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How Did Khamenei Become Supreme Leader?

September 11, 2020
Ehsan Mehrabi
9 min read
Introducing the book The Story of the Leadership by Yaser Jebraeeli, a principlist political activist and a scholar of political economy
Introducing the book The Story of the Leadership by Yaser Jebraeeli, a principlist political activist and a scholar of political economy
Introducing the book The Election Documented, published by the Islamic Revolution Document Center, which is under the control of the Supreme Leader himself
Introducing the book The Election Documented, published by the Islamic Revolution Document Center, which is under the control of the Supreme Leader himself is a review of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s 31-year record as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The series focuses on one of the most secretive world leaders. Reports about his personal life are scant and, except for his son Mojtaba, whose name has been in the news only in recent years, the media has seldom published any reports or photographs of his family.

This mystery does not surround only his personal life and his family. Now, three decades after he ascended the throne as the most powerful individual in the Islamic Republic, some short videos have come to light that reveal that his election as the Supreme Leader was meant to be a temporary measure. 

Business groups and institutions under the control of the Supreme Leader are one of the most secretive sectors of the Iranian economy: their financial dealings and profits and losses have never been transparent. Even in politics, the Supreme Leader refuses to act in a transparent way. He has shunned responsibility wherever he has been able to do so.

The series of reports tries to untangle the mystery of Khamenei.


It has been more than 30 years since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was chosen as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And yet details of the two Assembly of Experts meetings during which it was decided he would become leader remain classified. This secrecy and the silence of those who participated in those meetings have provided the media, and entities that are subordinate to Khamenei, to occasionally tell the story the way they want it to be told; so far, there have been two books published on the subject.

The first, The Story of the Leadership, is written by Yaser Jebraeeli, a principlist (a conservative supporter of the Supreme Leader) political activist and a scholar of political economy. The second book, The Election Documented, was published by the Islamic Revolution Document Center, which is under the control of the Supreme Leader himself.

According to Mohsen Kadivar, a scholar of Islamic studies and a vocal critic of Iran’s religious rule, both books respond to questions that were raised after a number of short videos were published. The videos document a few minutes of the Assembly of Experts meetings during which Khamenei was chosen as the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. The videos were published on Facebook by Shahed Alavi, an Iranian journalist based in Washington DC, 28 years after the event.

In one of these videos, Khamenei admits he is not qualified to be Supreme Leader. “We must really shed tears of blood for the Islamic community if we even talk about the possibility of [selecting as the Supreme Leader] somebody like yours truly,” Khamenei said in the video.


A Temporary Measure

The videos also reveal that choosing Khamenei as the Supreme Leader was considered to be a temporary measure. The plan was that the Assembly of Experts would make a final decision after an impending referendum on the constitution. However, the Iranian people were not told at the time about the temporary nature of Khamenei’s leadership.

Supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei sharply criticized the publishing of the videos. Morteza Moghtadaei, a member of the Assembly of Experts, called it “an act of treason” and said the proceedings of the meetings must remain classified and that their publication was detrimental to the interests of the country.

According to Kadivar, in those sessions of the Assembly of Experts, “issues were raised that, if published, would be damaging” to Ayatollah Khamenei and that is why “he ordered that they must not be published, even in a limited form.”

Even the members of the Assembly of Experts were prevented from accessing the records. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the future president who was then deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, had at one point before his death in 2017 claimed that even he was not granted access.

In an interview with the Islamic Government Quarterly, which is published by the Assembly of Experts, former Assembly member Ebrahim Amini said, “the proceedings of these meetings remain classified and have not been published as of now.” It appears that Khamenei is the only person who has access to the records of the proceedings and, as Kadivar says, he has them in “his safe.”

Mohsen Kadivar says his efforts to access the detailed records of these sessions have not been successful, but he has been able to access records that explain why Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the records of his appointment to remain sealed. These documents and his investigations will be published in his upcoming book Impeaching the Assembly of Experts and the Leaders of the Islamic Republic (1982-1991): Shedding Light on the Assembly of Experts’ Dark Room.


Changing Requirements to Fit Khamenei

One argument in Kadivar’s book that is likely to make Khamenei and his supporters unhappy is Khamenei’s lack of qualifications for leadership – as defined by the concept of the Velayat-e Faqih, the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist,” which is central to the Islamic Republic – including the fact that he was not a marja, a recognized religious authority or a “source of emulation” for the Shia faithful. And yet Khamenei was chosen even though Iran’s constitution at that time required that the Supreme Leader must be a marja. In the amended constitution, which was passed by a referendum in July 1989, the qualification of being a marja was removed. The change was justified by a letter from Ayatollah Khomeini published after his death in June of that year.

