clock menu more-arrow no yes

Five facts that shed light on how Iran’s Supreme Leader thinks

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is one of the important heads of state in the world — for one thing, he has final say on whether Iran develops a nuclear weapon. He's also one of the world's least understood leaders. That's partly because the Iranian political system, which he sits on the top of, is notoriously complex. But it's also by design: the supreme leader is not particularly revealing about his background, his thinking, or even his direct role in governance.

A new mini-biography, written by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)'s Mehdi Khalaji, attempts to shed light on the former cleric who has lead Iran since 1989. WINEP as an institution is known for being hawkish on Iran, but Khalaji is a fairly respected researcher. He trained in an Iranian seminary and so has a particularly interesting perspective on Khamenei's rise through the clerical and political ranks. Here are five interesting nuggets from his work.

He initially resisted becoming a cleric.

According to Khalaji, "Khamenei entered the seminary against his will." As a young man, he apparently had a deep interest in Iranian literature and poetry, but his father, a cleric himself, pushed young Ali to study religion.

He hasn't left Iran in 25 years.

Since he became Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has never left Iran. In fact, he's never been to any Western country — aside from one visit to New York to attend a 1987 United Nations meeting.

His key base of support is the military, not the clerical establishment — even on the economy.

According to Khalaji, "Khamenei has also kept his office distant from the clergy." Rather, he elevated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran's elite military corps, to unprecedentedly powerful roles in the economy and government. Here's a fantastic article from the New Yorker on the IRGC's ascent, if you're interested.

He neutered the office of the Presidency, and really most things in Iran that don't center on him.

Through bureaucratic and financial maneuvering, Khamenei has sucked authority away from most offices in the Iranian government outside the Supreme Leader's. One key strategy has been staffing the government with "friends who had consistently proved their loyalty to him."

He used to be seen as a moderate and wanted better ties with the US.

Today, Khamenei expresses fairly hostile views about America. But that wasn't always true, according to Khalaji: "Known as a member of the right wing in the first decade of the Islamic Republic, he privately opposed the government's anti-US policies and believed in direct negotiation with the Americans. In 1989, Western media hailed his leadership as a moderate victory against radicals."