In a unique and timely new report, Carnegie's Karim Sadjadpour presents an in-depth political profile of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei based on a careful reading of three decades of his writings and speeches. Sadjadpour argues that "Iran's Islamic government is more powerful than it has been ever been vis-à-vis the United States, Khamenei is more powerful than he's ever been within Iran, and in order to devise a more effective U.S. policy toward Iran a better understanding of Khamenei is essential." Though Khamenei is sometimes dismissed as weak and indecisive, Sadjadpour writes, "his rhetoric depicts a resolute leader with a remarkably consistent and coherent—though highly cynical and conspiratorial—world view."

On March 11, Carnegie's Karim Sadjadpour discussed his new report, Reading Khamenei:The Word View Of Iran's Most Powerful Leader. He was joined by a panel of leading Iran experts.

In introducing the report, Haleh Esfandiari outlined Khamenei’s consolidation of power from weak supreme leader twenty years ago to ultimate decision-maker in all matters of state today. Karim Sadjadpour then began his presentation by explaining the genesis of the report: the paucity of analysis on Khamenei in contrast to the wealth of attention afforded to President Ahmadinejad. In reviewing Khamenei’s speeches over the past decades, it is clear he has maintained a very consistent and resolute outlook, indicating he likely means what he says. His views were shaped by his appointment as a weak compromise candidate for the supreme leadership whose background was notable only for its loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khamenei’s views toward the United States, Israel, and the nuclear program have far-reaching roots. First, Khamenei has a deep-seated mistrust of the United States and considers U.S. policy toward Iran to be dictated by the goal of regime change. He also has a fixation with Israel that traces back to Iranian revolutionaries’ activism for the Palestinian cause dating to the 1960s. The ayatollah supports armed struggle against Israel to force a referendum that would ultimately produce a one-state solution. Finally, he is either insincere or misinformed about his assertions that the pursuit of a nuclear program is economically efficacious and that no country has extended technological assistance to Iran’s nuclear program.

There are no potential challengers to Khamenei, 68, who will continue in office until his health fails him. Thus while he is unlikely to reinvent himself during his remaining time, the United States cannot afford to wait for a more progressive leader to replace him. In terms of policy implications, the United States should make it clear that it seeks behavior change—not regime change, combine pressure with incentives, deal directly with Khamenei, and carefully consider the timing of its policies to avoid strengthening Ahmadinejad.

Mohsen Milani built on Sadjadpour’s profile in presenting Khamenei’s relations with Iranian presidents Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad. There has been a continuous struggle for power between the presidency and the institution of Vali-e Faqih, but this relationship has varied depending on the particular president. A healthy balance of power existed between the ayatollah and Rafsanjani, who was also consolidating his power at the time, versus greater tension during Khatami’s presidency. Khamenei’s relationship with Ahmadinejad has been harmonious with the president taking the lead on economic policy while following—and sometimes disrupting—the ayatollah on foreign policy. Khamenei retains the last word on foreign policy, but builds consensus around policy decisions.

Afshin Molavi first commented on Khamenei’s strategy of appearing above the political fray while nonetheless maintaining the final authority, and then spoke to the issues of economic self-sufficiency and social justice raised in Sadjadpour’s report. Khamenei praises the virtues of Iranian economic self-sufficiency, but the reality of this policy is extreme economic isolation. Iran ranks at or near the bottom of international rankings on globalization, business friendliness, and human development, in stark contrast to its neighbors in the Gulf. The staggering mismanagement of Iranian oil wealth is responsible for current stagflation and the state’s embarrassing record on social justice. Economic underperformance also poses an opportunity for Khamenei to get more involved in managing day-to-day affairs.

During the question and answer period, the panelists discussed the potential for dealing more directly with Khamenei, rising role of the Revolutionary Guards, possibility of achieving peace with Iran, whether contempt or fear characterizes Khamanei’s view of the United States, and Khamenei’s sources of information.