But on July 15, 1986, years before being elected as the leader of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei himself had warned the Assembly of Experts against choosing a non-marja as the Supreme Leader.

Khamenei nevertheless accepted his appointed as Supreme Leader and the expressions of “allegiance” he received from a range of institutions and political figures in the Islamic Republic. And these expressions of allegiance came pouring in especially because the Assembly of Experts failed to mention to the public that the appointment was apparently meant to be temporary.


Bribing Opponents

One issue hidden in the records of the proceedings, which Khamenei likely does not want revealed, are the names of the Assembly members who did not vote for him, some of whom were also bribed, one way or another, at a later date. One of these was Mohammad Bagher Kani, brother of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Kani, a former acting prime minister and a future chairman of the Assembly of Experts. Mohammad Bagher Kani left the meeting so as to not cast a vote.

After the death of his ayatollah brother in 2014, Bagher Kani was appointed head of Tehran’s Imam Sadegh University. His son, Mesbah-al-Hoda, is the son-in-law of Ayatollah Khamenei. Another son, Ali, was deputy to Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, and is now deputy chairman of the judiciary’s Human Rights Headquarters.

The Assembly of Experts had 80 members in 1989 and it is reported that at its first meeting 74 of them were present. Fifty-six of those present voted for Khamenei as interim Supreme Leader. The vote was by voice, but it was not recorded in writing, and Hashemi Rafsanjani had written that 60 of the members had voted for Khamenei.

On August 6, 1989, after the amended constitution was passed by the referendum, the Assembly met for a second time to choose the new permanent Supreme Leader. In this session, 10 fewer members participated, and of the 64 members present four did not vote for Khamenei. It is safe to assume that the members who had not voted for him in the first session were absent from the second meeting but it is not known why they decided to not attend.

One of the main reasons used to justify the election of Khamenei as Supreme Leader has been what Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Revolution, is reported to have said about him. Khamenei’s supporters tell different stories about Khomeini’s approval of Khamenei as the future leader. But according to Khamenei’s daughter, Zahra, and Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Karim Mousavi Ardebili, former chief justice of Iran, Khomeini spoke the same words of praise for the heads of each branch of government at the time: Ardebili, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was then speaker of parliament, and Ali Khamenei, who was then serving as president (inferior in rank to the Supreme Leader) of the Islamic Republic.


Khomeini Wanted Someone Else

In June 2020, Mohammad Hashemi, brother of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said that after the dismissal in 1989 of Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri as Deputy Supreme Leader and heir apparent after a falling-out with Khomeini, the founder of the Revolution wanted to ask the Assembly of Experts to choose Akbar Hashemi as Deputy Supreme Leader.

“After the dismissal of Mr. Montazeri, Mr. Hashemi was very unhappy,” said his brother. “The Imam [Khomeini] suggested that the Assembly of Experts choose him as the deputy. ‘I would write a letter and confirm it,’ he said. Mr. Hashemi cried for almost a whole week and repeatedly said ‘No, I don’t want it.’ He repeatedly begged Imam Khomeini to not do it. One of the reasons that he gave us was that ‘If I had accepted it they would have thought that I was behind the dismissal of Mr. Montazeri.’”

No one close to Khamenei has yet to deny this claim.

Another issue in choosing Khamenei was the dismissal of Ayatollah Montazeri as Deputy Supreme Leader, even though Montazeri had been approved by the Assembly of Experts and only the Assembly had the authority to dismiss him. According to the laws of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini had no right to dismiss Montazeri. This was raised in the Assembly meeting after Khomeini’s death. Member Ayatollah Mohammad Hosseini Kashani said Khomeini had no right to remove Montazeri and that, legally, Ayatollah Montazeri was the new Supreme Leader because he had not been removed based on Article 111 of the constitution.

According to Ahmad Montazeri, Ayatollah Montazeri’s son, as Ayatollah Kashani was saying these words, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani prevented him from continuing by objecting and insulting him.

The Story of the Leadership tells the same story, but a little differently. According to the book, Ayatollah Kashani told the Assembly that it must first formally vote to dismiss Ayatollah Montazeri before choosing another person as the Supreme Leader.

Ayatollah Hosseini Kashani, father-in-law of the current intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, was disqualified by the Guardian Council from running again for the Assembly of Experts and was effectively removed from the political scene. He has yet to publish his memoirs.

Institutions close to Ali Khamenei have tried to portray her as the closest person to "Ruhollah Khomeini."(

All the evidence and narrations indicate that "Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani" was close to Khomeini directly, but the positions that Khomeini gave to Khamenei were through the introduction of other people.

During her second term in office, Khamenei was forced to re-nominate "Mir Hossein Mousavi" as prime minister by order of Ayatollah Khomeini and against her will.


Also in the series: 

Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei: An Ayatollah and his Acolyte

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