During his lengthy tenure as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei has shown a knack for consolidating power by creating layers of bureaucracy in military, economic, and religious affairs. In turn, he has liberally purged officials who have hinted at disloyalty to him, the Islamic Republic, or its governing doctrine, velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent). But Khamenei does not lack for personal complexity. As a younger man, he dressed casually, flaunted his love of literature, and composed poetry. And as a leader, he has often demonstrated flexibility—coined as “heroic flexibility” in the case of the 2015 nuclear deal—at times of national risk or strained social cohesion. He has likewise blessed the rise of relatively moderate presidents such as Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani when he thought their leadership would reinforce national stability. Such flexibility could apply to forthcoming negotiations with Washington on the nuclear file
This wide-ranging study details Khamenei’s political ascent, from his role as an influential cleric in Mashhad to his presidency under Ruhollah Khomeini and his surprising appointment as Supreme Leader. It details the massive religious, intelligence, and cultural infrastructure he was erected—with all officials reporting to him. Whoever succeeds him, the author makes plain, will inherit an infrastructure designed to preserve Iran’s authoritarian system and suppress rumblings of internal dissent.
Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shia groups in the Middle East. Previously, he was a political analyst on Iranian affairs for BBC Persian and later became a broadcaster for the Prague-based Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Khalaji trained in Shia theology and jurisprudence in Qom.