His views do not represent an official position of the American Humanist Association.
The supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was born on July 16, 1939, in Mashhad, a religious center in Iran. He was the second son of Sayyed Javad Khamenei, described by Ali as "a humble and poor Islamic scholar" and an "ascetic."1 Khamenei's father had eight children, three of whom became clerics.2 Khamenei recalls in his biography, "The very first sparks of consciousness concerning Islamic, revolutionary ideas and the duty to fight the Shah's despotism and his British supporters was kindled in my soul at the age of 13," when Nawwab Safavi, later killed by the shah's security forces, came to Khamenei's school in Mashhad "and delivered a fiery speech against the Shah's anti-Islamic and devious policies."3 The following year, 1953, political rivals overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in a coup backed covertly by the CIA and Britain's MI6, restoring the shah to power. One year later, U.S. oil majors gained entry into the British oil consortium in Iran as a quid pro quo for their support for the coup.4
Khamenei began his religious studies at the age of 18 in Najaf, Iraq, under the instruction of Ayatollah Hakim, Ayatollah Shahrudi and others. The following year, he returned to Iran and resumed his studies in Qum from 1958 to 1964 under the instruction of Ayatollahs Ayat, Borujerdi, Haeri Yazdi, Allamah Tabatabai and Ruhollah Khomeini, the future leader of the Islamic Revolution.5 Throughout this time, Iranians perceived the infusions of U.S. economic aid, intended to counter Soviet influence and stabilize the shah's government while improving economic and political conditions over the longer term, as fueling corruption among the political elite. Due to inadequate financial controls over its development funds, the United States inadvertently harmed its image outside of this privileged class.6
The United States and Iran signed a bilateral defense agreement in 1959. Khamenei notes in his biography that he joined ranks with Ayatollah Khomeini's followers three years later. In May 1963, Khamenei was entrusted to deliver a secret message from Ayatollah Khomeini to Ayatollah Milani and other clerics in Mashhad, instructing them on anti-government political activities. That year, he experienced his first arrest and overnight imprisonment for voicing support for Khomeini.7 Anti-shah demonstrations and riots broke out across Iran the next month. According to James A. Bill, "The demonstrations were put down viciously; the imperial military forces killed thousands in the streets of Tehran." Khamenei's mentor, Ayatollah Khomeini, was arrested and confined in Tehran after a speech denouncing the shah.
Khamenei's official biography notes that he was arrested again later in 1963 and transferred to Mashhad, where he spent 10 days in prison "under severe conditions" for his "activities related to the June 1963 Uprising (15th of Khordad)." The following January, Khamenei traveled to Kirman and Zahedan in southern Iran "to expose the phony referendum the shah was holding for his so-called reforms" and the "satanic American policies of the Pahlavi regime." The shah's intelligence agency, SAVAK, arrested him, transferred him to Tehran, and imprisoned him for "two months in solitary confinement during which time he was tortured."8
Tensions escalated over the course of the following year. Ayatollah Khomeini denounced the U.S.-Iran Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) concluded in October 1964, finding especially offensive that it granted U.S. military personnel immunity from Iranian legal jurisdiction: "The dignity of Iran has been destroyed.... They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog." On November 4, the shah's government exiled him to Turkey. Bill notes, "Ayatollah Khomeini never forgot the 1964 immunity agreement and never forgave the United States for it."9 Meanwhile, rising unemployment and underemployment throughout the 1960s provided fertile ground for the clerics' agitation against the shah.10
SAVAK arrested Khamenei for the sixth time in 1975 and detained him for several months in "Tehran's notorious 'Police-SAVAK Joint Prison.'" According to his official biography, "This had been his most trying imprisonment, and Ayatollah Khamenei has this to say about the barbarous treatment of the detainees: 'These conditions may be understood only by those who suffered them. …'"11 Khomeini continued to defy the shah's government despite his release on condition that he would desist from further agitation; SAVAK sentenced him to exile for three years. He returned on the eve of the Islamic Revolution.12 On February 11, 1979, Iranians representing the breadth of the country's political spectrum overthrew the shah.
THE REVOLUTION'S IMPACT
The victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution is critical to Khamenei's psychology. The overthrow of the shah, despite the backing of the most powerful government in the world, remains a powerful indicator to Khamenei that God was on the side of his leader and mentor. In his speeches, Khamenei notes the importance of planning and calculation and human agency, but nevertheless attributes the victory ultimately to divine will.
