Ayatollah Khamenei and a Principled Foreign Policy

Seyed Mohammad Marandi

Paper presented at the International Conference: RENOVATION & INTELLECTUAL IJTIHAD IN IMAM KHAMENEI, Beirut, 6 & 7 June 2011.

One of the most important points to keep in mind when discussing the leadership of Ayatollah al-Udhma Imam Khamenei is the very fact that he was chosen to succeed the towering figure of Imam Khomeini (r.a.). The fact that the late Imam was an extraordinary personality, who revolutionized the role of time and place in Fiqh and Ijtihad, who was an arif or Gnostic, a philosopher and a gifted poet, and a political leader who courageously led an Islamic revolution that has truly changed the world we live in, makes it almost impossible for any successor to fill the enormous void created after his demise.

Nevertheless, Ayatollah Khamenei, who himself has all the personal qualities stated above, has successfully steered the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran through very turbulent and volatile times and in a very dangerous world. I venture to say that in some respects his leadership has been even more impressive than that of the late Imam, as he did not have the advantage of being the founder of the Revolution.

Leadership was thrust upon him, despite his own strong opposition. In the brief speech he made in the Assembly of Experts – the constitutional body elected to choose and supervise over the Wali-e Faqeeh, which was comprised of high ranking Mujtahids like himself – he spoke in opposition to the proposal that he be chosen as the Leader. Subsequently he asked the assembly members if they understood the burden they were thrusting upon his shoulders and he also asked whether they would really follow him as their Leader. Key questions — as many of them were older than Ayatollah Khamenei. Some, like him, had played important roles in overthrowing the Shah and were important public figures after the revolution in their own right. However, despite his strong objections they made their decision. Upon being elected by the Assembly of Experts (he voted against), the cameras were directed towards him and it was clear to everyone that he was not pleased. This is an interesting and important footnote to history, because it reveals his view regarding power and authority and how uninterested he was in acquiring both.

Less than a month after the decision, in a speech he said that he did not even want to be a member of a leadership council, something that was seriously being discussed in the last days and hours of Imam Khomeini’s life, let alone becoming the Wali-e Faqeeh. He added that he had prayed he would not in any way be involved in leadership if it was to damage his status in the Hereafter. In the speech, he then said that nevertheless, since this has been thrust upon his shoulders, he will be strong in carrying out this responsibility (3/7/1989) as well as principled. History was to prove him to be correct.

In the early days of his leadership, Ayatollah Khamenei stated to senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials that the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran must be based upon the three principles of honor or dignity (عزه), wisdom (حکمه), and expediency (مصلحه). It will later be explained how the meaning of expediency here does not include the negative connotations about narrow self-interest with the end justifying the means.

According to this view, in order to achieve the higher goals and ideals put forth by an Islamic state and as stated in the Iranian constitution, wisdom plays a pivotal role. According to Ayatollah Khamenei, “work based upon logical calculations, the establishing of strong foundations, taking steps in a level playing field, and refraining from imprudence, ignorance, and arrogance, is what wisdom means “(3/8/1992). He then adds that the Islamic Republic of Iran is “principalist” (meaning that its policies are principled). In an earlier speech he explains this in greater detail and states that “the results of our political and diplomatic moves and efforts must not contravene our Islamic ideals” (12/12/1982).

Four good examples of this are the Islamic Republic’s responses to the two wars between the United States and Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the response to Bush’s so called ‘War on Terror’, as well as the current situation in Libya. In 1990 Iran sharply condemned Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and Iranian animosity towards the regime in Iraq was very deep. This of course, was because of the Iraqi regime’s unjustified invasion of Iran, the slaughter of innocent Iranians, and the attempt to permanently occupy large parts of Iranian territory in 1980, which led to a bloody eight year war between the two countries.

Initially when Iraq occupied Kuwait, the US and its allies were extremely concerned about military confrontation with Iraq. At that time no one knew that from 17th January to 23rd February Saddam Hussein would simply allow the Americans and their allies to bomb Iraqi targets 24 hours a day gradually destroying the Iraq armed forces and the country’s infrastructure and do almost nothing in retaliation. Hence, the US offered numerous concessions to the Islamic Republic during that period in order to draw Iran closer to the American camp. On the other hand, the Iraqi regime was also offering numerous concessions of its own.

Within Iran there were serious debates taking place about what Iran should do and what sort of stance it should take. For example, a well known Member of the Iranian Parliament, who was a radical at the time and who later became a senior member of what is called the ‘reformist’ camp, made an impassioned speech in parliament calling for Iran to join forces with the Iraqi dictator. This reformist MP Mr. Mohtashami compared Saddam Hussein to Khaled ibn Waleed and said that the Islamic Republic of Iran must join him in his battle with the United States.

Imam Khamenei’s careful response to these events and the ongoing debate inside Iran was based on the principle of wisdom (حکمه). He stated that the US and Iraqi regimes had common interests before the invasion of Kuwait and that both had often together committed many crimes against the people of the region. Therefore, his position was that Iran cannot take sides or help either side in any way or form, because both sides had similar repressive and brutal characteristics. This is noteworthy, as it is possible that if Iran had sided with the US in the 1991 war against Iraq, the country could have possibly gained numerous and major concessions and even resolved a number of its key issues with the United States. However, its decision not to do so was based on this idea of wisdom based upon principles.

The same worldview is evident regarding the 2011 attacks on the United States. Immediately after George Bush made the sinister warning on September 20, 2011 that “You’re either with us or against us”, Ayatollah Khamenei responded that Iran cannot stand alongside either the US or its al-Qaeda opponents, as both sides have committed crimes against humanity. A significant point, because at that time the whole Middle East was extremely concerned about the consequences of an American occupation of at least two key regional countries. Even a number of Iranian leaders were deeply alarmed about US intentions towards the Iran. However, Imam Khamenei refused to allow the Islamic Republic to change its policy of opposition and resistance regarding western occupation and hegemony. He repeatedly stated that one step backwards would simply result in western powers making new demands (something that was clearly revealed when the administration of President Khatami insisted on appeasing western powers regarding the Iranian nuclear program). The same principle of wisdom based upon principles applies in the case of Libya, where both Gaddaffi and NATO are viewed as morally bankrupt and as plunderers of the country’s natural resources.

Regarding Iran’s support for groups opposed to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it should be noted that this support existed long before September 11, 2011. Indeed, the US was a key supporter of Saddam in the 1980s and along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Pakistani ISI, it actually helped the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan. Hence, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s continued support for these movements had nothing to do with shifting US policy after the September 2011 attacks.

From Ayatollah Khamenei’s perspective, wisdom (حکمه) is reaching truth through knowledge and reason, and this can only be achieved through the full incorporation of spirituality and justice. He is quoted as saying that “the Islam we support and encourage is based on the three principles of spirituality, reason, and justice and it is completely different from reactionary Islam or liberalism” (16/8/2000). Hence, according to this worldview, Iran should pursue its national interests, but only within the framework of its “principles and ideals” as he puts it (9/7/1991). He stresses that Iran’s national interests cannot be based on race, language, the color of one’s skin or nationalism (9/7/1991). Perhaps this is one reason why, according to polls carried out by various American and international institutes, despite the enormous amount of anti-Iranian propaganda, constantly being broadcasted through government owned and government funded Arab television channels, which includes a disturbingly large amount of sectarian and racist rhetoric, the Islamic Republic is popular among ordinary Arabs.

Dignity, honor, or pride in the positive sense of the word (عزه) is the second of his three essential principles for international relations. Imam Khamenei states that dignity or honor too cannot be based upon race or nationalism, as he puts it “things through which everyone builds a wall around themselves” (9/7/1991). Rather, honor comes from “having faith in Allah, being kind to and serving Gods creations and people” and not through pride and arrogance (9/7/1991). In other words, honor is in opposition to being oppressed, allowing oppression to take place, and being oppressive to other nations or peoples in the world. According to this view, how a nation or a people act in relation to the concept of honor or dignity (عزه) determines their identity.

For example, when one looks at the issue of defending or regaining territorial integrity, which are wise objectives in themselves, the principle of dignity is what makes such a distinction between different policies in this regard. For example, the former Egyptian regime was able to regain its territory from the Zionist regime without loss of life, but under conditions that were dishonorable and undignified and that was the underlying reason why Ayatollah Khamenei was opposed to the reestablishment of ties with the Mubarak regime over the past two decades, despite the fact that powerful people within the Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad administrations attempted to restore relations. Ayatollah Khamenei believed that Sadat and Mubarak had humiliated the great and honorable Egyptian people.

On the other hand, the struggle of South Africans and Palestinians against apartheid and occupation were for dignity and honor, despite the enormous loss of life and suffering. Therefore, as silence in the face of oppression against third parties runs against the principle of dignity and honor, the Islamic Republic unequivocally supported and continues to support both peoples, despite the significant price Iran has had to pay as a result of this support. Imam Khamenei’s strong support for Lebanon and the Resistance, Bosnia, and the people of Kashmir is also explained through this moral principle. In the case of Bosnia, the Islamic Republic of Iran was the only country in the world to provide the brutalized Bosnians with meaningful support. Indeed, many believe that if Ayatollah Khamenei had not supported the Bosnian people during their darkest hours, there would be no Bosnia today.

