Stories
Expert Voices

Thirty years into rule, Khamenei continues centralizing power in Iran

Khamenei seated in a chair on stage, next to the Iranian flag
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: Iran's Leader Press Office – handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

June 4 marks the 30th anniversary of Seyyed Ali Khamenei's reign as Iran’s Supreme Leader, making him one of the longest-serving autocrats in the modern Middle East.

Why it matters: Khamenei’s rule has seen increased tension with and distrust of the West, proxy warfare across the region, troubled relationships with a series of presidents, and escalating protests. Iran has only grown more authoritarian under Khamenei, making it unlikely the country will change course either at home or abroad.

Background: The Islamic Republic's political system was conceived by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the 1979 revolution. It centers on the concept of the “Guardianship of the Jurist,” also known as the Supreme Leader, Iran's most powerful political, religious and military figure.

  • Khamenei, who previously served as president of the Islamic Republic, assumed this role under highly contentious circumstances in June 1989, following Khomeini's death.
  • With the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other hardliners, Khamenei has governed by deflecting blame, balancing factions, centralizing control and suppressing opposition.

What’s next: Khamenei will turn 80 in July, and predictions of his potential replacement and succession challenges have been plentiful.

  • Although the Iranian constitution provides for a body called the Assembly of Experts to select the next leader, the conventional wisdom holds that this process may well be ignored during a power vacuum.
  • Rather than defaulting to another hardline cleric, some envision a clerical council, a military dictatorship or even a disruptive, potentially revolutionary transition.

The bottom line: The Islamic Republic and the institution of Supreme Leader are now as much products of Khamenei’s reframing as of Khomeini’s founding. Whoever succeeds him, Khamenei will have made a lasting impact on Iran.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.