March 2, 2017 | Memo

Mohsen Qomi: A Revolutionary Diplomat on the Rise

FDD Research

Co-written by Youhanna Najdi.

This article is the first part of a series that aims to shed light on the inner circle of Iran’s Office of the Supreme Leader (OSL). The office does not have any significant constitutional or legal power, and is technically limited to advising the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Still, the supreme leader’s ultimate decision-making authority in Tehran means the office’s members have become influential political players.

Mohsen Qomi, a 56-year-old cleric, is a Khamenei confidant and his aide for international relations. Qomi is well-known in Iran for his nearly 20-year tenure at the Assembly of Experts – the body that chooses the supreme leader – and his long-term leadership of the supreme leader’s representative office for universities.

Qomi was born in 1960 in a farming village near Tehran, and at age 11 went to study in the iconic religious seminary in Qom. He lost three brothers and a nephew in the Iran-Iraq War, and his mother was killed in clashes between Shiite pilgrims and Saudi security forces in Mecca in 1987.

Qomi’s title is that of Doctor Hojjat-al-Islam, a term coined for clerics who have earned a PhD in addition to their seminary education. According to his biography, Qomi received his “degree of ijtihad [independent reasoning]” in Qom, and a Masters in Philosophy and PhD in Western Philosophy from Tehran University. The title of his thesis was “Theoretical principles of postmodernism with an emphasis on Jean-François Lyotard’s thought,” supervised by Dr. Reza Davari Ardakani, a longtime member of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution – an influential Qom-based ideological body appointed by the supreme leader – and a passionate advocate of Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher and Nazi sympathizer.

Qomi has spent most of his life as Khamenei’s appointee, including as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Propaganda Office of the Qom Seminary. Following the recommendation of Ahmad Jannati – chair of both the Assembly of Experts and Guardian Council – Khamenei appointed Qomi in 1999 as president of the supreme leader’s representative office for universities, a position he held until 2005.

During that time, universities in Iran were crucial battlegrounds between the regime and the pro-democracy student movement. The OSL played a lead government role in that conflict, alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its Basij paramilitary, the police, and Ministry of Intelligence. It was during those years that Qomi gained first-hand experience in quelling dissent.

Like Khamenei, Qomi is deeply interested in the cultural war that he believes pits Iran against the West. From 1996 to 1998, he was director of the “Encyclopedia of Islamic Rational Science,” published by the Educational Institute of Imam Khomeini – headed by Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, one of the most radical clerics in Qom.

Qomi has the mild manner of a diplomat and has a good relationship with President Hassan Rouhani, who considered him to head the Ministries of Intelligence and of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Both positions require a green light from Khamenei, who preferred to keep Qomi in his own office, describing his role as “very important.”

Since 1998, Qomi has been a member of the Assembly of Experts, whose members he has said “are not accountable in their decisions to anyone except God.” In the Assembly, Qomi is a member of Commission 111, which – at least theoretically – monitors the supreme leader to ensure he rules according to the principles of the Islamic revolution. In this commission, he works with radical clerics such as Jannati, Ibrahim Raisi, and Ahmad Khatami. Like the Assembly itself, most commission members are Khamenei appointees who rarely criticize the supreme leader.

Qomi is a “hardliner’s hardliner.” He has called Israel “a cancerous tumor” that “should be eliminated,” and has defended Iran’s intervention in Syria. His position as foreign-affairs aide means he travels as Khamenei’s representative to such key countries as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia.

When the Office of the Supreme Leader meets, it is Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, Khamenei’s chief of staff, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and senior foreign policy adviser, who sit closest to the supreme leader. However, they belong to the founding, aging generation of revolutionaries, while Qomi belongs to the incoming generation. His more than a decade in Khamenei’s office, access to the supreme leader, and influential international-affairs position give him prime placement to become Khamenei’s top “revolutionary” diplomat and to shape Iran’s foreign policy in the years to come.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is an associate fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Dr. Youhanna Najdi is executive director of the Germany-based Association for Promotion of Open Society.