Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hit political and personal milestones in 2019. In June, he marked 30 years as supreme leader, making him the second-longest serving head-of-state in the Middle East (after Sultan Qaboos of Oman). On July 16, he turns 80, making him one of the oldest leaders in the region. Khamenei is the most powerful authority over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the military and the state-controlled media. The Iranian constitution empowers him to “delineate” all policies, declare war and peace, resolve disputes among political and military factions, and dismiss the president.
The supreme leader is selected by the Assembly of Experts, a panel of 86 clerics and scholars on Islam. (The assembly is elected in a nationwide vote every eight years). The constitution stipulates that the leader must be pious, learned, courageous, prudent and have administrative skills. Khamenei lacks the popularity, charisma and religious credentials of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his predecessor. But over the decades, he has built a power base among hardline politicians and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Khamenei’s positions are imbued with Shiite theology and fundamentalist dogma. His worldview reflects the anti-Western narrative of the 1979 revolution. The following comments are collected from his English-language website, speeches and profiles of him between 1989 and 2019.
On Islamic Democracy
“When we speak about religious or Islamic democracy, some people think that such democracy is only manifested at ballot boxes and through elections, that elections are only one manifestation of religious democracy. Democracy means a system which is based on religion and Islam.”
“We believe in democracy. We believe in freedom, too. But we do not accept liberal democracy. . . . We don’t want to use that name for our pure, sound, righteous, and clean meaning. We say Islamic democracy, or the Islamic Republic.”
"If you want Islam to be an agent of salvation, you must rule and must understand that this religion has not come for one to sit in houses of worship; it hasn’t come to make a nest in hearts. Rather, it has come to govern and run life in a proper fashion. . . Islam without government and a Muslim nation without Islam are meaningless."
“Our elections are among the best and healthiest elections with a high turnout. Unfortunately, a bad habit that some people in the country have is that they constantly question the health of elections in each term. They constantly speak about rigging in elections, their so-called concerns and such and such things. This is a wrong course of action. During the past 37 years, the people participated in elections in an enthusiastic way because of their trust in the Islamic Republic in different eras…So why should we undermine this trust with false and fake concerns?”
“Some people should not think that our magnanimous Imam (r.a.) derived elections from the western culture and then mixed it with Islamic thoughts and Islamic sharia. This was not the case. If elections, democracy and reliance on the votes of people had not been part of religion and Islamic sharia, then Imam (r.a.) would have told us. If this had been the case, he would have announced it in an outspoken and decisive way. Democracy is part of religion. Therefore, Islamic sharia is the framework.”
On Political Divisions
“The issue of forming unity - religious, ethnic, and political unity - is extremely important… Fomenting discord is one of the courses of action that the enemy is following. They try to foment discord - among different groups of people, including government officials, ordinary citizens, clergymen, academics, and other groups of people - wherever they can. You can see many of the instances in our society today.”
On the Military
“We do not seek war, but we are ready for defense. We are alive and vigilant. We will not disregard the great and valuable treasure at our disposal; that is our revolution, Islam, and our system of government, and we will defend it. This does not equate creating wars. This is our way. The nation, in particular the armed forces, must know that there is no end to being vigilant and prepared to defend and in the great assembly of the nation and the soldiers and defenders of the Revolution, the IRGC has a special status.”
“The creation of the IRGC was not merely because the establishment sought to create a new armed force. This was not the only goal. There was more to it. The issue was to consider and enforce the thought system, ideology and faith—which represent the moral elements of power—in every component of the new military force and this was achieved as much as possible. This was the basis of the matter. After the creation of the IRGC, those who did not wish for it to exist pushed it to the limits of extinction and isolated it several times. They ignored it and refused to finance it. They criticized it time and again. But the IRGC survived and flourished.”
“The resistance forces of Basij is like a locomotive driving the great train of mobilization of the Iranian nation forward with its activity, ingenuity, and readiness. As such, the reach of Basij is far wider than just Mobilized Resistance Forces. The country needs Basij’s resistance forces. However, it also needs popular mobilization in every cultural, political, economic, social, and when necessary, military field.”
On the Nuclear Program
“Enrichment and the other achievements that have been made in the nuclear area are a very important accomplishment. It is not a minor achievement. And these are only our initial steps in this industry. This industry should be worked on so that it makes progress. Now a few criminal countries which have either used nuclear bombs against other nations or tested them - such as America and France - are telling us what to do. Ten, twelve years ago, France conducted three nuclear tests - in a row - in the ocean. These tests are destructive and they destroy the marine environment. They conducted three dangerous tests. And there was little criticism over this matter in the world and later on, they shut mouths and it was over. This is while we are not after nuclear tests.
We are not after nuclear weapons. And this is not because they are telling us not to pursue these things. Rather, we do not want these things for the sake of ourselves and our religion and because reason is telling us not to do so. Both shar'i and aqli [related to logic and reason] fatwas dictate that we do not pursue them. Our aqli fatwa is that we do not need a nuclear weapon either in the present time or in the future. A nuclear weapon is a source of trouble for a country like ours - I do not want to expand on this matter. So, nuclear achievements are very important and pursuing this industry and industrializing the country is a very important task.”
“I believe that even if we accept what they dictate to us on the nuclear issue, their destructive moves and sanctions will not be stopped and lifted. They will continue to create all sorts of problems for us because they are opposed to the essence of the Revolution.”
“In Libya, although Qaddafi had shown an anti-Western tendency during his first years in power, in later years, he performed a great service to the West. . . . This gentleman gathered up his nuclear program, . . . gave it to the Westerners, and said, ‘Take it away!...[Yet he was overthrown.]’”
On the United States
"The history of our nation is in a black, bitter, and bloody chapter, mixed with varieties of hostility and spite from the American regime. [That regime] is culpable in 25 years of support of the Pahlavi dictatorship, with all the crimes it committed against our people. The looting of this nation’s wealth with the shah’s help, the intense confrontation with the revolution during the last months of the shah’s regime, its encouragement in crushing the demonstrations of millions of people, its sabotage of the revolution through various means in the first years of its victory, the American embassy in Tehran’s provocative contacts with counterrevolutionary elements, the aid to coup plotters and terrorist and counterrevolutionary elements outside the country, the blockading of Iranian cash and property and refusal to transfer goods whose payment had long been received or assets that the shah had taken from the national wealth and deposited in his own name in American banks, the striving to enforce an economic embargo and the creation of a united Western front against our nation, the open and effective support of Iraq in its war against us, and, finally, an irrational, thuggish invasion of the Persian Gulf that seriously threatened the region’s security and tranquility -- all this is only part of our nation’s indictment against the regime in the United States of America."
― September 22, 1987, in a speech to the UN General Assembly
“Since 1945, the American government has played a role in overthrowing 40 independent governments that were not dependent on America, taking military action in more than 20 cases! In all of these cases, America's interference has always led to massacres and great tragedies. Of course they have been successful in some cases and unsuccessful in others. The atomic bombings of Japan at the end of World War II and the bloody Vietnam War are two examples of their failure. They also overthrew governments in Chile and Iran – "The 28 Mordad Coup" – as well as other countries.”
“The matter of the den of spies [the U.S. embassy] cut the last possible thread connecting the revolution and America.” The embassy takeover “was a great and valuable service performed for our revolution.”
“A high-ranking official of a European country came to meet me and said, ‘You should finally solve your problem with America!’ They thought that [with my] having come to New York and being in America, they might be able to warm their bread in this oven. I said, ‘Impossible…I have come to the UN to speak with the people of the world, and this has nothing to do with America.”
“An all-encompassing American plan has been arranged to collapse the Islamic Republican system, and all its aspects have been weighed. This plan is reconstructed from the collapse of the Soviet Union. . . . They have, in their own imaginings, revived the plan for the collapse of the Soviets in accordance with the conditions in Iran.”
“Isn’t this the government that massacred the original native inhabitants of the land of America? That wiped out the American Indians? Wasn’t it this system and its agents who seized millions of Africans from their houses and carried them off into slavery and kidnapped their young sons and daughters to become slaves and inflicted on them for long years the most severe tragedies? Today, one of the most tragic works of art is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. . . . This book still lives after almost 200 years.”
"Those who think that we must negotiate with . . . America are either simple-minded or frightened. . . . What would negotiations mean? Would all problems be solved if only you go and sit with America and talk and negotiate? This is not the case. Negotiations with America mean trading with America. Trade means you get something and you give something. What will you give to America from the Islamic revolution for which you will get something? . . . Do you know what it wants? By God, America is not upset with the Iranian nation for anything more than its being Muslim, its standing firm with Muhammad’s pure Islam. It wants you to stop being so firm. It wants you to not be proud. Are you ready for that?"
"One of our fundamental policies is cutting relations with America. Yet we have never said that we will cut these relations forever. No, there is no reason to cut relations forever with any state. . . . [But] relations with America are harmful to us. First, establishing relations will not reduce the danger posed by America. America attacked Iraq while the countries had diplomatic relations. . . . Second, having relations with the Americans is a way for them to increase their influence within certain strata . . . in Iran. . . . They need a base that they don’t have now. This is what they want. They want their intelligence officers to be able to travel to Iran without restrictions. . . . Some people brag about the harm that results from the absence of [diplomatic] relations. No, gentlemen! Not having relations with America is good for us. The day when relations with America will be beneficial, I will be the first one to say that relations should be established."
On Human Rights
“The Americans have raised the flag of human rights. They say, ‘We are committed to human rights not only in our country, America, but also in the entire world.’ … In practice, they inflict the most serious harm on human rights and they hurl the biggest insult at human rights in different countries. Their secret prisons throughout the world, such as their prisons in Guantanamo, in Iraq, in Abu Ghraib and their attack on civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in different areas are examples of the Americans' claim to support human rights.
As long as American policy is based on lies, deception, and duplicity and supports corrupt regimes, like that of Israel, and perpetuates oppression against the weak and poor nations, and as long as crimes and transgressions of the American rulers, such as the downing of the passenger plane and the impounding of Iran’s property, remain in our nation’s memory, there is no possibility of our holding negotiations with the American government or establishing diplomatic relations with it. We completely reject relations between them and us."