The U.S. Embassy Seizure
Two weeks before the revolution, the shah fled Iran and went into exile. The Carter administration learned that he had cancer and wanted to admit him into the United States for treatment but was concerned that the new Iranian government would interpret this move as an indicator of counterrevolutionary intent. Carter nevertheless made the decision to admit the shah, and the Iranians reacted as feared. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which Khomeini referred to as a "den of spies" in reference to the CIA's history of intrigue in Iran in the early 1950s against Prime Minister Mosaddegh and its collaboration with SAVAK under the shah's government.13 Khamenei continues to refer to the CIA this way, citing its history as a reason the United States should not be trusted to reestablish an embassy in Iran.
Instability and War
The clerical leaders who came to power in Tehran in February 1979 were immediately threatened by various factions competing for power, some of which conducted political assassinations and coup attempts in order to unseat Khomeini and his followers. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein also responded to Khomeini's aggressive, pan-Islamist rhetoric with threats against the new Iranian government.
In 1980, Khamenei was appointed deputy minister of defense and supervisor of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as imam of Tehran's Friday congregational prayers — all measures of the relationship he had established with Khomeini since joining his movement 18 years earlier. That September, in response to the Islamic Republic's backing of Iraqi terrorist groups and efforts to foment an uprising against Saddam Hussein, Iraq invaded Iran in a surprise attack.14 Khamenei frequently refers to the "Imposed War" and "Sacred Defense" in his speeches but omits the Islamic Republic's provocations prior to the invasion, one significant example of his use of revisionist official narratives to project an image of Iran as the victim of implacable foreign aggression.15
Khamenei was appointed Khomeini's representative to the High Council of Defense the following year. In his biography, it is noted that he had an "active presence at the fronts of the Iraqi-imposed war," indicating that the conflict must have made a visceral and permanent impression upon him. That year, he also survived a bombing by the Mujahideen-e Kalkh (MEK), a leftist group the new Islamic Republic had been attempting to annihilate since the revolution. Numerous high-ranking government officials were killed in the bombing, and one of Khamenei's hands was permanently maimed. Khamenei attributes his survival to divine will, an affirmation that God must have a higher purpose for him.16 In 1982, the year Khamenei was elected president of the Islamic Republic, the Iraqi military fought Iranian forces to a stalemate. Saddam Hussein offered a ceasefire, but Supreme Leader Khomeini refused, and the war continued for another six years.
Israel's Invasion of Lebanon
Concurrently, Israel invaded southern Lebanon to rout the Palestinian Liberation Organization, in the process inadvertently provoking to arms the Lebanese Shia population. Then-President Khamenei stated, "To us, there is no difference between the fronts in the south of Iran [against Iraq] and in South Lebanon. We are prepared to put our facilities and necessary training at the disposal of all the Muslims who are prepared to fight against the Zionist regime." Iran sent roughly 5,000 IRGC advisers and clerical-political officers to train and indoctrinate Lebanese Shia militants against Israeli occupying forces. This IRGC cadre spawned Hezbollah, whose reason for existence remains the annihilation of the state of Israel as a political entity and the restoration of Jerusalem to Muslim control, according to the dictates of Khomeini and his successor, Khamenei.17 On October 23, 1983, at the behest of Iran, Hezbollah (under the cover of Islamic Jihad) truck-bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American service personnel.18
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon remains a central part of Khamenei's narrative of Israel as an implacably aggressive and expansionist state. Although the Israeli government purportedly had no intention of permanently occupying or annexing southern Lebanon, its strategic ambiguity reinforced this perception.19
Iraq's Use of Chemical Weapons
A critical part of Khamenei's psychology — particularly his cynical view of the United States and European powers — is based on his experience of Western duplicity concerning Iraq's use of chemical weapons during the 1980-88 war, a traumatic memory in Iran's national psyche. In 1983, Iraqi military forces began using mustard gas and nerve agents on Iranian forces as well as civilian targets. Iran built a case against Iraq in the United Nations, unaware at the time that the U.S. government had evidence of Iraq's use of chemical weapons but did not disclose it in order to maintain Iraq's battlefield gains.
Khamenei accused Western countries, including the United States, of supplying Saddam with dual-use materials, with which he produced chemical weapons, as well as intelligence to increase their battlefield effectiveness. Khamenei's charges turned out to be accurate, as declassified documents have revealed.20 Based on this and other bitter experiences, he views the UN Security Council as an illegitimate body that the Western powers — collectively, "Global Arrogance" — manipulate in order to maintain their dominance of Iran and other less powerful countries. As the war dragged on, Iraq began targeting Iranian population centers with air and missile strikes, and Iran began attacking oil tankers in the Gulf. Khamenei, having survived another assassination attempt in 1986, was re-elected president the following year.
