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IranSource March 13, 2024

For meaningful change in Iran, Khamenei has got to go

By Khosro Sayeh Isfahani

“It was my tongue, but words of God,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. He drew a semicircle with his left hand, bejeweled with an agate ring, connecting the heavens to his audience. Besieged with crises at every corner, Khamenei grasped at divine straws. “It was God speaking [through me].”

Khamenei proclaimed his connection to the “divine” on December 31, 2023, during a meeting with the family of his slain spymaster, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed four years earlier via a US drone strike in Iraq. The supreme leader was retelling the story of what he described as a “fiery and catchy speech” he gave two decades ago.

The comments sent shockwaves through Iran. The Islamic Republic had always portrayed Khamenei as the “implementer of God’s orders” and the “leader of Muslims of the world.” However, this was the first time the supreme leader claimed to be God’s “tongue” and delivered what can only be described as revelations and prophecy. Critics described the comments as Khamenei “claiming to be God.”

Khamenei’s claim was so outlandish that state media outlets had to rush in and justify the commentary by weaving a web of propaganda masquerading as theology. This effort went as far as the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency publishing an op-ed titled, “The Monotheistic Basis of ‘My Tongue, but Words of God’” by Ali Reza Molla-Ahmadi, a cleric affiliated with the Office of the Supreme Leader.

But Khamenei did not arrive at this watershed moment overnight. When the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, died in 1989, a decade after the revolution, Khamenei was not the most senior political or religious figure in Iran, or even an ayatollah. Yet, he ascended to the clerical throne in a conniving political maneuver facilitated by his then ally and later archnemesis, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Ever since, clerics, state media, and security apparatuses have sanctified Khamenei’s image and attributed “divine infallibility” to him while harshly silencing all critics. Furthermore, the regime’s iron fist has quashed all authoritative religious voices that could challenge Khamenei’s step-by-step ascension.

The last two ayatollahs who challenged the authority of a supreme leader in Iran were Hussein-Ali Montazeri and Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari. Both men were discredited by the clerical establishment and put under house arrest until they drew their last breath. But the purge did not end with prominent ayatollahs. Khamenei has been seeking to turn the clerical establishment and foundations into a monolith that supports him with no questions asked.

In 2019, Khamenei warned the “youth and elders” that the “enemies” had sent “agents to infiltrate” the holy city of Qom in central Iran, which, along with Najaf in Iraq, are the two equivalents of Vatican City in the Shia world. (Qom is the main religious bastion of the Islamic Republic, along with the northeastern city of Mashhad, where the eighth Shia saint, Imam Reza, is buried.) The call for “purging the revolution” and religious spaces has been echoed by sycophant clerics close to Khamenei over the years. In addition to “cleansing” religious spaces, Khamenei and the Islamic Republic’s propaganda machine have been running a tireless campaign to add a halo to his image.

Despite all these efforts, a recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has revealed that people in Iran have distanced themselves from religion and religious institutions, are opposed to mandatory hijab rules, and increasingly support secularism. All these changes have been evident in reoccurring, and increasingly frequent, protests against the clerical establishment, especially the 2022 Woman, Life, Freedom uprising.

Khamenei the gambler

In any normal context, if an octogenarian claimed that God speaks through them, there would be concerns about their mental health. But in the case of Khamenei, the sycophants who pack the ranks of his inner circle not only cheer him on, but also justify his words.

As supreme leader, the geriatric ayatollah has the final say over all matters of security and policy in Iran. He is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and appoints all top military commanders, including to key posts at the elite IRGC, which exports terror around the globe and quashes protests at home—again, under direct orders from Khamenei.

In practice, he oversees and controls the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, nuclear activity, and military operations. He decides who can run in elections and how voting should be engineered, as evidenced by the March 1 elections, which were hardline led as part of his Islamic Revolution 2.0 program. The ayatollah’s obsession with absolute control has gone as far as him setting a two thousand-kilometer cap for the country’s ballistic missiles—a decision that in most countries would be made by strategists and generals. (The cap leaves the United States out of range, but allows Tehran to hit much of the Middle East, including regional US military facilities and Israel.)


Over the years, garnering absolute power and religious authority has turned Khamenei into a vehicle of death and destruction at home and abroad. What makes him even more dangerous is that, at his core, he is nothing but a gambler playing with human lives through his decision-making.

In 2020, after the United States killed Soleimani in Iraq, Khamenei vowed “severe revenge.” A few days later, the IRGC hit a US base in Iraq as retaliation, but the base had already been evacuated. This was a show of force by Tehran to satisfy Khamenei’s base of zealots without any fatalities, but more than a hundred US soldiers sustained brain injuries.

At the time, a US official told Fox News that Iran had warned Iraq before the attacks, and Baghdad had passed that information to the United States. However, afraid of a possible US response, the Islamic Republic intentionally kept Iran’s airspace open during the attack, using civilians as human shields. This led to the IRGC downing Ukraine International Airlines Flight (PS752), killing all 176 passengers and crew. The tragedy created a pause in tensions and possibly prevented a direct confrontation between Iran and the United States. Evidence recently coming to light has shown that the supreme leader was directly involved in all decisions related to the plane’s downing and the regime’s subsequent cover-up.

This was not the first time that Khamenei brought tensions a split second away from an explosion. He used the same approach with Iran’s nuclear program, setting the Islamic Republic on course for a head-to-head collision with the West, changing direction under the auspices of “heroic flexibility,” and permitting the fruition of the nuclear deal in 2015 only when Iran was crumbling under sanctions and the shadow of war was looming large on the horizon.

Sanctified madness

Overconfident of divine intervention on his behalf, Khamenei is playing his hand more and more brazenly. He has once again set the Islamic Republic on course for acquiring nuclear arms, warning world powers in June 2023 that they “cannot stop” his regime if it desires to build the bomb. The Islamic Republic has been ramping up its production of highly enriched uranium, with Iran’s former nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, boasting in February that the regime has “all components” necessary for building a bomb.

When it comes to internal change, Khamenei has only conceded to “reforms” that can boost the effectiveness of the regime’s oppression, enhance its propaganda, expand its financial resources, reduce divisions within the establishment, and curb internal and external threats. Furthermore, his response to public dissent and popular demand for the democratization of power and realization of human rights has also been consistent throughout his almost four-decade rule. “Mow them like weeds,” he was quoted as saying in reference to dissent.

Over the decades, Khamenei has weaved an elaborate web, with himself sitting at the center and controlling all power structures in Iran. With his eventual death, this intricate web will collapse, creating a power vacuum and pitting different factions of the Islamic Republic with competing interests—especially the upper echelons of the IRGC—at each other’s throats. This watershed moment will provide people inside Iran and the diaspora with a historic chance to make a foray into fundamental change in the country. Preparations for the big day must start today. Petty infighting among the Iranian diaspora must become a thing of the past, and alliances must be built with Iranians and the international community for that faithful day. With that in mind, one thing is certain: For meaningful change in Iran, Khamenei has got to go.

Khosro Sayeh Isfahani is an advocate, journalist, and Internet researcher with years of experience working in Iran, including work related to the LGBTQI community. 

Further reading

Image: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and top Islamic Republic officials attending the funeral of Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani in Tehran on January 6, 2020. (