disgrace and whose second occupant had been blown up the very month he took office. Under the Islamic Republic’s constitution, Iran had adopted a parliamentary system, meaning that a prime minister was responsible for most executive functions. And many presidential functions were ceremonial, like appointing the prime minister.

Yet he was an effective self-promoter. He capitalized on his recent survival of a bombing that had damaged his right arm in June 1981. “He portrayed himself as a martyr,” says Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who is writing a biography of Khamenei. “His supporters had called him a ‘living martyr.’ He was acting like someone who was saved by God to serve as the president.’ In his inaugural speech, Khamenei branded himself as the upholder of Khomeini’s vision and the man who would stamp out “deviation, liberalism and American-influenced leftists.”

His relations with the prime minister would prove fateful. Just weeks after Khamenei assumed the presidency, Iran’s parliament, which was dominated by the “Islamic left”— a group that advocated greater state control of the economy on an Islamic rather than a Marxist basis — chose Mir Hossein Mousavi as prime minister. Although Khamenei had wanted to appoint the foreign minister, Akbar Velayati, who had served in the Rajai government, he was forced to appoint Mousavi, a man with whom he would frequently conflict over ideological matters.

Nor was Mousavi the only other powerful figure under Khomeini. “In the first few years, Khamenei had to contend with Rafsanjani, who was speaker of parliament and later the Friday prayer leader,” Milani says. “As the president, he accepted a more minor role, but clearly, he was very genuinely putting all the pieces in place.” Part of that process, he says involved cultivating a tactical alliance with Rafsanjani.  Rafsanjani, who frequently represented Iran on the world stage and was leading the war effort against Iraq, was a major power center in his own right. Khamenei, Milani says, frequently sought to enlist Rafsanjani’s support in his appeals to Khomeini over his own lack of authority.


A Balance of Powers, Khomeini Style

Khamenei’s rivalry with Mousavi escalated at the beginning of his second term in 1985 and led to an awkward standoff with Khomeini. Using his authority to appoint the prime minister, Khamenei tried to end Mousavi’s premiership. When Khomeini objected —not least because his influential son Ahmad was close to Mousavi’s leftist faction — Khamenei did not back off. Instead, he pressured Rafsanjani to help him persuade Khomeini to approve Mousavi’s sacking.

“He suggests that the Imam must somehow change his view about the prudence of Mousavi remaining in office,” Rafsanjani wrote in a diary that he later published, “but I think it unlikely that the Imam would do so...I think we are going to have a real problem.” Khamenei said he would only accept Mousavi if Khomeini explicitly demanded it.

In reply, Khomeini played an unusual game, refusing to issue an explicit order, but expressing the strongest possible preference for Mousavi remaining in office. In response to a letter from 135 MPs supporting Mousavi, Khomeini said,


I am obliged to express my views...I said that I consider Mr. Mousavi a devout and committed person and believe that his government has been successful...I do not believe it is wise to change the government.


Following a standoff lasting months, Khamenei eventually appointed Mousavi but continued to criticize him in public, sometimes to Khomeini’s obvious annoyance. Speaking to a gathering of Revolutionary Guards commanders in Ahvaz, near the front with Iraq in 1988, Khamenei blamed Mousavi’s government for Iran’s wartime failings. “Since responsibility for the government does not rest with me but with the prime minister,” he told them, “I am not responsible for the war or the government’s actions...I do not approve of Mir Hossein Mousavi.”

Yet if Mousavi is to be believed, Khamenei consistently used the presidential office, however nominally ceremonial, to undermine his government. Writing to Khamenei later in 1988, Mousavi offered to resign on the grounds that his government had been “stripped of its powers in foreign policy.” He complained of official letters written to foreign governments without his knowledge and secret channels of communication being opened with the US— a reference to Rafsanjani’s clandestine efforts to trade US hostages being held by Iran’s allies in Lebanon for US-made weapons to support Iran’s war effort.

Mousavi’s letter also suggested that Khamenei was using foreign terrorist activity to undermine him. “Extraterritorial operations,” he wrote,

are conducted without the knowledge of the government...we learn about them only when a machine gun begins firing in a street in Lebanon and the news is heard everywhere. It is only after they seize explosives from our Haj pilgrims in Jeddah that I learn about it.


