Supporters of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, call him "leader of the Muslims", an honorific title that is meant to portray him as a man who promotes unity in the Muslim world.
However, a look at his time in office shows that he has been a divisive figure in Iran, often using the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to repress his detractors.
Abroad, too, the Iranian leader has used the Quds Force, the IRGC's extraterritorial arm, to support Shia militant groups that have terrorised the Middle East's largely Sunni Muslim population while acting as the Islamic Republic's proxies.
"One must indeed cry tears of blood for Iran under Khamenei's leadership," said Shahin Mohammadi, a US-based Iranian journalist. Mohammadi was referring to Khamenei's own words in 1989, when the Islamic Republic's Assembly of Experts chose him as the "supreme leader" of Iran.
'Tears of blood'
Footage of the Assembly meeting, now widely available on the internet, shows Khamenei, then a relatively junior but prominent cleric who had served as Iran's president, arguing that he should not be chosen as supreme leader because he does not have the religious qualifications to replace the revolution's deceased founder, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini.
"One must shed tears of blood for an Islamic society in which the possibility of someone like me serving as supreme leader is raised," Khamenei said during the session that elected him on June 4th, 1989.
Opposition to Khamenei's leadership continues to this day in some quarters of Qom, Iran's centre of Shia religious learning. He has been rebuffed by some senior clerics in Qom for his lack of religious credentials.
Whether the opposition is from within the clerical ranks or Iran's people, Khamenei has systematically sidelined and repressed his critics, often by using the IRGC.
He maintains close ties with the IRGC, strongly supports it, allocates an increasingly significant budget to it year after year and influences all its decisions, strategies and actions.
"Khamenei and the regime are entirely beholden to the IRGC," a former Iranian naval analyst who asked to remain anonymous told Al-Mashareq.
"If you look at the last 40 years, I do not think you will find an example of a senior IRGC officer being held responsible for any misconduct in Iran or abroad. At most, they are moved around, given new titles, or new jobs," he said.
Leading terror domestically, overseas
In July 1999, the IRGC and other security forces swarmed into a Tehran University dormitory, arresting student protestors. In 2009 and 2019, IRGC forces killed unarmed protestors in Tehran and other cities during mass protests against election results and gasoline price hikes, respectively.
Outside of Iran, the IRGC has carried out some 360 terror attacks in 40 countries, most of them in the Middle East, where the Islamic Republic supports militant proxies to expand Tehran's influence and destabilise regional countries.
On November 22nd, the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) carried out a missile strike on an Aramco fuel storage facility in Jedda, Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, Kataib Hizbullah and other hardline Iran-aligned factions have been mounting attacks on international coalition troops, Iraqi troops and diplomatic buildings in the Green Zone.
Since October 2019, nearly 90 deadly rocket attacks and roadside bombs have targeted foreign embassies, troops and other installations across Iraq.
Khamenei is arguably personally responsible for these attacks and many others, since the commander of the IRGC's Quds Force, bypasses the normal IRGC hierarchy and reports directly to him.
So while his supporters call him the "leader of the Muslims", he lacks the religious credentials or gravitas that would justify such a title, observers said. Rather, during his time in office, he has shown that he is willing to use the IRGC to keep his grip on power at home, tacitly or actively approving the suppression of protests and dissent.
At the same time, he has used the Quds Force to terrorise populations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other countries, through proxies. History will remember him as a despot, not a religious leader.