Khamenehi, Ali (1939–)

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Khamenehi, Ali

Ali Khamenehi (also Seyyed Ali Hosayni Khamenehi, Khamanei) has been the religious-political leader (vali-ye faqih) of Iran since 1989. He was elected to this office by a body of senior Shi'ite Islamic theologians following the death of the country's first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Under the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the leader, who is neither head of state nor head of government, has responsibility for supervising (velayat) top governmental leaders, including the president, to ensure that their actions and policies conform to Islamic laws and principles. In effect, then, Khamenehi is the highest political authority in the country.


Khamenehi was born on 17 July 1939 in Mashhad, the main city of eastern Iran and the location of the most sacred Shi'ite Islamic shrine in the country. His father was a cleric from the Khameneh district—and hence the family surname—of Iranian Azerbaijan. The family genealogy traces descent back to the prophet Muhammad, and thus male members carry the honorific seyyedbefore their forenames. Khamenehi began his religious studies early, and as a teenager he attended the classes of two prominent Mashhad theologians, Ayatollah Hadi Milani (d. 1975) and Sheikh Hashem Qazvini. In 1957, he went to Iraq to study in the renowned Shi'ite seminaries located in the city of al-Najaf. The following year he went to Qom, where he spent four years studying under Iran's leading Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Hosayn Borujerdi (d. 1961), and his deputy, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989). His association with Khomeini began in these years and would remain strong even when Khomeini was in foreign exile from 1964 to 1979.

The events of June 1963 had a formative effect on Khamenehi, as well as on many other students of Khomeini. Following the arrest of Khomeini for speaking out against the domestic and foreign policies of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, seminarians and clerics in Isfahan, Qom, Mashhad, Shiraz, and Tehran organized protests that spread to the bazaars and were suppressed violently by the police. According to Shaul Bakhash, the demonstrations continued for three days and resulted in over 200 deaths (1984 p. 30). During these incidents, subsequently memorialized as the Fifteenth of Khordad (5 June) uprising against the tyranny of the shah's regime, Khamenehi served as a liaison between the supporters of Khomeini in Qom and the clerical establishment in Mashhad, where Milani had emerged the leading ayatollah in the country. The former's activities led to his arrest twice in 1964. However, rather than taming his political ardor, Khamenehi's prison experiences radicalized him further. For example, he returned to Mashhad, where he served as a representative of Khomeini, and was arrested on five separate occasions between 1965 and 1978; following his arrest in 1975, he was sentenced to internal exile in the town of Iranshahr, located in a remote part of Baluchistan in southeastern Iran.

Khamenehi kept in contact both with his mentor, Khomeini, and fellow former students who shared an aversion to the Pahlavi monarchy. In 1977, he joined with like-minded clerics to form the Society of Combatant Clergy (Jame'eh-e rohaniyat-e mobarez, JRM), a party that had as one of its aims the organizing of a nationwide struggle against the shah. He was active throughout 1978, except for a brief period when he was under arrest, in mobilizing opposition demonstrations, marches, and strikes in Mashhad. He went to Tehran to greet Khomeini when the latter returned on 1 February 1979, after more than fourteen years in exile. Khamenehi did not return to Mashhad, but remained in Tehran, where he became involved in national politics. Khomeini appointed him to be member of the secretive Revolutionary Council, the body that competed with and often overruled the provisional government, also appointed by Khomeini. In July 1979, after the secular ministers of the provisional government had resigned, Prime Minister Mehdi Barzagan, in an effort to effect better coordination with the Revolutionary Council and to minimize political rivalry, invited Khamenehi and other members of the Revolutionary Council to join his cabinet; Khamenehi became deputy minister of defense, as well as Khomeini's representative to the Revolutionary Guards, a new military group formed to counter potential military threats on the part of officers who still might be loyal to the ancient regime. Also, along with other JRM activists, he formed the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) and subsequently became one of its representatives in the Assembly of Experts, the body that convened in August with a mandate to draft a constitution for the Islamic Republic. In March 1980, he was elected, as an IRP candidate, to the first Majles (parliament) under the new constitution; he served as a Majles deputy for eighteen months. In late June 1981, he was severely wounded when a close-by tape recorder with a concealed bomb inside exploded as he was delivering a sermon; as a result, he lost permanent use of his right arm and hand. Three months later (in early October), following the assassination of President Mohammad Ali Rajai, Khamenehi was elected as Iran's first cleric president, a position he held for more than seven years. In June 1989, he was selected as faqih to succeed Khomeini.