Khomeini, however, objected to his resignation on the grounds that “enemies of Islam” could exploit it. And so a balance of powers limped on, Khomeini style.


Fatherly Rebukes

Mousavi’s premiership was not the only source of conflict between Khamenei and Khomeini. Khamenei faced several embarrassing episodes in which Khomeini publicly rebuked him over the contents of his Friday Prayers sermons.

In one instance, Khomeini reacted strongly to Khamenei’s seemingly anodyne statement that the government should act within the rules of Islam. Khomeini retorted that his own conception of Islamic government, known as the velayat-e faqih or “guardianship of the jurist,” meant that preservation of his Islamic state came before all other obligations, including the constitution and established Islamic law.

Khamenei misinterpreted the supreme leader again after Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of British Author Salman Rushdie over a brief satire of the origins of Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses. Speaking at Friday prayers two days later, Khamenei suggested that if Rushdie apologized, he might be forgiven. But when Rushdie released a carefully-worded statement in which he expressed regret for the “distress” his novel had caused Muslims, Khomeini presented an explicit demand, via Tehran radio, that the world’s Muslims use every means possible to “send him to hell.”

Despite all of this, Rafsanjani has claimed that Khomeini consistently re-stated his support for Khamenei, and, toward the end of his life, made clear that he wanted Khamenei to succeed him as supreme leader. Although Khamenei was not an ayatollah — he had the lower religious rank of “hojatoleslam" — Khomeini had fallen out in 1988 with his most likely successor, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who had criticized him over the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners. According to Rafsanjani, quoting Khomeini’s son Ahmad, Khomeini had been particularly impressed by Khamenei’s conduct on a state visit to North Korea in 1989. When Khomeini died in June that year, Khamenei publicly read his will.


Tag-Team Theocracy

In July 1989, following Khomeini’s death, Khamenei’s close ally Rafsanjani maneuvered to restructure the state in a manner that would prove amenable to both of them. Rafsanjani was by far the senior of the two. “After Khomeini, Rafsanjani was the most powerful figure in Iran from 1981 to 1991,” Khalaji says. “He had been in control of foreign policy, domestic policy, economy, war, everything. He could be called the architect of the Islamic Republic. He was a kingmaker.”

Rafsanjani and Khamenei, both members of the council for the amendment of the constitution, did away with the lofty religious demands barring Khamenei’s way to the supreme leadership and got rid of the office of prime minister, clearing the way for the strong presidency Rafsanjani envisioned for himself. In those early days, Khalaji says, it looked as if Rafsanjani would remain the senior figure. “Rafsanjani was not Khamenei’s president,” he says, Khamenei was his supreme leader.”

But the two offices would prove, as the quarrels between Khamenei and Khomeini foreshadowed, irreconcilable. “We don't have a single president who did not fall afoul of the spiritual leader, and that includes Khamenei himself,” Milani says. “These roles are from two different historical moments. One is a modern concept, rooted in the idea of popular sovereignty, and the other is truly medieval in a historical sense, a medieval conception of divine legitimacy.”

Since becoming supreme leader, Milani says, Khamenei has doubled down on the idea that the Islamic Republic embodies God's government on earth, and has brought to power strong memories of how Khomeini treated him. “The tongue lashing he got from Khomeini, he has more than once meted out. He never dared do it to Rafsanjani, but you could see it in the way he talked about President Mohammad Khatami and the way he has taken it upon himself to declare whether he approves a presidential candidate like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to run or not. These are reflections of his traumas. I think Mousavi is in prison today no small measure because of his vindictiveness and the irreconcilable tension between the quote-unquote elected office of the president, and the non-elected, non-impeachable office of the velayat-e faqih.”



Also in this series:

Banisadr: The Optimistic Islamist (1980-1981)

Rajai: The Clerics’ Loyalist (1981)

Rafsanjani: The Architect (1989-1997)

Khatami: The Reformist (1997-2005)

Ahmadinejad: The Populist (2005-2013)

Rouhani: The Republic's Repairman (2013-2021)



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