Direct U.S. military engagement against Iran climaxed in 1988, when the U.S. Navy sank an Iranian naval vessel and damaged two Iranian oil platforms in the Gulf in retaliation for damage inflicted on a U.S. Navy ship by an Iranian mine. Throughout the war, Iran attacked Gulf states that hosted U.S. forces or were allied with Iraq and the United States but never directly attacked U.S. forces — an indicator of the pragmatic calculations of Iran's national-security officials and military commanders.21
As tensions ran high in the Gulf, a U.S. Navy ship inadvertently shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing 290 civilians including 66 children. The commander of the ship responsible was, nevertheless, commended for his performance during the war, and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush refused to apologize. Iranians were convinced that the airliner was deliberately targeted. Khamenei has frequently cited this incident and Washington's refusal to apologize as further evidence of U.S. malevolence.
The following month, at the urging of his national-security advisers, Supreme Leader Khomeini reluctantly accepted a ceasefire with Iraq, likening it to "drinking from a poisoned chalice," nevertheless "submitting [himself] to God's will and [taking] this drink to His satisfaction." Thus, the Iran-Iraq War ended; Khomeini died a year later.
SUPREME LEADER KHAMENEI
On June 5, 1989, the Assembly of Experts elected Khamenei as the late supreme leader's successor. In a highly controversial move, the Assembly elevated Khamenei to the rank of ayatollah in order to bolster his religious qualifications for the position. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic had to be revised to allow him to take the seat. His relatively weak religious credentials have always been a point of political vulnerability, making him somewhat beholden to the conservative wing of the political-clerical elite. Since his ascension to supreme leader, however, he has increasingly consolidated his power, with the support of the Revolutionary Guard.
The 1991 Gulf War
In 1991, the U.S. military drove Iraq out of Kuwait a matter of months after the invasion of the tiny state. The ground campaign itself lasted less than two weeks, with only 147 American troops killed in action, many due to friendly-fire incidents. The U.S. victory no doubt made a powerful impression on Khamenei, given the Islamic Republic's loss of hundreds of thousands in its eight-year bloodbath with Iraq. Although his rhetoric exudes confidence in Iran's divine protection, which he attributes to its adherence to Islamic tenets, in his speeches he also emphasizes the importance of military preparation, planning and vigilance, indicating that he has learned the war's painful lessons.
Assassinations and Terrorism Abroad
In August 1991, former Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, whom the shah placed in power as a last-ditch effort to save his monarchy a month before the 1979 revolution, was assassinated in Paris by agents of the Islamic Republic, allegedly on Khamenei's orders. He had been agitating for the regime's overthrow since he fled to Europe in 1979.22 In 1992, three Iranian dissidents advocating for autonomy were assassinated in Berlin, and the Germans issued an arrest warrant for Iranian President Rafsanjani.23Time magazine subsequently acquired a copy of a 1993 assassination order authorized by Khamenei for the shah-era minister and anti-regime activist Manouchehr Ganji:
Because he is at war with God and God's Seal of the Prophets [Mohammad], and has ignored the divine decrees and orders, … the aforementioned is corrupted and an apostate, and spilling his blood is permissible. For the purpose of protecting Islam and the Muslims, this corrupted root must be cut off as soon as possible so that it can serve as an example for others.24
In 1992 and 1994, the Israeli embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, were bombed, respectively. Argentine prosecutors linked both attacks to Hezbollah, assessing that Iran planned and financed the operation. In 2007, they sought the extradition of Iranian Defense Minister General Ahmed Vahidi, commander of a special unit of the IRGC at the time.25 Argentinian investigators also concluded that Iran had ordered the attacks in response to Israeli diplomatic pressure on Argentina to halt the sale of nuclear technology and materiel to Iran.26
The Clinton-Khatami Era
In response to the Argentina bombings, increasingly hostile rhetoric from Iranian leaders, and reports of an expanding Iranian nuclear program, the Clinton administration, under pressure from Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), imposed sanctions in 1995 prohibiting U.S. companies from engaging in business with Iran. The following year, Congress passed the AIPAC-drafted Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), prohibiting Iran from engaging in any military activity outside its borders and imposing sanctions against foreign companies that invest more than $20 million annually in Iran's oil and gas sector.27
Iranian voters elected reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran in 1997. His efforts to pursue dialogue with the West and ease domestic political and social restrictions in Iran threatened Khamenei and the conservative clerical and national-security establishment. They feared that if they did not clamp down on the relatively liberal current Khatami represented, it would open up an opportunity for a soft coup or nonviolent revolution, which Khamenei considers the most insidious of U.S. methods for undermining the Islamic Republic.