Name: Ali Khamenehi (also Seyyed Ali Hosayni Khamenehi, Khamanei)

Birth: 1939, Mashhad, Iran

Family: Married; two daughters, Boshra and Hoda; four sons, Mojtaba, Mostafa, Masoud, and Maysam

Nationality: Iranian

Education: Iran: religious studies in theological colleges of Mashhad and Qom. Iraq: religious classes in 1957 in Shi'ite seminaries of al-Najaf, Iraq


  • 1979: Appointed to Revolutionary Council by Khomeini; one of the founders of the Islamic Republic Party; deputy minister of defense, provisional government; deputy in assembly of experts for writing constitution; appointed Friday prayer leader of Tehran and representative to the Revolutionary Guards by Khomeini
  • 1980: Elected to first Majles (parliament)
  • 1981: Survives assassination attempt, but loses use of right arm and hand; elected president of Iran
  • 1985: Elected to 2nd term as president
  • 1989: Vali-ye faqih (political-religious leader) in velayat-e faqih system of government


As the vali-ye faqih entrusted with supervising the entire system of government in the Islamic Republic, Khamenehi ideally is supposed to take a neutral stance with respect to the issues that constitute the bases of competition among Iran's multiple political factions. However, more of his decisions on contentious matters have been partial to the positions of the conservative JRM and its allies than to those of the progressive Association of Combatant Clergy (Majma'-ye rohaniyun-e mobarez, MRM) and its allies. Although Khamenehi resigned his own membership in the JRM when he became leader, for ten years prior to that his own ideological views, especially when he was president (October 1981 to June 1989), had been close to the cultural, economic, political, religious, and social stances of the conservative wing of the JRM. For instance, there was an ongoing rivalry between him and his prime minister, Mir-Husayn Musavi, primarily over economic policy issues. Whereas Khamenehi tended to be favorably inclined toward the interests of the bazaar (merchants), a socioeconomic group that opposed most government intervention in the economy, Musavi viewed state economic intervention as a positive means to redistribute wealth and to help create a more equalitarian society. In fact, after Khamenehi was reelected to his second term as president in 1985, he tried to get Musavi dismissed, arguing that it should be the president's prerogative to choose the prime minister. The stalemate over sending a nomination to the Majles continued for nearly a month and was resolved only when Khomeini intervened by effectively endorsing Musavi to continue as prime minister. The ideological rivalry between Khamenehi and Musavi also became a rivalry between their respective offices, the presidency and the prime ministry. This situation was one of concern when the constitution was amended in 1989, and it prompted the elimination of the office of prime minister and the combining of head of state and head of government functions in the office of president.

Once Khamenehi became the paramount faqih, he seems to have tried to model his approach to factional politics on that of Khomeini: to remain aloof as much as possible and to intervene only when necessary to restore balance. However, from the beginning of his tenure as faqih, he was hampered by the fact that he possessed neither the charisma nor religious authority of Khomeini. With respect to the latter point, Khamenehi had not achieved the status of a scholar or teacher at the time of the revolution; rather, he was considered a junior cleric, one who had no religious publications (risalehs). This was in marked contrast to Khomeini, who in 1979 enjoyed a reputation among Shi'ites both inside and outside Iran as an erudite scholar of religion, an expert in Islamic legal principles, and thus one qualified to give authoritative religious opinions. During the decade after the revolution, Khamenehi was directly involved in government and politics, most of that time as president, and thus was not in a position to enhance his credentials with respect to the development of expertise in religious subjects. In fact, the constitutional qualifications for the office of faqih were amended in 1989 to make it possible for a clergy with strong political qualifications but modest religious ones to be chosen as the faqih.

