Amid Iran’s tantrums over the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, a consequential anniversary which marked three decades since Ali Khamenei’s ascension to the supreme leadership has gone largely unnoticed. After Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman, Ayatollah Khamenei is the second-longest serving head of state in the Middle East and, according to one recent estimate, ranks fifth in longevity of current non-monarchical world leaders. His thirty-year reign at the helm of Iran reveals a dual Machiavellian modus-operandi as supreme leader—puppeteer for the elected and patron for the unelected—and explains the current power dynamic in Tehran.
As supreme leader, Ali Khamenei has often been a referee among Iran’s warring political factions—fearing that absolute power competes absolutely—and in the process cementing his own authority. Thus, under his administration, Iran’s presidency has been a political death sentence.
Early on, Khamenei, as president, learned at the knee of Ruhollah Khomeini how to exercise authority. According to a CIA estimate prepared in December 1983, Khomeini often served as an arbiter between Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then-speaker of parliament, because of their intense personal rivalry. It concluded that Khomeini “permits neither to achieve a decisive advantage over the other.”
While Khomeini had singular authority and symbolic stature as the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Khamenei, upon ascension to the supreme leadership, suffered from an inferiority complex because of his lack of religious standing. As a result, in addition to adopting Khomeini’s arbitral role, Khamenei adapted the position, becoming a puppeteer among the different power centers to enhance his own standing.
This may have been in part why he supported the constitutional amendments of 1989 to abolish the position of prime minister—which up until that point was held by his foe Mir-Hossein Mousavi—in order to consolidate political threats from rival power centers. The presidency remained, but the four chief executives who served under him—Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani—found their careers crushed by the experience after flying too close to the electoral sun.
Rafsanjani suffered a humiliating loss after he ran for parliament in 2000, was defeated by upstart firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for an encore as president in 2005—after allegations the supreme leader’s son supported Ahmadinejad—and was even barred by the Guardian Council from running again in 2013. After his service for eight years, reformist Mohammad Khatami faces an international travel ban and state media blackout. Two of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vice presidents were sentenced to prison after he left office, and like Rafsanjani, Khamenei’s disciples nixed another Ahmadinejad bid for premier in 2017.
Rouhani is experiencing this dynamic in real time. Since 2015, the supreme leader has hedged in his support for the nuclear deal—privately greenlighting negotiations with the P5+1 while publicly proclaiming his lack of trust in the United States. Such a formulation has provided Khamenei with a political insurance policy—which he cashed-in after the U.S. withdrawal in 2018, with the supreme leader publicly throwing his president and foreign minister under the bus just last month. Khamenei said, “But the way the JCPOA was handled, I did not really believe in it, and mentioned this to the president and the foreign minister and warned them several times.” This plausible deniability insulated his office and clipped Rouhani’s wings. Presidents may come and go, but supreme leaders stay.
The Godfather of the Islamic Republic of Iran
As supreme leader, Khamenei has also been patron to proxies inside Iran. He’s utilized his constitutional appointment authority over the unelected organs of power like the armed forces and the judiciary to instill loyalty, longevity, and lordship over the Islamic Republic’s crown jewels. In practice, this meant Khamenei cultivated a loyal cadre of professionals—some with controversial, extremist, or inferior credentials—whom he named and nurtured, creating dependency.
Consider Khamenei’s championing of Hassan Firouzabadi, who, despite neither having served in Iran’s regular army nor the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), ascended to the chairmanship of the General Staff of the Armed Forces for twenty-seven years. After he fell out of favor—rumors persist about Firouzabadi’s health—Khamenei made sure a golden parachute was available, appointing him as his senior military advisor. Ditto for Hossein Taeb, a former student of Khamenei, and the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization, where Khamenei recently extended his tenure. Taeb has been dubbed a “psychopath” and is accused of horrific violence and corruption—yet Khamenei steadily promoted him from head of counterintelligence for the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) to commander of the Basij and finally as the IRGC’s intelligence chief.
A similar pattern exists in the supreme leader’s appointments within the judiciary. Most of Khamenei’s chief justices—Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Sadeq Larijani, and incumbent Ebrahim Raisi—held the inferior religious rank of hojatolislam, rather than ayatollah, before their assumption of power. Additionally, as some observers like Mehrzad Boroujerdi have noted, with the exception of Ebrahim Raisi, no chief which Khamenei appointed had prior judicial experience. Yet all of these clerics not only landed at the top of one of Iran’s most powerful institutions, but also have all been serious contenders to succeed Ali Khamenei as supreme leader.
This dynamic has also effectively resulted in a parallel state—or a state within a state—where the supreme leader protects and promotes allies cast aside by the elected power centers. For instance, after then-President Rafsanjani allegedly fired Hossein Taeb from MOIS, Khamenei continued to advance his career. Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i had a similar experience—after then-President Ahmadinejad sacked him as minister of intelligence, Khamenei found a landing spot for him in the judiciary.
In the end, Ali Khamenei has navigated the treacherous waters of Iran’s politics as a manipulator of the elected and master of the unelected. As Washington and Tehran engage in contretemps, it is Khamenei’s network and playbook that will reign supreme.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran.