Ayatollah Khamenei and a Principled Foreign Policy

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”
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

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

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