Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, wields
the greatest religious and political power of anyone in Iran.
The leader, whom many consider a hard-line conservative, was chosen
by an assembly of senior clerics (the Assembly of Experts) to
the late Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of
Iran and Khamenei's early mentor, in 1989.
that, Khamenei was president for two terms, from 1981-1989. Following
President Mohammad Rajaee’s assassination in 1981, Khamenei
was elected president with a 95 percent vote.
From 1981 to 1985,
he also served as head of the Supreme Defense Council and the
Supreme Cultural Revolution Council.
Early in life, however,
the future leader aspired to follow in his father's footsteps
as a religious scholar.
Born in the holy city
of Mashhad, Sayyid Ali Khamenei was raised in a poor household
by a father who, as he later describes in his autobiography, was
"a well known religious scholar who was very pious and a
bit of a recluse."
In 1952, at the age
of 21, Khamenei began attending lectures by "the great revolutionist
and Martyr Sayyid Mujtaba Nawwab Safawi, who spoke about reviving
Islam and its Divine Rule and warned the Iranian people of the
deceitful lies of the Shah and the English government." That
year marked the beginnings of his political aspirations that would
propel him throughout his life.
In 1958, while continuing
his studies at a seminary in Qom, located in central Iran, Khamenei
became a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini and deepened his participation
in the anti-shah Islamic movement. Between 1963 and 1976, the
shah's secret police, or Savak, arrested Khamenei at least a half
dozen times for his leadership of clandestine political operations.
As a young radical,
Khamenei fought to create a new future for his country and to
free Iran from what he saw as a corrupt government beholden to
He and other radical
clerics, including Khomeini, in 1977 formed the Combatant Clerics
Association, which became the foundation for the Islamic Republic
Party. By January 1979, with the shah ousted from power, Iran's
new supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini named his longtime cohort
Khamenei a member of the Revolutionary Council.
Under Iran's constitution,
Khamenei has the authority to override every other member of the
government. He can confirm and dismiss a sitting president, a
law that has provoked instability and power struggles between
Khamenei and other political leaders.
Indeed, Khamenei has
shown intolerance toward anyone questioning his strident anti-West
and fundamentalist Islamic policies.
For instance, in 1997,
Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a high-ranking cleric and scholar
once designated successor of Ayatollah Khomeini, criticized Khamenei's
rule, calling the supreme leader incompetent. Khamenei immediately
placed the cleric under house arrest for five years.
was not alone in his call for greater democratic changes in the
Islamic state. Kenneth Timmerman, executive director of the non-profit
human rights organization Foundation for Democracy in Iran, told
the NewsHour on Dec. 15, 1997: "There’s an incredible
fight going on inside the traditional clergy between Khamenei,
the supreme leader, who represents this radical anti-Western,
anti-American faction, which has a certain popularity, and another
faction which says, enough is enough ... let’s have a regime
and a government which is more democratic and more open to the
West. The arrest of Ayatollah Montazeri ... is extremely important
... I think you could have an explosion inside Iran."
Such challenges to the supreme leader's authority further intensified
with the landslide victory of reform-minded President Mohammad
Khatami in the 2001 presidential election. Analysts from the International
Crisis Group say the battle brewing between Khatami and Khamenei
represents a broader, and potentially volatile, divide between
the country's conservative Islamic establishment and a growing
number of pro-democracy Iranians, many of whom were born after
the 1979 Iranian Revolution and never experienced the oppressive
regime of U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Yet not all Iranian government leaders believe the new reformists
can ease Khamenei's hard-line policies.
As Ebrahim Yazdi, a
liberal opposition leader, explained: "Khatami won only the
presidential election, that's all. The extreme right lost the
election, but they control all the powers: parliament, radio and
television, the security forces, the supreme leader's institutions,
the Friday prayers preachers."
Indeed, Khamenei maintains
his grip on power with support from influential clergy members,
the powerful Guardian Council, his loyalists in the Parliament.
Iran's wealthy business owners must answer to Khamenei and are
exempt from paying taxes to his government. Khamenei selects the
heads of Iran's security forces. He also maintains strict control
over Iran's media, and regularly censors or shuts down independent
newspapers and informational Web sites.
also has ultimate decision-making authority over foreign policy
matters. While many younger Iranians are eager to improve economic
and cultural relations with the United States, Khamenei has made
clear his opposition to U.S. policy, and firmly rejects holding
any talks with U.S. representatives.
the pro-reform student protests in June 2003, Khamenei immediately
warned that such actions would not be tolerated. He also blamed
the United States for provoking the demonstrations.
do not have the right to have any pity whatsoever for the mercenaries
of the enemy," he said in a televised speech.
Yet, despite Khamenei's grip over his conservative Islamic state,
the ayatollah does appear to recognize that Iran's political climate
is changing, according to a 2002 report from the International
Crisis Group, entitled "Iran: The Struggle for the Revolution's
In the 2000 general
elections, Khamenei loyalists lost their dominance in the Parliament
to the reformists, who won 226 of the 290 parliamentary seats.
Some analysts speculate
Khamenei may realize that it is in his and the influential clergy's
interest to allow a controlled, gradual economic and political
liberalization, rather than risk a social explosion. There are
some indications that Khamenei may slowly concede to certain moderate
his release from house arrest, the government allowed Montazeri,
the top dissident cleric, to resume his public lectures. In an
August 2003 public speech to some 300 students, the top dissident
cleric called for "a popular vote" for the ruling government.
"If people are not satisfied, the establishment is not legitimate,"
Montazeri told the Associated Press in August 2003. "The
authorities should increase their tolerance ... and allow the
new generation to choose its future."