Supreme Leader of Iran

The Supreme Leader of Iran (Persian: رهبر معظم ایران, romanized: rahbar-e mo'azzam-e irān), also referred to as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution[2] (رهبر معظم انقلاب اسلامی, rahbar-e mo'azzam-e enqelāb-e eslāmi), but officially called the Supreme Leadership Authority, (مقام معظم رهبری, maqām mo'azzam rahbari) is the head of state and the highest political and religious authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The armed forces, judiciary, state television, and other key government organizations such as Guardian Council and Expediency Discernment Council are subject to the Supreme Leader. The current lifetime officeholder, Ali Khamenei, has issued decrees and made the final decisions on the economy, the environment, foreign policy, education, national planning, and other aspects of governance in Iran.[3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10] Khamenei also makes the final decisions on the amount of transparency in elections,[11] and has dismissed and reinstated presidential cabinet appointees.[12]

Supreme Leadership Authority of the
Islamic Republic of Iran
Ali Khamenei

since 4 June 1989
Office of the Supreme Leader
StyleHis Eminence
His Excellency
StatusHead of State
Reports toAssembly of Experts
ResidenceHouse of Leadership
AppointerAssembly of Experts
Term lengthLife tenure[1]
Constituting instrumentConstitution of Iran
PrecursorShah of Iran
Formation3 December 1979
First holderRuhollah Khomeini

The Supreme Leader directly chooses the ministers of Defense, Interior, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs, as well as certain other ministers, such as the Education, Culture and Science Minister.[13] Iran's regional policy is directly controlled by the office of the Supreme Leader with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' task limited to protocol and ceremonial occasions. All of Iran's ambassadors to Arab countries, for example, are chosen by the Quds Force, which directly reports to the Supreme Leader.[10]

The office was established by the Constitution of Iran in 1979, pursuant to the concept of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist.[14] According to the Constitution, the powers of government in the Islamic Republic of Iran are vested in the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive powers, functioning under the supervision of the Supreme Leader.[15] The style "Supreme Leader" (Persian: رهبر معظم, romanized: rahbar-e mo'azzam) is commonly used as a sign of respect – although the Constitution simply designates them as "Leader" (رهبر, rahbar).

The Supreme Leader ranks above the President of Iran and personally appoints the heads of the military, the government, and the judiciary.[16] Originally the constitution required the Supreme Leader to be a Marja'-e taqlid, the highest-ranking cleric in the religious laws of Usuli Twelver Shia Islam. In 1989, however, the constitution was amended and simply asked for Islamic "scholarship", thus the Supreme Leader could be a lower-ranking cleric.[17][18]

In its history, the Islamic Republic of Iran only has had two Supreme Leaders: Ruhollah Khomeini, who held the position from 1979 until his death in 1989, and Ali Khamenei, who has held the position since Khomeini's death.

In theory, the Supreme Leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts. However, all candidates for membership at the Assembly of Experts (including the President and the Majlis (parliament)) must have their candidacy approved by the Guardian Council, whose members in turn, are half appointed unilaterally by the Supreme Leader and half subject to confirmation by the Majlis after being appointed by the head of the Iranian judiciary, who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader.[19] Thereby, the Assembly has never questioned the Supreme Leader.[20] There have been cases where incumbent Ali Khamenei publicly criticized members of the Assembly, resulting in their arrest and subsequent removal. There also have been cases where the Guardian Council repealed its ban on particular people after being directed to do so by Khamenei.[21] The Supreme Leader is legally considered "inviolable", with Iranians being routinely punished for questioning or insulting him.[22][23][24][25]

Mandate and status

The Supreme Leader of Iran is elected by the Assembly of Experts (Persian: مجلس خبرگان, Majles-e Khobregan), which is also the only government body in charge of choosing and dismissing Supreme Leaders of Iran.[26]

The Supreme Leader is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the provisional head of the three branches of the state (the Judiciary, the Legislature, and the Executive).

He oversees, appoints (or inaugurates) and can dismiss the following offices:

  • Inaugurates the President and may also together with a two-thirds majority of the Parliament impeach him.
  • The Chief Justice of Iran (head of the Judiciary Branch (Persian: قوه قضائیه) usually a member of the Assembly of Experts) for a term of 8 years,
  • the members of the Expediency Discernment Council for a term of 5 years.
  • the members of Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution.
  • 6 of the 12 Members of the Guardian Council from among the members of the Assembly of Experts, the other 6 are chosen by the Parliament out of Islamic jurist candidates nominated by the Chief Justice of Iran who is in turn appointed by the Supreme Leader.[27][28]
  • ministers of defense, intelligence, foreign affairs, interior and science.
  • two personal representatives to the Supreme National Security Council.[29]
  • Can delegate representatives to all branches of government. Ali Khamenei has currently around 2000 representatives.[30]
  • the head of the National Radio and Television Institution IRIB for a term of 8 years
  • the head of the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs
  • the Imams of the Friday Prayer of each Province Capital (with the advice of all the Marja') for a lifetime
  • Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran
    • the Commander of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran
    • the Commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army
    • the Commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy
    • the Commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force
    • the Commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Defense Force
  • Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
    • the Commander of the IRGC
    • the Commander of the IRGC Ground Forces
    • the Commander of the IRGC Navy
    • the Commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force
    • the Commander of the IRGC Quds Force
    • the Commander of the Basij Organization
  • the Commander of the Law Enforcement Force
  • the Heads of the Counter Intelligence Units
  • the Heads of the Intelligence Units
  • approves elected members of the Assembly of Experts.[31][32]

The Supreme Leader does not receive a salary.[33]

Incorporation in the Constitution


In March 1979, shortly after Ruhollah Khomeini's return from exile and the overthrow of Iran's monarchy, a national referendum was held throughout Iran with the question "Islamic Republic, yes or no?".[34] Although some groups objected to the wording and choice and boycotted the referendum, 98% of those voting voted "yes".[34] Following this landslide victory, the constitution of Iran of 1906 was declared invalid and a new constitution for an Islamic state was created and ratified by referendum during the first week of December in 1979. According to Francis Fukuyama, the 1979 constitution is a "hybrid" of "theocratic and democratic elements" with much of it based on the ideas Khomeini presented in his work Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist (Hukumat-e Islami).[35] In the work, Khomeini argued that government must be run in accordance with traditional Islamic sharia, and for this to happen a leading Islamic jurist (faqih) must provide political "guardianship" (wilayat or velayat) over the people. The leading jurist were known as Marja'.

The Constitution stresses the importance of the clergy in government, with Article 4 stating that

all civil, criminal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and all other statutes and regulations (must) be keeping with Islamic measures;…the Islamic legal scholars of the watch council (Shura yi Nigahban) will keep watch over this.[36]

and the importance of the Supreme Leader. Article 5 states

during the absence of the removed Twelfth Imam (may God hasten his reappearance) government and leadership of the community in the Islamic Republic of Iran belong to the rightful God fearing legal scholar (Faqih) who is recognized and acknowledged as the Islamic leader by the majority of the population.

Article 107 in the constitution mentions Khomeini by name and praises him as the most learned and talented leader for emulation (marja-i taqlid). The responsibilities of the Supreme Leader are vaguely stated in the constitution, thus any 'violation' by the Supreme Leader would be dismissed almost immediately. As the rest of the clergy governed affairs on a daily basis, the Supreme Leader is capable of mandating a new decision as per the concept of Vilayat-e Faqih. (Halm, 120–121)


Shortly before Khomeini's death a change was made in the constitution allowing a lower ranking Shia cleric to become Supreme Leader. Khomeini had a falling out with his successor Hussein-Ali Montazeri who disapproved of human rights abuses by the Islamic Republic[37] such as the mass execution of political prisoners in late summer and early autumn 1988. Montazeri was demoted as a marja and Khomeini chose a new successor, a relatively low-ranking member of the clergy, Ali Khamene'i. However Article 109 stipulated that the leader be "a source of imitation" (Marja-e taqlid). Khomeini wrote a letter to the president of the Assembly for Revising the Constitution, which was in session at the time, making the necessary arrangements to designate Khamene'i as his successor, and Article 109 was revised accordingly.[38] "Khomeini is supposed to have written a letter to the Chairman of the assembly of Leadership Experts on 29.4.89 in which he emphasised that he had always been of the opinion that the marja'iyat was not a requirement for the office of leader.[38]

Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (Velayat-e faqih)

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Hajj authorities, 2018

The constitution of Iran combines concepts of both democracy and theocracy, theocracy in the form of Khomeini's concept of vilayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist), as expressed in the Islamic Republic. According to Ayatollah Khomeini, the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist was not restricted to orphans or mental incompetents, but applied to everyone in absence of the twelfth Imam. Jurists were the only rightful political/governmental leaders because "God had commanded Islamic government" and "no one knew religion better than the ulama" (Islamic clergy).[39] They alone would preserve "Islamic order" and keep everyone from deviating from "the just path of Islam".[40] Prior to the revolution observant Shia Muslims selected their own leading faqih to emulate (known as a Marja'-i taqlid) according to their own decision making. The "congregation rather than the hierarchy decided how prominent the ayatollah was" thus allowing the public to possibly limit the influence of the Faqih.[39]

