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.
Ayatollah Khamenei has served as Supreme Leader of Iran since 1989. Before that, he was president of Iran from 1981 to 1989. He is now 84. Yet, little is known about him or what he believes. He has given no interviews nor published any information about his personal life. In this volume, Khalaji remedies this with a detailed account of where Khamenei came from, what he believes, and who influenced his beliefs. Khamenei was born and raised in the Iranian city of Mashhad, an area thought to be the origin of Iranian culture. His early influences were many, including intellectuals who questioned the role of Islam in Iran. He is also a poet. The task of describing the thoughts and influences of Khamenei is a challenge, but Khalaji, who is from a religious family and trained in Shia Islam, is up to the task. The book is well written and researched and represents an impressive scholarly effort. However, it is a deep dive into the complicated and arcane beliefs and practices of Shia Islam and will be a tough go for some readers. Recommended, with caveat. Advanced undergraduates through faculty; professionals.