“…We had never had such a large number of educated, knowledgeable and outstanding women in the history of our country, neither in seminary nor in academic environments. We had never had so many woman writers, poets and researchers in different fields of study. Fortunately today, we have such women thanks to the Islamic Republic. These things have been achieved in the shade of Islam, the Islamic Republic and Imam's (r.a.) enlightening outlook towards the issue of women.”
“Women were truly and in all dimensions underprivileged in the society of the self-surrendered evil monarchical regime [Pahlavi]. If a woman wanted to enter the academia, she was obliged to relinquish her religion, piety and decency. A Muslim woman could not easily retain her hijab, decency and dignity in the universities, academia, scientific and cultural centers. It was impossible! A Muslim woman could not, in the streets of Tehran and some other cities, walk with Islamic dignity and decency, even with a partial hijab, without being harassed and molested by some vulgar people obsessed with the corruption and immorality brought to us from the West.”
“The basis of western culture is that women should be presented in society as a product, an object that men can benefit from. Promoting immodest clothing is a step in this direction. Over the past 100, 200 years, violence against women has been on the rise. There has been no decrease in this regard. Sexual freedom and unprincipled sexual behaviors in the west have not curbed sexual desires, which are natural and instinctive. In the past they used to promote the idea that men and women should be allowed to have free relationships with each other so that their sexual desires are diminished. Later on it became clear that what happens is the opposite. The more men and women are allowed to have free relationships with each other in society, the more the resulting situation increases sexual desires... The Western view of women is a degenerate, flawed, misleading and wrong view.”
“If women are not allowed access to education--knowledge and awareness--this is oppression. If the situation is made in such a way that women do not have an opportunity, because of the amount of work and pressure from various other occupations, to work on their own ethics, religion, and awareness, this is oppression. If the woman does not choose, for herself, her husband, and her needs and desires are not considered in her marriage, this is oppression. If a woman, when living at home with family or when separated from the husband, cannot have the proper emotional relationship with her child, this is oppression. If the woman has a special talent--for instance, in science, invention or discovery, politics and social work--but she is not allowed to use or develop her talents, this is oppression.”
“Cultural invasion is a fact. Hundreds - perhaps it is thousands, but because I want to be cautious about figures, I say hundreds - of audio and visual media networks, Internet websites and writings [are] targeting Iran!
The goal of such networks is our country. They broadcast Farsi programs and they coordinate them with the local time in Iran. They follow up our issues and they prepare their programs according to these issues. …They want to influence the minds and the behavior of our people - our youth, our teenagers and even our little children.”
“Your (filmmakers) influence is many times as much as the influence of that clergyman or preacher or writer. If I say that your influence is ten times as much, it is surely more. Therefore, you can see that there is a great difference between the influence of a well-produced motion picture and the influence of the pulpit!”
― in an address to cinema directors, June 13, 2006
"In my opinion, Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is the best novel that has been written in history. I have not read all the novels written throughout history, no doubt, but I have read many that relate to the events of various centuries. I have read some very old novels. For example, say, I’ve read “The Divine Comedy.” I have read Amir Arsalan. I have also read “A Thousand and One Nights”. . . . [But] “Les Misérables” is a miracle in the world of novel writing. . . . I have said over and over again, go read “Les Misérables” once. This “Les Misérables” is a book of sociology, a book of history, a book of criticism, a divine book, a book of love and feeling."
“Read the famous book The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck, . . . and see what it says about the situation of the left and how the capitalists of the so-called center of democracy treated them.”
On the West
“Another unique characteristic of this Revolution was its independence from the east and the west, and currently this is the basic policy of our revolutionary system. This is one of the manifestations of faith and reliance on God in all arenas of our personal and social life. Today the idea that is dominant over the world of politics all over the world is that it is not possible to survive in the arena of contemporary politics without relying on one of the two poles of power. There may be disagreements over the degree of this dependence, but its essence remains unquestioned. Even those who have accepted the idea of independence on an intellectual level believe that this independence is impossible in practice.”
“One good quality in European people is their willingness to take risks. This is the chief source of their successes. . . . Another of their good qualities is perseverance and keeping at hard work. . . . The greatest and most talented Western inventors and scholars are those who for long years live a hard life sitting in a garret and discover something. When one reads their biographies, one sees what a hard life they lived. . . . These are the good parts of Western culture. No one can say that Western culture is completely ugly. No, like any other culture, it surely has beautiful manifestations. . . . A sensible nation and a group of sensible people will take the good and add it to their own culture, thus enriching it, and reject the bad.”
"The Western capitalist system is sunk to its neck in human problems. Despite the copious wealth that it has at its disposal, it is completely incapable of establishing social justice. The recent riots of blacks in America showed that the American system treats not only the nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America with injustice but also its own people, and answers protest with violence and repression just like in those other countries. It is true that the communist camp collapsed and vanished, but its rival, the capitalist camp, . . . particularly plagued by the arrogance that has affected it after the disappearance of its powerful rival, will vanish too, sooner or later."
**Photo Credit: All graphics from khamenei.ir (CC BY 4.0)