After the revolution Shia Muslims (or at least Iranian Shia) were commanded to show allegiance to the current vali-e faghih, Guardian Jurist or Supreme Leader. In this new system, the jurist oversaw all governmental affairs. The complete control exercised by the Faqih was not to be limited to the Iranian Revolution because the revolution and its Leader had international aspirations. As the constitution of the Islamic Republic states, it

intends to establish an ideal and model society on the basis of Islamic norms. ... the Constitution provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad. In particular, in the development of international relations, the Constitution will strive with other Islamic and popular movements to prepare the way for the formation of a single world community (in accordance with the Koranic verse `This your community is a single community, and I am your Lord, so worship Me` [21:92]), and to assure the continuation of the struggle for the liberation of all deprived and oppressed peoples in the world.[36]

According to author Seyyed Vali Nasr, Khomeini appealed to the masses, during the pre-1979 period, by referring to them as the oppressed and with charisma and political ability was tremendously successful. He became a very popular role model for Shiites and hoped for the Iranian Revolution to be the first step to a much larger Islamic revolution, transcending Shia Islam, in the same way that Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky wanted their revolution to be a world revolution, not just a Russian one.[41]

Functions, powers, and duties of the Supreme Leader

Ali Khamenei voting in the 2017 Presidential election
Ali Khamenei with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, 2017

Duties and Powers given to the Supreme Leader by the Constitution, decrees and other laws are:

  1. Delineation of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran in consultation with the Nation's Expediency Discernment Council.
  2. Supervision over the proper execution of the general policies of the systems.
  3. Resolving conflicts between the three branches of the government[42]
  4. Issuing decrees for national referendums.
  5. Supreme command over the Armed Forces.
  6. Declaration of war and peace, and the mobilization of the armed forces.[32]
  7. Ability to veto laws passed by the parliament.[29][43]
  8. Appointment, dismissal, and acceptance of resignation of:
    1. the members of Expediency Discernment Council.
    2. the members of Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution.
    3. two personal representatives to the Supreme National Security Council.[29]
    4. Can delegate representatives to all branches of government. Ali Khamenei has currently around 2000 representatives.[30]
    5. the six fuqaha' of the Guardian Council.
    6. the supreme judicial authority of the country.
    7. ministers of defense, intelligence, foreign affairs, and science.
    8. the head of the radio and television network of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
    9. the chief of the joint staff.
    10. the chief commander of the armed forces of the country
    11. the highest commanders of the armed forces.
  9. Can dismiss and reinstate ministers.[44][12][45]
  10. Resolving differences between the three wings of the armed forces and regulation of their relations.
  11. Resolving the problems, which cannot be solved by conventional methods, through the Nation's Expediency Discernment Council.
  12. Signing the decree formalizing the elections in Iran for the President of the Republic by the people.
  13. Dismissal of the President of the Republic, with due regard for the interests of the country, after the Supreme Court holds him guilty of the violation of his constitutional duties, or after an impeachment vote of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Parliament) testifying to his incompetence on the basis of Article 89 of the Constitution.
  14. Pardoning or reducing the sentences of convicts, within the framework of Islamic criteria, on a recommendation (to that effect) from the head of the Judiciary. The Supreme Leader may delegate part of his duties and powers to another person.
  15. Confirms decisions of the Supreme National Security Council.[46]
  16. Control over Special Clerical Court.[47]

List of Supreme Leaders

Ali KhameneiRuhollah Khomeini
No. Supreme Rule Portrait Name
English · Persian · Signature
Lifespan Place of birth Notes
1 3 December 1979
– 3 June 1989
(9 years, 182 days)
The Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini
سیدروح‌الله خمینی
(1900-05-17)17 May 19003 June 1989(1989-06-03) (aged 89)[48] Khomeyn, Markazi Province Leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution,[49] and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.[50]
2 4 June 1989
– present
(32 years, 27 days)
The Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei
سیدعلی خامنه‌ای
(1939-04-19) 19 April 1939[51] Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province Previously served as President of Iran from 1981 until Khomeini's death.[52]

