A review of eight “red lines” in Khamenei’s foreign and domestic policy show there are certain issues on which the Supreme Leader is unlikely to ever budge, and without changes in these key areas, meaningful reform in the country will remain elusive.
Khamenei's Four Foreign Policy Red Lines
Anti-Americanism: This is central to Khamenei’s identity and the identity of his Islamic Republic. He takes positions against the United States in almost all of his speeches, referring to it as “the enemy." He has used his anti-U.S. positions to garner support in the country, justify the country's many economic problems, and solicit admiration in the Middle East as a leader who stands against a super power.
This stance has cost the Islamic Republic a lot during the past 40 years, but there is no evidence he would change it. Even when he accepted the nuclear deal with the U.S., he made it clear it was not the beginning of broader talks to improve ties between Washington and Tehran.
Anti-Israeli Position: Like anti-Americanism, this is also one of the pillars of the identity of the Islamic Republic. Although at times his rhetoric about the U.S. has been cautious, his references to Israel and its leaders have always been inflammatory. He has set a 25-year deadline for the annihilation of Israel. Like in the case of his anti-Americanism, there is no indication he would change his stance.
A Militant Middle East Policy: Even regime supporters criticize Khamenei’s practice of putting Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders in charge of Iran’s Middle East policy instead of the Foreign Ministry.
Despite international pressure, Iran has always supported militant groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad, and in recent years has set up Hashd al-Sha'bi in Iraq, and supported Houthi rebels in Yemen and Bashar al-Assad's militia in Syria.
Saudi Arabia, as Iran's main opponent in the region, sees this as Iran's Shi'ia expansionism and has formed an alliance against it with other regional Arab and Islamic states.
Ballistic Missile Program: Khamenei maintains that the missile program is the backbone of Iran’s deterrence defense system. Iran is under pressure from the U.S., Israel, and European powers to stop developing its missile program, but Khamenei has repeatedly rejected these demands, even when they came from countries that have sided with Tehran against the U.S. in international negotiations.
The Four Red Lines in Domestic Politics
Zero Accountability: According to Iran’s constitution, the Supreme Leader’s performance and that of the institutions he governs should be supervised by the Assembly of Experts, but this body has produced no reports about checks and balances of the Supreme Leader’s powers in the 29 years Khamenei has been in power.
Those who still hope to reform the Islamic Republic say Khamenei has most of the country's power in his hands in the areas of intelligence, security, the judiciary, economy, and culture.
Expanded Powers Of The IRGC: Many critics have pointed out that the IRGC under Ayatollah Khamenei has entered the realm of politics despite its original security mission, and has been behaving like a political party in uniform and a shadow government during recent years. In the area of security and intelligence it is more powerful than the Intelligence Ministry.
Meanwhile, in economy, the IRGC operates like a cartel. It absorbs the lion's share of the country's annual budget and has pushed private firms out of the market. The IRGC now owns many major banks and financial institutions. Recently it has even gotten involved in film production and the entertainment industry.
Critics say the IRGC must be returned to the barracks if any reform is to take place in Iran. Khamenei, however, has supported the IRGC’s expanded role.
Control of the Judiciary: Critics say an independent judiciary is one of the main preconditions for essential reforms in Iran. They say the judiciary is under the control of intelligence and security agents linked to the IRGC and the Intelligence Ministry. Khamenei is dismissive of these criticisms.
Vetting Of Candidates by the Guardian Council: One of the most important reforms needed in Iran is an end to the vetting of election candidates by the Guardian Council, a body critics say is loyal to Khamenei and dutifully weeds out any candidates that could threaten his power. They say the Guardian Council’s vetting has led to a weak and ineffectual parliament.
Why These Particular Red Lines?
There are two main reasons why Khamenei insists on these eight red lines: In domestic politics he fears that even the smallest reforms might lead to demands for democracy, which he considers inconsistent with the theocratic state.
In foreign policy, he cannot allow any change because his fiery anti-U.S., anti-Israel rhetoric and constant references to foreign threats unites his supporters and justifies his suppression of civil society.