Independence and freedom from foreign hegemony is a condition that even some of the most powerful countries are unable to attain, thus leading to a deficit of dignity. Japan, which until recently has been the world’s second largest economy, has been unable to take an independent stance from that of the United States on any major national, regional, or global issue for decades. The same is true for the Republic of Korea (or South Korea). The Saudi regime, despite its enormous oil wealth, is almost completely reliant upon the United States and the European Union at all levels of national security. Despite purchasing hundreds of billions of dollars of US and EU made weapons over the past three decades, they have been unable or unwilling to even create a credible defense industry of their own.

However, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite war and sanctions, has been able to achieve major developments in high-tech fields such as stem cell research, nanotechnology, satellite technology and of course peaceful nuclear energy. Despite enormous pressure from western countries and their regional allies, the principle of dignity and honor again lay behind the country’s steadfast position regarding its nuclear program. In fact, many internal critics of Iran’s foreign policy now believe that the country’s posture of resistance has been vindicated. It is widely believed that this culture of resistance advocated by Imam Khamenei has contributed to the current uprisings and the changes that we are now witnessing. It is also believed that the same culture of resistance has made the Islamic Republic popular in the Arab world.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s approach towards the United States can also be understood from this perspective. He believes that as long as the US behaves in an arrogant and exceptionalist manner and refuses to recognize or speak to other governments on equal terms, negotiating or even talking to the American government is pointless. Interestingly what he and Imam Khomeini have proven over the past 32 years is that a nation can live without having relations with the US and continue to thrive. Indeed, the fact that Iran continues to grow stronger despite a series of United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed upon Iran through US and western coercion, shows that imperial powers and their Eurocentric worldviews are not nearly as strong as they would like the rest of the world to think.

The third principle is expediency (مصلحه). According to this doctrine, as the actions of the Islamic Republic must not contravene moral principles, the principle of expediency must not run in contravention to those of honor or wisdom. In other words, choices made by the Islamic Republic regarding regional or international affairs must not be treated with a preference for expediency over the other two, but rather expediency means choosing the most suitable path to wisdom and honor. According to Ayatollah Khamenei, “It is possible that during certain junctures attention may be paid to tactical objectives or using different tactical tools, however this spirit and essence of the foreign policy of the Islamic state, has not and will not change under any circumstances.” (16/8/2004) Hence, despite all the difficulties associated with being almost a lone voice in its principled support for the rights of Palestinians, the Islamic Republic of Iran been firm in its position that Israel as a political entity must cease to exist and that all Palestinians have the right to return to their homes. Unlike what many leftist thinkers have promoted in the past that ends justify the means, the concept of مصلحه which comes from the word صلاح means good and righteous and it is choosing the best paths which are at one with wisdom and morality.

In fact, Ayatollah Khameini’s view on all of the recent upheavals and events in the Middle East and North Africa is based upon this worldview. On the anniversary of the demise Imam Khomeini, he stated that Iran supports all regional uprisings that are based upon three foundations: Islam, popular support, and independence from western interference. He stated that the Islamic Republic cannot support any act that has US or Israeli support, because these regimes will not under any circumstances act in the interests of the people of the region (4/6/2011). This view goes beyond factors such as race, sect, or nationalism. Indeed, he has shown this repeatedly in his support for the people of South Africa, Bosnia, Palestine, Iraqi Kurdish refugees, and Lebanon, who are all from different racial and religious backgrounds.

In order for an Islamic state to function within this moral framework, it needs to have a high ranking religious scholar, who is seen to be just, pious, courageous and who has a keen understanding of political and social complexities, at its helm. Otherwise, it is believed that in the complex and dangerous world that we live in, the principles of honor (عزه), wisdom (حکمه), and expediency (مصلحه) from the Islamic perspective, cannot and will not be honored.

Seyed Mohammad Marandi is Associate Professor of English Literature, University of Tehran, Iran. He is also a regular commentator on various international news and current affairs programmes.


  1. Miroslav Kalous wrote:

    To write such an ode to Khamenei – who is by any standards, which are indeed universal, an autocrat trampling rights of Iranian people – is quite immoral. Suggested reality check: Khamenei’s/Iranian goverment’s stance toward Syrian uprising.

  2. Usul wrote:

    Very nice, well written piece.

    In several instances in the text, you would find “2011” where there should be “2001”.

  3. Ashaq Ali wrote:

    a good read, thanx

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