The Political Ideology of Ayatollah Khamenei

  • Published

The Political Ideology of Ayatollah Khamenei: Out of the Mouth of the Supreme Leader of Iran by Yvette Hovsepian-Bearce. Routledge, 2016, 382 pp.

Iran’s Byzantine political structure has confounded analysts, diplomats, policy makers and US military and foreign service officers since the 1979 revolution. The nearly impenetrable dynamic between the Supreme Council—the seat of political power for Iran’s theocratic clergy—and the democratically elected executive has offered unrealized hope to successive American administrations for a normalization of relations. Offering a close reading of the ayatollah’s own words, author Yvette Hovsepian-Bearce concludes that Sayyed Ali Khamenei has succeeded as a strong conservative force continuing to espouse the anti-Western values of the Iranian Revolution. Given Iran’s regional aspirations and the complexity of its active policies in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—among other places—Iran’s importance on the international stage continues to grow, and the ideology of Khamenei continues to resonate. Drawn from the ayatollah’s own speeches and writing, The Political Ideology of Ayatollah Khamenei makes exemplary use of a historical methodology harnessed to deepen our understanding of current events. Since few in the West have facility in Farsi or access to the rich documentary sources Hovsepian-Bearce used, this book is an important contribution to the limited available literature.

The work’s focus is on the influence of the Iranian Republic’s second supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, not to be confused with the Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini, whose image was burned into Western consciousness with the Iranian hostage crisis. Khamenei was selected as Khomeini’s ideological heir, and the author concludes that he has faithfully held to the revolutionary ideals of his mentor through principles expressed as esteqlal (independence), azadi (freedom), and jomhuri-ye Islami (the idea of an Islamic Republic). Enshrined in the 1979 constitution, the principle of vilayat-i faqith (guidance by the clergy) gives the Supreme Council enormous power over both internal and external affairs of the country, especially given its control over the military and security forces (pp. 14–17).

The narrative Hovsepian-Bearce isolates is poignantly anti-Western, evocative of the dependency theorists of Latin America, and strives to position Iran as leader of the Islamic world. (The author does not treat challenges to such leadership from regional actors such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, though that was not her purpose.) The result is a kind of nationalism blended with Islamism that has led Iran to pursue a policy of domestic economic development and continued regional leadership.

The book is particularly valuable in delving into the tensions between the conservative Supreme Council headed by Khamenei and the forces of reform headed by successive Iranian presidents. The author demonstrates that Khamenei’s drive to maintain the principles of the revolution has prevailed in power struggles with successive democratically elected governments, suggesting that Khamenei has been able to overcome resistance over the long haul since he took power soon after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Hovsepian-Bearce clearly illuminates the shifting internal struggles and focuses in particular on how foreign policy is affected. Her conclusion is that at least during Khamenei’s lifetime, the ideals of the revolution will continue to have a profound effect on Iran’s policies (p. 350). In a post-Khamenei world, the continued influence of such pure “Khomeini-ism” is difficult to say, but for the present, the Supreme Council seems set to continue to steer Iranian policy along the same course charted in the aftermath of the revolution.

The author’s work is broken into three unequal parts. The first is a history of Khamenei, pieced together from his autobiographical work and his writings. The second is a useful examination of Khamenei’s policy relationship with each president, from Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–97), through Seyyed Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–13), and Hassan Rouhani (2013–present), while the third offers a thematic distillation of Khamenei’s foreign policy.

Hovsepian-Bearce concludes that Khamenei’s early encounters with the regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran—including periods of incarceration and interrogation by SAVAK (the Organization of Intelligence and National Security, the shah’s secret police)—contributed to his virulent anti-Western stance. Further, Iran’s reliance on oil revenue and efforts to exploit Iran’s oil wealth by British and American corporations were seen by Khomeini and are seen by Khamenei as pure colonialism, and like other dependency theorists, they see the American government as leading in a global effort to subjugate other regimes. This is hardly new material, but the steadfast repetition of the same themes throughout Khamenei’s long career and his efforts to inculcate new generations of Iranian youth into this point of view underscore the importance of delicacy in proposing rapid integration of any post-Khamenei regime into the global system. Khamenei’s efforts may well have succeeded culturally as they have politically to put segments of the Iranian population on guard against what they may see as exploitation, rather than integration and normalization. The author holds out a limited hope for a change in heart: “Nevertheless, it is possible that Ayatollah Khamenei may yet decide to act on a recognition that a majority of Iranians, including President Rouhani’s administration, have moved beyond his divisive worldview and are ready to engage peaceably with the world, including the U.S.” (p. 360). But there is scant evidence for such temperance in the sources included—indeed, the text suggests caution for would-be reformers from abroad.

The key takeaway from the book is the intense ideological dominance and coherence that Khamenei has successfully enforced on the Iranian regime during his tenure as supreme leader, from 1990 to the present. While popularly elected presidents have advocated a tempering of religious influence and normalization with the West, Hovsepian-Bearce demonstrates a remarkable strength and resilience for conservative Iranian clerics and their vision for Iranian society. Western hopes for a kind of “Arab Spring” in Iran must be tempered by the reality of a powerful clerical body that controls both the military and security establishments and that will likely continue to see engagement with the West as a multipronged cultural, economic, and political threat to their Islamic revolution.

Khamenei’s image of Iran as leading the Islamic world may neither correlate with the reality nor resonate with other regional powers––such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Turkey––but the author makes a strong case that it is crucial to understand Khamenei’s active and powerful efforts to drive toward this goal. If she is correct, so long as Khamenei remains, he seems likely to maintain a powerfully anti-Western drive for Iranian independence, especially seeking to avoid cultural and economic advances. The control that the Supreme Council has over the Iranian military and security forces seems to ensure continued dominance against the popular drive for normalization and integration.

The book does have a few weaknesses. The narrative contains a number of unsupported summaries about Khamenei’s motivations, including the following: “Khatami’s presidency did not mean Khamenei was ready for change. . . . Khamenei had no alternative but to show a different image of Iran—a moderate and democratic state. Through Khatami, Khamenei pursued damage control and eliminated threats to the regime and to his power” (p. 131). In the text we do not find evidence that Khamenei worked through Khatami rather than against him, a potentially important distinction. Doubtless the author could provide support from the many available sources but does not, which is disappointing given the overwhelming strengths of the many originally translated passages. The text is also dense (as is the primary source material), sometimes repetitive, and will likely put off less determined readers. More could also have been done with respect to the other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. We also find nothing to explain the appeal of the Khomeini/Khamenei vision, apart from their engagement with youth on university campuses (p. 350), something that would have made this book still more valuable—though again, this may have been beyond the author’s purview.

Despite these minor issues, this is a useful contribution and an outstanding use of primary source collections. It distills the many available works and succeeds with a thematic analysis giving the reader a clear (if dark) picture of the political ideology of one of the world’s most politically influential religious leaders. We do not really gain a sense of his charismatic ability, but the reader can guess at these owing to the outcome of the political struggles, through which Khamenei has come through victorious time and time again. The book definitely has an American focus, distilling issues of interest to American policy makers, analysts, and foreign service/US military officers. It is a worthy effort, one that may be valuable to close observers of Iran’s political workings.

Brian R. Price

Hawaii Pacific University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."