What does Khamenei want for Israel and the region?

Khamenei continues to carry out Khomeini's vision, which is not only bent on the destruction of Israel but aspires to be the dominant regional power. To this end, Iran exercises 'strategic patience'.

Khamanei wishes to keep his regime intact for as long as he is alive and to doggedly pursue its goals of destroying Israel and completing the Khomeinist revolution.
Deena So'Oteh
Khamanei wishes to keep his regime intact for as long as he is alive and to doggedly pursue its goals of destroying Israel and completing the Khomeinist revolution.

What does Khamenei want for Israel and the region?

Iran’s barrage of drones and missiles on Israel on 13 April was unprecedented but not entirely unexpected. While the scope of the attack went beyond what many of us had predicted, its fundamentals didn’t surprise. Iran had been under pressure from its ardent supporters to respond to Israel’s 1 April attack on its consulate in Damascus, which killed a number of officials from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), including its chief in the Levant region. At the same time, it wanted to avoid getting into a direct conflict with Israel, which could prove suicidal.

When the long-awaited attack finally arrived, it was accompanied by a heavy dose of propaganda, with the Islamic Republic trying to make the most of the historic first-ever nature of the attack. But, in practice, the 350 projectiles fired from Iran, as well as the dozens shot by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis, didn’t lead to a single casualty in Israel, nor did they destroy any significant infrastructure. The only real victim was a 7-year-old Arab Bedouin girl in southern Israel who has sadly received life-threatening injuries.

There is now a war of narratives on all sides about the attacks, with both Tehran and Tel Aviv claiming victory. Was it really the case that Iran had intended for no one to get hurt by the attack, or was this merely the result of excellent Israeli air defence? Is it really true that Iran had given so much advance warning to the United States and countries of the region that Israel could easily defend itself, notably with the help of Jordan?

Various answers are being given to these questions by many of the involved parties as well as their affiliated media outlets, aligned analysts, and unnamed sources who drop hints when speaking to journalists. The US, for instance, is vehemently denying that it knew the exact details of the attack, part of an elaborate position that has it declare victory for itself and Israel while also pressuring Tel Aviv to show restraint in its coming response. In simpler words, if Israel is seen to have ‘won’ this battle, it would have a lesser need for a vehement response.

For its own part, Israel is attempting to claim victory by emphasising that it shot down 99% of the projectiles (something that its Persian-speaking official spokesperson has particularly underlined in their messaging) while also reserving the right of response for itself.

REUTERS/Amir Cohen
An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, April 14, 2024.

On the other side, the Islamic Republic, long a master of multi-level and complicated propaganda, is, as usual, speaking from both sides of its mouth. Many of its affiliated outlets, especially those in various Arab countries, make outright fabrications to claim big victories for their side. One claimed 44 agents of Mossad to have been killed in the attack. Others resorted to the most familiar piece of fake news: publishing videos of busy queues in Israeli airports from years ago to claim that “Zionists are fleeing” the country.

At the same time, Iran’s official military and diplomatic spokesmen went out of their way to define the attack in terms of the UN charter and international law (as a response to Israel’s 1 April attack) and to affirm that the matter had been “concluded” now.

Iran wasn’t looking forward to getting into a broader conflict. Some diplomats even emphasised that Iran had attacked only military and not population centres or economic hubs. This is noteworthy since, ordinarily, the regime makes no separation between Israeli soldiers and civilians, as seen in its open and enthusiastic support for the 7 October attacks of Hamas on Israeli civilians.

So which side and which version are we to believe?

If we are to step back and wipe away the fog of war, it becomes clear that the Islamic Republic’s attacks still make sense as part of the general strategy that has, for many years now, been doggedly followed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Strategic patience

He is renowned for his concept of ‘strategic patience,’ according to which Iran bides its time, develops an indigenous military industry despite the harsh sanctions imposed on the country, supports an umbrella of Islamist militias in the region and beyond and gets them ready for a day they can finally confront Israel in a final battle and achieve the revolutionary goals of the Islamic Republic and the ideals of its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Read more: From strategic patience to sincere promise: Where will Iran's strike take the region?

Both Khomeini and Khamenei understood they had to compromise and take their time if they wanted to survive.

What are those goals and ideals?

For those who followed the region's politics in the mid-2010s, this question was often answered with one word: sectarianism. The supposedly eternal enmities between Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam gave an easy but lazy framework for outside analysts and a self-affirming lens for the sectarians with which they thought they could explain every conflict in the region.