The conservative clergy, especially those in the JRM, desired a faqih who would adhere to traditional views of fiqh (Islamic law and principles), not one who advocated dynamic fiqh (that is, interpretations of Islamic law that change with the times), as did the progressive clergy in the MRM. Khamenehi, whose understanding of religion accorded with traditional fiqh, was acceptable to the conservatives, who dominated the Assembly of Experts, an elected body of senior clergy that had the constitutional authority to choose the faqih. Thus, not only was Khamenehi ideologically inclined to favor traditional religious views but also politically his support base was among the conservative clergy. These factors made it difficult for Khamenehi to adopt an independent stance on contentious issues, and, consequently, most of his interventions in the political process tended to favor the conservatives and to disadvantage the supporters of dynamic fiqh. During the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1997), this situation was relatively minor because Rafsanjani, who previously had served for nine years as speaker of the Majles, was adept at balancing conservative and progressive concerns and for the most part maintained the confidence of Khamenehi. That is, even though Rafsanjani introduced limited reforms, especially in the economy, he did not challenge the fundamental premise of the Islamic Republic as a political system guided by the clergy, with the faqih at the apex.


Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was born on 25 August 1934 in the village of Bahraman, near the town of Rafsanjan, Iran. He was one of the founders of the Islamic Republic Party, and was Iran's president from 1989 to 1997. A wealthy businessman, Rafsanjani advocated free markets and loosening the state's control over the economy. He currently is chair of Iran's Expediency Discernment Council.

The 1997 election of mohammad khatami as president with a mandate to reform the political system was a shock for conservatives. Khatami was unambiguously associated with the MRM, which advocated not only liberal interpretations of Islam but also implementation of economic and social reforms and genuine political democracy. The dilemma for Khamenehi was how to maintain the neutrality of the position of velayat-e faqih while simultaneously blocking policies that conservative clergy perceived as threats to the system. One strategy was to strengthen the institutions dominated by the conservatives, such as the judiciary and, prior to 2000, the Majles, and not interfere as these bodies mounted legal assaults on the various reform politicians and policies. To maintain the appearance of impartiality, conservative support was given to reforms that did not appear to threaten the political order, such as passage of the local elections law in 1998. The reform movement was not destroyed, but it was forced onto the defensive and seriously weakened. By the time Khatami's second term as president ended in August 2005, the position of faqih was as strong politically as it had been before 1997 and conservatives' control of the overall political process was intact.


Khamenehi, initially as president of Iran and later as its supreme religio-political leader, has been an international persona since late 1981. Outside Iran, he has a relatively positive image among those devout Shi'ite Muslims who follow what religious leaders are doing. However, local Shi'ite clerics with their own reputations for religious erudition and piety, such as Ayatollah ali husayni al-sistani in Iraq or Shaykh hasan nasrallah in Lebanon, probably have more prestige in their own communities than does the Iranian leader. Beyond the various communities of non-Iranian Shi'ites, however, views of Khamenehi tend to be neutral or negative. International media tends to use the adjective hard-line to describe him. This negative portrayal stems both from his reputation as an opponent of the reforms of Khatami and from his frequent denunciations of what he terms American imperialism and the Western cultural onslaught. The international media tends to view such rhetoric as an example of being antimodern and regressively conservative. For Khamenehi, Western cultural onslaught refers to the relative tolerance that Europeans and North Americans are believed to exhibit toward such practices as premarital sexual relations, divorce, homosexuality, immodest dress, and cinema and music that stresses themes of sex and violence. All these cultural practices and values are unacceptable to Khamenehi and the conservatives generally, who view them as threats to the very foundations of religion, as well as part of deliberate American policy to corrupt Muslim youth and thereby undermine their religious beliefs.


The 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which Khamenehi played a key role in terms of mobilizing demonstrators, ushered in major political and social changes that still are ongoing in Iran. Khamenehi has continued to play a key role in the efforts to manage these changes politically. Sometimes he has supported change, but often, especially in his role since 1989 as the vali-ye faqih, he has tried to limit or even prevent change, especially in the political sphere. His dilemma is how to maintain widespread popular support for his conservative religious vision of an Islamic Republic in an era when increasing numbers of Iranians, especially among the youth who are the main beneficiaries of the post-1979 changes, seem to aspire for a more democratic system.


Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Baktiari, Bahman. Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran: The Institutionalization of Factional Politics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

Ehsani, Kaveh. "Do-e Khordad and the Specter of Democracy." Middle East Report, no. 212 (Fall 1999): 10-11, 16.

Hiro, Dilip. The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies. New York: Nation Books, 2005.

Moslem, Mehdi. Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

                                        Eric Hooglund

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Khamenehi, Ali (1939–)

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