In July 1999, student protests against the conservative political establishment's banning of a reform newspaper gave the security apparatus the excuse it needed to impose a crackdown, leading to numerous arrests, beatings, abusive interrogations and several deaths. The Clinton administration nevertheless saw an opportunity in Khatami to improve the U.S.-Iran relationship. Accordingly, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an unprecedented diplomatic outreach effort to Iran, offered an apology for the 1953 coup plot. Her omissions and criticisms of Iran's political structure, however, implicitly including the lack of accountability of the supreme leader, angered Khamenei. He rejected the overture as a cynical ploy to incite the Iranian public against his government.28
U.S.-Iran Cooperation on Afghanistan
The September 11 attacks and stunning U.S. military response the following month presented Khamenei and the Iranian national-security establishment with the dilemma of how to respond to the sudden U.S. military presence to its east. Khamenei himself condemned the September 11 attacks, and his inner circle, ostensibly reasoning that al-Qaeda and the Taliban were also enemies of Iran, determined that Iran might benefit from assisting the United States with the formation of a post-Taliban government. At the very least, it would allow them to shape the political outcome and demonstrate to a newly hypervigilant and bellicose Washington that Iran was not a threat. This presented an opportunity for broader diplomatic engagement with Iran that the Bush administration declined to pursue.29
The "Axis of Evil" Speech
President Bush's January 2002 State of the Union address infuriated Khamenei and discredited advocates within the Iranian government of continued diplomatic outreach to the United States. It reinforced Khamenei's cynical view of U.S. intentions, demonstrating to him that, whether or not Iran attempted to cooperate, U.S. leaders would always come up with a reason to maintain hostility toward the Islamic Republic. Their values were simply irreconcilable. On March 20, 2003, however, the United States invaded Iraq and, in a feat more shocking than the routing of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, occupied Baghdad less than three weeks later. This time, the Iraqi military, which had fought Iran to a bloody stalemate for eight years and inflicted severe damage on its infrastructure and economy, had collapsed on its own territory against the U.S. adversary.
The following month, Iran sent the United States a proposal via a Swiss intermediary expressing its willingness to negotiate on a comprehensive range of issues:
• "Full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD, full cooperation with the IAEA, based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments (93+2 and all further IAEA protocols)"
• "Coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilization and the establishment of democratic institutions and a non-religious government"
• "[Cessation] of any material support to Palestinian opposition groups…from Iranian territory, [and] pressure on these organizations to stop violent action against civilians within the borders of 1967"
• "Action on Hezbollah to become a mere political organization within Lebanon"
• "Acceptance of the Arab League Beirut declaration (Saudi initiative, two-states approach [to the Israeli-Palestinian issue])"
Khamenei himself approved the proposal, reportedly expressing agreement with 85-90 percent of it and openness to negotiating on all of it. It is unclear which points he opposed negotiating on.30
The Bush administration, however, dismissed the proposal, interpreting it as a ploy to forestall feared U.S. regime-change plans and buy time for Iran to construct its nuclear-weapons program. At that point, the administration had just swept two governments from power and was unaware of the challenges the nascent insurgencies brewing in Iraq and Afghanistan would present. Its response once again discredited the pragmatists within Khamenei's government and reinforced his perception that Tehran could do nothing to pacify Washington, short of effectively ceding its sovereignty. U.S.-Iran relations further deteriorated over the next six years as Khamenei directed Iran's nuclear program to go forward. He had allowed a brief enrichment freeze, according to his own account, to allow Iran's nuclear negotiators to test whether world powers would recognize Iran's declared right to enrich under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
Nuclear Negotiations under Obama
Between 2009 and 2010, the Obama administration made a serious attempt to negotiate an interim agreement with Iran wherein a specified quantity of its enriched uranium would be transferred out of the country and converted into fuel rods for its civilian nuclear reactor. The negotiations broke down, however, ostensibly due to a lack of trust on the part of Iran that the fuel rods would actually be delivered. It had good reason to be skeptical — years earlier, France had failed to deliver on a related commitment. Brazil and Turkey nearly succeeded in convincing Iran to accept a slightly modified deal, but it was nixed by the Obama administration after it had concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the Iranians were stalling for time.31
The Green Movement, 2009
The nuclear negotiations were complicated by the apparent electoral fraud that delegitimized the June 2009 Iranian presidential election and the subsequent popular uprising. The regime's manipulation of the election, suppression of free media and peaceful dissent, imprisonment without trial and torture of activists, and the indefinite detention of presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi revealed Khamenei's Machiavellian capacity at its height. The message he communicated to Iranians was that he would not allow another reformist president an opportunity to challenge his hold on power through peaceful, democratic channels. This seems a clear indicator of his paranoia concerning those who fall outside the conservative establishment and might act as agents of the West, whether wittingly or not.32
THE NUCLEAR AGREEMENT
The severe sanctions the United States and the EU placed on Iran in 2012 clearly focused Khamenei's attention: they had the potential to destabilize his regime. The sanctions on Iran's oil industry and financial system dramatically cut its revenue and access to foreign capital. High inflation and unemployment were squeezing the middle class, and the security forces were becoming increasingly tainted by corruption. Iran still had substantial currency reserves, and China, India and other oil importers were helping to keep Iran's economy afloat, but as economic conditions, corruption and repression worsened, internal political fracturing was becoming a serious threat to Khamenei's rule.
Although Khamenei was highly unlikely to compromise on the question of Iran's declared right to enrich, as the Obama administration concluded, he also demonstrated diplomatic acumen and pragmatism in the negotiations — "heroic flexibility," as he framed it in his speeches to Iranian constituencies. By maintaining his negotiating red lines until the eleventh hour, he enabled the Rouhani administration to maximize concessions from the P5+1/EU+3.33 Subsequent IAEA inspections made clear that elements of Iran's nuclear program could not be justified under the pretext of a purely civilian nuclear program, notwithstanding Khamenei's purported fatwa forbidding the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The fact that critical provisions of the Iran nuclear agreement are set to expire 10 and then 15 years after it went into effect in January 2016 will make renegotiation of the agreement to extend these restrictions a national-security priority, particularly within the context of Iran's ballistic-missile development.34
SYRIA, ISRAEL AND AL-QAEDA
Although the nuclear negotiations were compartmentalized in order to maximize the chances of reaching a compromise on the most pressing security issue of the time, it was inevitable that regional issues would return to the fore as Iran expanded its military intervention in Syria in pursuit of Khamenei's ultimate goal: annihilating Israel.35 Khamenei appears to have precluded further negotiations with the United States on regional issues, however, arguing that the United States has given foreign investors cause to question its commitment to the nuclear agreement, thereby demonstrating that it cannot be trusted on other matters.36 He appears to genuinely believe that Washington has been deliberately supporting Islamist extremists in Syria and elsewhere, although the evidence Iranians have provided in support of this allegation is circumstantial.37 He also seems to genuinely believe that the United States will not be satisfied until it overthrows the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Khamenei omits how his regional policies provoked a political backlash under the Trump administration and consequently caused investor confidence in Iran to waver. He also fails to acknowledge how his own decisions have reinforced hostilities between Washington and Tehran.38
His negotiating behavior during the Iran nuclear negotiations and Syria diplomatic talks indicate that, although he may be convinced to shift his position on entering into substantive negotiations with the United States on regional issues, he will not substantively compromise on his policy toward Israel without the right combination of incentives and coercion. Significant incentives are unlikely to be forthcoming under the Trump administration, and coercive measures would likely have to include imposing severe military costs on Iranian forces in southwestern Syria — perhaps against the Iranian government itself, and this would risk fracturing the nuclear agreement.
Expanding revelations of active Iranian government support for al-Qaeda, most recently a trove documents collected during the May 2, 2011, U.S. military raid on Osama bin Laden's secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and published in November 2017, have made it even more challenging for advocates of U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran to gain political traction within the Trump administration.39
The protests that shook dozens of Iran's cities from the last few days of December 2017 to the first few of January 2018 seem to have pushed Iranian leaders to the realization that they must respond to their citizens' longstanding economic frustrations, in part through visible anti-corruption reforms.40 Although Khamenei denounced elements of the protests as harboring politically and religiously subversive elements acting as agents of hostile Western powers, he also concurred with the Rouhani administration that reforms are critical to pacifying legitimate grievances. Accordingly, he can be expected to enforce the divestment of much of the IRGC's financial holdings within businesses outside of those closely related to national security, although it remains to be seen how thoroughly this measure will be implemented. Khamenei likely views this as an opportunity to reduce the influence of independent centers of power and revitalize his regime by improving its perceived popular legitimacy. He will, however, undoubtedly face political obstacles despite his authority.