As Iran did manage to mobilise tens of thousands of Shiite soldiers, from Afghans and Pakistanis to Iraqis, Syrians and even Nigerians, and to form them into a powerful multinational army that protected the nominally Shiite president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, there did seem to be something to this analysis. Even Iran's staunch alliance with the Sunni Palestinian militant group Hamas was frayed when the latter supported the Syrian opposition against al-Assad and gave up its Damascus headquarters in the process.

But this framework was never satisfactory, and anyone who looked deeper into the history and ideology of Khomeini and Khamenei could see that their ambitions went much beyond leading a sectarian camp in the Muslim world. As a Grand Ayatollah, Khomeini was, of course, committed to the fundamentals of the Shiite branch of Islam, but his politics was one of internationalist Islamism with ambitions to reconfigure the global order.

Having been a Khomeinist revolutionary all his adult life, Khamenei has long been committed to this vision. It might seem out of place in today's world, but Khomeinist politics were forged in the heated years of the 1960s and 70s when a variety of revolutionary movements offered radical visions, and so Khomeini's strange Islamist version of global revolution was not entirely out of place.

But had Khomeini or Khamenei simply tried to throw everything at this vision, they wouldn't have lasted long as heads of state of a country of tens of millions—one with a strongly patriotic population. Shortly after 1979, it became clear that they had to compromise and take their time if they wanted to survive. This is where their strategic flexibility came in.

Khomeini decided early on that keeping the Islamic Republic in power came before any other religious ruling. Even ordinary rules of Islam could be broken to safeguard the republic. Using the same idea, the regime has no problem lying, killing, and torturing its opponents, even though these all violate the rules of Islam.

Motorists drive their vehicles past a billboard depicting named Iranian ballistic missiles in service, with text in Persian reading "Israel is weaker than a spider's web" in central Tehran on April 15, 2024.

The destruction of Israel

One goal that has always been central to this vision is the destruction of Israel. This was also a goal with which a Shiite Iran could prove its revolutionary mettle against its Sunni-majority neighbours. The Islamic Republic had been born at an opportune moment for such a goal: In 1979, shortly after the Arab world's leading country, Egypt, made a historic turn in its orientation by signing the Camp David Accords with Israel and the United States.

When Egypt was subsequently expelled from the Arab League, Iran tried to inherit the mantle of anti-Zionism. Things got muddied during the 1980s when Israel's leading Arab opponent, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, fought an eight-year with Iran in which Israel covertly helped Iran. But in the same decade, another dynamism prepared the road for the coming Iranian-Israeli conflict: Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 just when its southern Shiite population was being organised by IRGC's agents, soon founding Hezbollah, which has long become Israel's main bugbear on its northern borders.

Hezbollah initially wanted to export Iran's system of Wilayah al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) to Lebanon, but how could a system so closely tied to the Shiite clergy work in a multi-confessional country much of whose population was not only non-Shia but also non-Muslim?

Instead, it defined its identity around anti-Zionism and opposition to Israel, something that came to also mark most of its allies in the IRGC-led Axis of Resistance. Yes, many of these forces were Shiite and during the sectarianisation of the 2010s, they acted in gruesomely anti-Sunni ways in places such as Iraq and Syria. But their broader agenda remained centred around opposition to Israel. Put differently, all that has now remained of the Khomeinist global revolution is a mix of occasional opportunist sectarianism and persistent anti-Zionism.

Khamenei thus bides his time as he builds up the forces of the Axis. He knows that, at 85, he can't expect to see the supposedly final victory over Israel in his lifetime. He has predicted that Israel will be destroyed by 2040. Unless he is to live 110 years, Khamenei won't be alive then, so this is a comfortable prediction that he knows he won't live to see occur or not occur. Of course, a Khomeinist revolution wouldn't be complete just by destroying Israel. Ideals of this vision have long included the upturning of the political order in other countries of the region as well, hence Iran's support for militias in many countries.

Such a vision and its long-term nature define Khamenei's dual ambitions. He wishes to stay in power and keep his regime intact for as long as he is alive and to doggedly pursue its goals of destroying Israel and completing the Khomeinist revolution—and make sure it's pursued even after. Thus, he attacks Israel to ensure the mantle of wanting to destroy it is still in his hands, but he also makes sure he can avoid getting into a direct confrontation with it so as not to destroy his regime prematurely. 

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