Reading Khamenei

While Iran’s political system is notoriously opaque, we often hear that its final arbiter is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. And as often as not, that’s where things rest. That’s what makes Karim Sadjadpour’s Carnegie Foundation report, Reading Khamenei, a must read. Sadjadpour gives a rundown of Khamenei’s origins, his structural hold on power, and through a reading of thirty years’ worth of speeches, re-constructs his worldview. I highly recommend the full report for anyone interested in the challenges of a forward-looking Iran policy, but here’s a quick “cut & paste” job of some highlights that seemed noteworthy:

As Supreme Leader, Khamenei’s constitutional authority is unparalleled. He controls the main levers of state — the courts, military, and media — by appointing the heads of the judiciary, state radio and television, the regular armed forces, and the elite Revolutionary Guards. . . His power also derives to a great extent from the opaque but vast state-controlled economic resources at his disposal. . .

Recently questions have arisen regarding the dynamic between Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. The relationship is increasingly symbiotic, politically expedient for the Leader and economically expedient for the guards. He is their commander in chief and appoint their senior commanders, who, in turn, are publicly deferential to him and increasingly reap benefits by playing a more active role in political decision making and economic activity. (pp. 7-8)

. . .A recurring theme in Khamenei’s speeches is the causal relationship linking scientific advancement, self-sufficiency, and political independence. . .One of his chief critiques of the shah’s regime was its reliance on the West — particularly the United States — for human capital and technical expertise. In his words, “Colonial countries are quite aware of the fact that in order to keep a country under their political and economic dominance, they should bar its scientific progress.” In this context Khamenei has asserted that American and European sanctions against Iran are not only ineffective in changing Iranian behavior, but they are actually constructive in that they force Iran to become more self-reliant. . . (p. 11)

Great discrepancies exist between the revolutionary ideals articulated by Khamenei and Iranian foreign policy practices, leading many Iran observers to debate whether the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy is driven primarily by ideology or calculated national interests. Arguments can be made for each. Though justice, Islamic solidarity, and independence are invoked to defend the Palestinian cause, the Chechen cause is studiously ignored for fear of antagonizing Russia. Muslim unity is invoked to support Hamas and Hizbollah, yet Iran supported Christian Armenia in its war against Shi’iMuslim Azerbaijan. Iran denounces the United States for its “godlessness” and lax social values, yet forms close alliances with socialist governments in Venezuela and Cuba. (P. 14)

While Khamenei’s mistrust of the Bush administration and personal animosity towards President Bush are too deep to be overcome, his speeches reflect a growing Iranian confidence that U.S. foreign policy elites are coming to terms with America’s difficulties in Iraq, Iran’s indispensable role in theMiddle East, its mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, and the legitimacy of the Islamic Republican government. Khamenei’s message is that he is amenable to a relationship with an America that has accepted these realities. (p. 17)

Remarkably, the issue that has featured most prominently in Khamenei’s political discourse over the last two decades has virtually no impact on the daily lives of Iranians: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. . .

. . .While for some Iranian leaders (perhaps including former president Rafsanjani), the importance of the Palestinian issue has waned since the early days of the revolution, Khamenei’s deep-seated contempt for the “Zionist entity” has shown no signs of weakening. Whereas regarding possible normalized relations with the United States he has allowed room for ambiguity, albeit rarely, his rejection of Israel has been unequivocal. For many close observers of U.S.-Iranian relations the Islamic Republic’s uncompromising stance on Israel represents the greatest impediment to U.S.-Iranian relations. Not only is Khamenei cognizant of this argument, he also agrees with it. Yet it is a bargain he appears unwilling to make. (pp. 19-20)

Arguably, the only way that Khamenei would accept a less strident position toward Israel is when and if the Palestinians themselves accept a peace treaty with Israel. But given that the recent push for Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations is meant in part as a way to isolate Iran, Tehran has an incentive to try and sabotage it. In the lead-up to the Annapolis conference in November 2007, Khamenei strongly backed Hamas and called on Arab countries to boycott the conference, declaring “the entire purpose of this peace summit is to save the Zionist regime.” (pp. 20-21)

. . .While Tehran’s foreign policy approach has become more pragmatic and less revolutionary since Khomeini’s death, under Khamenei’s stewardship Iran continues to aspire to be the vanguard of the Middle East. Khamenei’s strategy for furthering Iran’s regional influence has three important components. The first is to project the narrative that Iran and the Muslim world share the same interests and enemies. . .

Second is the belief that Iran’s best vehicle to spread its power and influence throughout the region is, ironically, democratic elections. The strong electoral showings of Hamas in Palestine, Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Shi’i coreligionists in Iraq has made Tehran confident that their Islamist friends have won the battle for the region’s hearts and minds, while Western-oriented liberals are in retreat. . .

The third strategy Khamenei has employed to assert regional hegemony is a combination of political and cultural influence with unconventional military means (i.e., militias) in order to give Iran considerable sway over the region’smost pressing political and security concerns. From Khamenei’s perspective none of the critical issues facing the Middle East and Muslim world — Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Persian Gulf security, and Arab-Israeli peace — can be properly addressed or resolved without Iran’s input, even though the military might of the United States and its allies dwarfs that of Iran in each of these places. . . (pp. 21-22)

For Khamenei, the nuclear program has come to embody the core themes of the revolution: the struggle for independence, the injustice of foreign powers, the necessity of selfsufficiency, and Islam’s high esteem for the sciences. (p. 22)

There’s plenty more worth taking a look at, so click through if you have the time.