Khamenei's decision making since his early years as an agitator against the shah's government enables one to distill a few key points. First, he has endured considerable physical and psychological trauma — exemplified by several instances of torture in the custody of SAVAK — in pursuit of his goals. If backed into a corner, he would almost certainly resolve to mobilize his forces to fight to the bitter end rather than cede power. Second, absent substantial U.S. policy changes — and perhaps in spite of whatever policy changes Washington might conceivably make — he will continue to demonize the United States in order to mobilize Iranians and the broader Muslim world. His Manichean rhetoric is rooted in ostensible fundamental attribution errors and motivated biases generated by U.S. decisions that have caused profound physical and psychological harm to him and his revolutionary compatriots.41
Third, Khamenei is a highly Machiavellian and patient leader, calibrating his rhetoric, diplomatic positions and policies to maximize incremental geopolitical gains while forestalling existential threats. His deep historical perspective provides him with a long-term vision as well as the relative patience and poise needed to pursue it. In addition, he exhibits high levels of narcissism, exemplified by his ambition to unite the Muslim world and return Jerusalem under Muslim control, as well as paranoia, exemplified by his absolutist rhetoric ("Great Satan") and support for terrorist organizations with like-minded ideologies, including Hamas and Hezbollah.
His aggressive behavior is motivated by fear of resubjugation, but it is, more disconcertingly, untempered by principle. This is demonstrated by his unconditional support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, even after the latter's use of chemical weapons; one might have expected Khamenei to be repulsed by them, considering Iran's experiences. It is further confirmed by Iran's support for al-Qaeda against the United States.42 Finally, Khamenei has frequently stated in his speeches that the Islamic Republic of Iran desires "neither to dominate nor to be dominated" and frequently uses the word "dignity" to describe what he ultimately wants. Establishing a balance of power against the West through technological advancement and regional economic and security cooperation is a means of achieving this moral equilibrium. Iran's reaction to Assad's use of chemical weapons, however, should cause one to doubt his ostensible principles.
Khamenei intends the Islamic Republic of Iran to act as a model "Islamic democracy," a system in which his extra-constitutional, divinely established authority is buttressed by an election system in which viable candidates are highly circumscribed by checks and balances under his control.43 He wishes to inspire the populations of Muslim nations to establish similar models through popular uprisings against their governments and form a bloc of countries able to promote and defend common interests through economic and security ties. One of those interests involves Palestine and Jerusalem. According to Khamenei's narrative, Western powers forced Israel upon the Muslim world in order to divide and conquer it and exploit its resources. He argues that it must be annihilated to eliminate the threat it poses, to liberate the Palestinians and to return Jerusalem to Muslim control.44 Khamenei also claims that Iran has the right to nuclear-enrichment technology and should resume development of it in order to advance its leadership and prestige, once key provisions of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement expire.
In a narrative that socially conservative Americans would find familiar, the supreme leader of Iran argues that the devolution of women into commodities or means of marketing them through sexual enticement is a symptom of Western moral decadence and decline, evinced by U.S. financial and political problems. Khamenei believes a culture of objectification and consumerism will lead to a selfish, narcissistic, decadent and indolent society that will enable foreign powers to reconquer Iran. This is why the United States is aggressively propagating its licentious pop culture, he claims. He contends that Iranians who advocate improving relations with the United States are either witting or unwitting foreign agents who will have similar corrosive effects on Iranian sovereignty if their views prevail in policy debates. His support for the suppression of these voices will continue to make it challenging to persuade regime elites otherwise — at least until the 78-year-old leader cedes power to a successor.
1 The Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, "Biography of the Life of His Eminence Ayatollah Khamenei, Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
2 Akbar Ganji, "Who Is Ali Khamenei? The Worldview of Iran's Supreme Leader," Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013.
3 Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, "Biography of the Life."
4 The Truman administration had previously declined to support the British plot, but the Eisenhower administration subsequently agreed to it under the influence of CIA Director Allen Dulles and his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. See Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (John Wiley & Sons., 2003).
5 Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, "Biography of the Life."
6 James A. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (Yale University Press, 1988), 115.
7 Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, "Biography of the Life."
9 Bill, Eagle and the Lion, 158-160. The author notes, "The issue of immunity and extraterritoriality had long been a sensitive issue for Iranians, who considered their country the victim of capitulations to the British and Russians from 1828 to 1928."
