Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor for foreign affairs to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus on August 9, 2010.
Both Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the regime’s founder, and the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have used personal envoys and trusted agents to conduct a parallel foreign policy outside the confines of the foreign ministry and beyond the oversight of the executive branch.
Assessing the rhetoric and actions of the Supreme Leader’s senior advisor for international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, provides a valuable window into the attitudes and priorities of the Supreme Leader himself.
The nature of Velayati’s personal relationship with Iran’s Supreme Leader is unknown. Khamenei has appointed Velayati to several high-profile, sensitive positions. Khamenei has also kept Velayati as his own personal advisor, and used him to conduct sensitive diplomatic efforts on his behalf. We can conclude with moderately high confidence, therefore, that Velayati is a trusted associate of the Supreme Leader.
Velayati’s direct appointments to diplomatic and informal or quasi-governmental public diplomacy positions outside the purview of Iran’s foreign ministry suggest that Khamenei has carved out a role for his trusted senior advisor to help supervise and coordinate his parallel foreign policy.
Velayati appears to owe his position and influence almost entirely to Khamenei’s patronage and cannot, therefore, deviate from the Supreme Leader, let alone confront him. Consequently, Velayati’s behavior and statements acquire potentially greater significance from the likelihood that they reflect his best understanding of the Supreme Leader’s attitudes and desires.
Velayati has consistently shown commitment to advancing Iran’s position as vanguard of the Islamic Revolution and protector of Muslims, Palestinians in particular. He has also steadfastly opposed rapprochement with the United States. Both of these positions reflect fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic’s politico-ideology and revolutionary foreign policy as the Supreme Leader himself expresses it.
Velayati’s position as senior advisor to the Supreme Leader for foreign affairs, his seat on Khamenei’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and his consistent public support for Khamenei’s hardline views indicate that he plays a role in the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy efforts. His diplomatic activity during his tenure as advisor to the Supreme Leader suggests that he is more than a mouthpiece and, in fact, is actively engaged in the implementation of Khamenei’s foreign policy, although the extent of his influence remains unclear.
Heads of state use personal envoys in addition to formal diplomatic structures periodically. There is nothing, therefore, inherently odd about Velayati’s continued involvement in Iranian diplomacy after his removal from power at the foreign ministry. Its significance, rather, is two-fold. First, it is a piece of evidence that can help clarify the role that the Supreme Leader actually plays in Iranian foreign policy, since Velayati is so clearly reporting directly to—and messaging directly from—Khamenei rather than from the president. Second, it provides a glimpse of the kind of messaging that those most dependent on, and presumably devoted to, the Supreme Leader feel that he wants to hear. That glimpse is not reassuring.