See also


  1. "Iran's possible next Supreme Leader being examined: Rafsanjani". Reuters. 13 December 2015. Retrieved 1 July 2016.
  2. Article 89-91, Iranian Constitution
  3. "Iran's Khamenei hits out at Rafsanjani in rare public rebuke". Middle East Eye.
  4. "Khamenei says Iran must go green - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East". Al-Monitor. Archived from the original on 2015-12-22.
  5. Louis Charbonneau and Parisa Hafezi (16 May 2014). "Exclusive: Iran pursues ballistic missile work, complicating nuclear talks". Reuters.
  6. "IranWire - Asking for a Miracle: Khamenei's Economic Plan".
  7. kjenson (22 May 2014). "Khamenei outlines 14-point plan to increase population". Archived from the original on 1 August 2017.
  8. "Iran: Executive, legislative branch officials endorse privatization plan".
  9. "Khamenei slams Rouhani as Iran's regime adopted UN education agenda". 8 May 2017.
  10. Al-awsat, Asharq (25 September 2017). "Khamenei Orders New Supervisory Body to Curtail Government - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive".
  11. "Leader outlines elections guidelines, calls for transparency". 15 October 2016.
  12. "BBC NEWS - Middle East - Iranian vice-president 'sacked'". 2009-07-25.
  13. mshabani (23 October 2017). "Did Khamenei block Rouhani's science minister?". Archived from the original on 24 October 2017.
  14. Article 5, Iranian Constitution
  15. Constitution of Iran Unofficial English translation hosted at University of Bern, Switzerland (with good summaries)
  16. "Who's in Charge?" by Ervand Abrahamian London Review of Books, 6 November 2008
  17. Moin, Baqer, Khomeini, (2001), p.293
  18. "Article 109 [Leadership Qualifications]
    (1) Following are the essential qualifications and conditions for the Leader:
    a. Scholarship, as required for performing the functions of the religious leader in different fields.
  19. Reuters (14 December 2015). "Rafsanjani breaks taboo over selection of Iran's next supreme leader". Retrieved 1 July 2016.
  20. "Everything you need to know about Iran's Assembly of Experts election". Retrieved 1 July 2016.
  21. Staff and agencies (24 May 2005). "Iran reverses ban on reformist candidates". Retrieved 1 July 2016.
  22. "Iran arrests 11 over SMS Khomeini insults". GlobalPost. Archived from the original on 14 March 2016.
  23. "Iran arrests 11 over SMS Khomeini insults: report". The Daily Star. 22 September 2017. Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  24. "Poet to Serve Two Years in Prison For Criticizing Iran's Supreme Leader". December 30, 2017.
  25. Vahdat, Ahmed (March 19, 2019). "Iranian dissident ordered to copy out books by Ayatollah Khamenei after branding Supreme Leader a despot" via
  26. "The Assembly of Experts - The Iran Primer".
  27. "خانه ملت". 5 July 2009. Archived from the original on 5 July 2009.
  28. "Iranian Government Constitution, English Text". 17 June 2011. Archived from the original on 17 June 2011.
  29. Brumberg, Daniel; Farhi, Farideh (4 April 2016). Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253020796 via Google Books.
  30. "Inside Iran - The Structure Of Power In Iran | Terror And Tehran | FRONTLINE | PBS".
  31. (see Article 108 of the constitution)
  32. LL.M., Prof. Dr. Axel Tschentscher. "ICL - Iran - Constitution".
  33. "The Frugality Of Iran's Supreme Leader". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty.
  34. Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System By Yasmin Alem
  35. Fukuyama, Francis (July 27, 2009). "Iran, Islam and the Rule of Law". Wall Street Journal.
  36. "ICL - Iran - Constitution". Retrieved 1 July 2016.
  37. Keddie, Nikki R.; Yann Richard (2003). Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. 260.
  38. Schirazi, Asghar, The Constitution of Iran: politics and the state in the Islamic Republic / by Asghar Schirazi, London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 1997 p.73-75
  39. Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, W. W. Norton & Company, Apr 17, 2007, p.?
  40. Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, Writings and Declarations Of Imam Khomeini p.54
  41. Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, W. W. Norton & Company, Apr 17, 2007, p.137
  42. Brumberg, Daniel; Farhi, Farideh (April 4, 2016). Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253020796 via Google Books.
  43. Aslan, Reza (22 June 2009). "Iran's Supreme Revolutionary" via
  44. "Iranian lawmakers warn Ahmadinejad to accept intelligence chief as political feud deepens". CP. Archived from the original on 2017-08-08. Retrieved 2017-05-21.
  45. Amir Saeed Vakil,Pouryya Askary (2004). constitution in now law like order. p. 362.
  46. § 5 of Article 176
  47. "Inside Iran - The Structure Of Power In Iran - Terror And Tehran - FRONTLINE - PBS".
  49. Steinzova, Lucie; Greer, Stuart (8 February 2019). "In Pictures: Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution". RFE/RL. Retrieved 4 January 2020.
  50. Nettleton, Todd (2 January 2020). "Ayatollah Khomeini: The greatest Christian missionary in the history of Iran". Christian Post. Retrieved 4 January 2020.
  51. "Detailed biography of Ayatollah Khamenei, Leader of Islamic Revolution". 23 September 2013.
  52. Vatanka, Alex (29 October 2019). "Iran's IRGC Has Long Kept Khamenei in Power". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 4 January 2020.
Head of state of Iran
Preceded by
Supreme Leader
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