10 Ibid., 168.
11 Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, "Biography of the Life." The timelines of Khamenei's record in prison are rough, but the fact that he spent time in prison in 1974 or 1975 is corroborated by his cellmate Houshang Asadi, author of Letters to My Torturer: Love, Revolution, and Imprisonment in Iran (Oneworld Publications, 2010); see Chapter 4, "In the Shah's Prison with Mr. Khamenei." Asadi does not verify whether Khamenei was tortured, but it is reasonable to believe so based on independent accounts that other clerics were tortured and killed by the Shah's security forces during this time. Bill writes, for example, "On June 10, 1970, Muhammad Reza Sa'idi (one of Khomeini's students) was tortured to death by the shah's police. The gruesome details of this deed spread like electricity across the human grid that is Iran's communication network…. Between 1972 and 1974 the shah's security apparatus systematically began an all-out attack on the Shi'i religious establishment…. The government arrested, interrogated, imprisoned, tortured, and even executed large numbers of clerics…. In December 1974 the regime tortured to death a fifty-four-year-old cleric named Ayatollah Hussein Ghaffari… a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, with whom he maintained contact while Khomeini was exiled in Najaf." See Bill, Eagle and the Lion, 181-190.
12 Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, "Biography of the Life."
13 PBS, American Experience, "The Iranian Hostage Crisis."
14 Kenneth Pollack writes that, in the heady days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khomeini declared, "We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry, 'There is no God but God' resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle." One of the states that Iran singled out for particular attention was Iraq. "… Iran backed the terror campaign unleashed by the Shi'i ad-Dawa group (now popular members of the new, post-Saddam Iraqi government). After the revolution, Khomeini repeatedly called on Iraq's Shi'ah to launch a jihad against Saddam's regime, while Tehran's propaganda organs regularly referred to Saddam as a 'puppet of Satan' and 'mentally ill.' Iran set up camps to train Iraqi Shi'ah in guerilla warfare techniques. The new Iranian regime also let it be known that it no longer felt bound by any of the shah's agreements — including the 1975 Algiers Accord — and they ominously noted that in traditional Islam there were no borders dividing the faithful." Pollack continues, "The Dawa were… a serious problem for Saddam, having come close to killing both Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Information Minister Latif Nusayyif Jasim in early 1980, and enjoying considerable support among the Shi'ah of [oil rich] southern Iraq. Initially, Saddam did try quietly to reach a modus vivendi with the new revolutionary regime in Tehran, but Khomeini would have no part of it and instead turned up the rhetorical heat on Baghdad." Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America (Random House, 2004), 183.
15 Although there have been historical instances of foreign aggression against Iran, Khamenei's victim narratives are also highly selective and reinforce a fundamental attribution error that hostile political actors are motivated by an inherently evil nature rather than because they feel threatened by the rhetoric and behavior of Iran. Some of these narratives are cynically calculated to manipulate Iranian public perception, while others may be genuine cognitive or motivated biases. Distinguishing between the two may in some cases be complicated by covert activities conducted by various governments that may remain unknown outside of the classified realm.
16 James Reynolds, "Profile: Iran's 'Unremarkable' Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei," BBC News, August 4, 2011.
17 Nicholas Blanford, Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle against Israel (Random House, 2011), 40-54, 94-95, 106-107, 111, 482.
18 Matthew Levitt, The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013), 31.
19 Oren Barak, "Ambiguity and Conflict in Israeli-Lebanese Relations," Israel Studies 15, no 3 (2010).
20 Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid, "Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam As He Gassed Iran," Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013; and Barbara Koeppel, "U.S. Nerve Gas Hit Our Own Troops in Iraq," Newsweek, March 27, 2015.
21 Christin Marschall, Iran's Persian Gulf Policy: From Khomeini to Khatami (Routledge, 2003), 87-91.
22 Scott Peterson, Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran—A Journey behind the Headlines (Simon & Schuster, 2010), 233; and Dan Geist, "'A Darker Horizon': The Assassination of Shapour Bakhtiar," PBS Frontline Tehran Bureau, August 6, 2011, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/08/a-darker-h….
23 Peterson, Let the Swords Encircle Me, 237.
24 Ibid., 233-234.
25 BBC News, "Argentina Passes Deal with Iran to Probe AMIA Bombing," February 28, 2013.
26 Matthew Levitt, "Iranian and Hezbollah Operations in South America: Then and Now," PRISM 5, no. 4 (December 2016).
27 104th Congress, Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, Public Law 104-172, August 5, 1996, https://www.congress.gov/104/plaws/publ172/PLAW-104publ172.pdf; and Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007), Chapter 15.
28 "Secretary of State Albright Announces Easing of U.S. Trade Ban on Iran," CNN. March 17, 2000, http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0003/17/se.01.html; Pollack, The Persian Puzzle; Thomas Buonomo, "Effective Engagement with Iran Requires Looking Beyond Its Ideology," Diplomatic Courier, December 21, 2017, https://www.diplomaticourier.com/2017/12/21/effective-engagement-iran-r….
29 Glenn Kessler, "In 2003, U.S. Spurned Iran's Offer of Dialogue," Washington Post, June 18, 2006.
30 The document was posted by The New York Times on April 29, 2007, at https://static01.nyt.com/packages/pdf/opinion/20070429_iran-memo-expurg…. See also Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, Appendices A, B and C.
31 Trita Parsi, A Single Roll of the Dice (Yale University Press, 2012), Chapters 8-11.
32 Ibid., Chapter 6.
33 United States Institute of Peace, "Khamenei: Red Lines on Nuclear Deal," June 23, 2015, http://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2015/jun/23/khamenei-red-lines-nuclear-….
34 IAEA, "Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran's Nuclear Programme," Report by the Director General, December 2, 2015, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/gov-2015-68.pdf; Glenn Kessler, "Did Iran's Supreme Leader Issue a Fatwa against the Development of Nuclear Weapons?" Washington Post, November 27, 2013; and Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, July 14, 2015, https://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/jcpoa/.
35 Ali Khamenei, "Why should & how can #Israel be eliminated?" Twitter, November 9, 2014, https://twitter.com/khamenei_ir/status/531366667377717248?lang=en.
36 Ali Khamenei, "Our Problems with America Are Not Solved by Negotiations," Khamenei.ir, August 1, 2016, http://english.khamenei.ir/news/4052/Our-problems-with-America-are-not-…; and Ali Khamenei, "The Enemy Wants to Take Away Iran's Deterrent Power," Khamenei.ir, May 10, 2017, http://english.khamenei.ir/news/4807/The-enemy-wants-to-take-away-Iran-….
37 Author's assessment based on correspondence with Iranian academics with access to senior Iranian government officials and review of citations in Iranian government publications.
38 Thomas Buonomo, "U.S., Iran Need to Engage in Substantive Negotiations on Regional Issues," Lobelog, December 6, 2017, https://lobelog.com/u-s-iran-need-to-engage-in-substantive-negotiations….
39 Thomas Joscelyn & Bill Roggio, "Analysis: CIA Releases Massive Trove of Osama bin Laden's Files," Long War Journal, November 1, 2017, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/11/analysis-cia-releases-m…; and Thomas Buonomo, "What Trump's National Security Adviser Lt. General Flynn Gets Wrong on Iran," Diplomatic Courier, December 19, 2016, https://www.diplomaticourier.com/trumps-national-security-adviser-lt-ge….
40 Gareth Smyth, "Iran's Protests: All About the Economy?" Lobelog, January 11, 2018, https://lobelog.com/irans-protests-all-about-the-economy/; Vali Nasr, "What the Iran Protests Were Not," The Atlantic, January 10, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/iran-economic…; Tamer Badawi, "Socioeconomic Drivers of the Protests," Carnegie Endowment for Interntional Peace, January 8, 2018, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/75185; Ali Khamenei, "The People Have Always Entered the Arena Whenever the Country Needed Them," Khamenei.ir, January 9, 2018, http://english.khamenei.ir/news/5397/The-people-have-always-entered-the…; and Golnar Motevalli, "Iran Armed Forces to Sell 'Irrelevant' Businesses, Official Says," Bloomberg, January 21, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-21/iran-armed-forces-to….
41 Charles B. Strozier et al., The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History (Oxford University Press, 2010). This volume connects the experience of torture and humiliation with extremist worldviews.
42 Colum Lynch, "Iran Is Trying to Shield Assad from Chemical Weapons Condemnation," Foreign Policy, February 4, 2015; and Nick Cumming-Bruce, "U.N. Panel Faults Syria's Military for Chemical Attack," New York Times, September 6, 2017.
43 Khamenei maintains a shadow network of loyalists who act as his eyes and ears throughout the Islamic Republic's foreign policy and national security apparatus, as well as its universities, student and cultural organizations, and any other political or private organizations that might present a threat to his rule. Akbar Ganji writes, "Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all operate under his absolute sovereignty; Khamenei is Iran's head of state, commander in chief, and top ideologue." See Ganji, "Who Is Ali Khamenei?" Karim Sadjadpour writes, "As commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, he handpicks the organization's senior command and shuffles them regularly." See Karim Sadjadpour, Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran's Most Powerful Leader (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009). Reuters published a three-part report on his vast patronage system: Steve Stecklow, Babak Dehghanpisheh, and Yeganeh Torbati, "Assets of the Ayatollah: The Economic Empire behind Iran's Supreme Leader," Reuters, November 11, 2013.
44 The Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, "The Supreme Leader's View of Palestine," November 12, 2009.