Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei: An Ayatollah and his Acolyte 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, 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.

Institutions, organizations and individuals close to Ayatollah Khamenei have tried to present him as the closest person to Ayatollah Khomeini in the last years of his life. But evidence and memories from people close to Iran’s political elite during that time suggest otherwise, and that positions that Khomeini bestowed on Khamenei were a result of actions by intermediaries. Aside from this, Khomeini humiliated Khamenei publicly at least twice.

Khomeini never gave Khamenei more praise than he gave his other students. In the summer of 1982, he told the secretary general and the members of the central committee of the Islamic Republic Party: “I know the people who created this party. I brought up Mr. Khamenei. I brought up Mr. Hashemi. I brought up Mr. [Mohammad Hossein] Beheshti.”

According to many who studied under Khomeini, before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini’s main circle of students consisted of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Morteza Motahari and Mohammad Hossein Beheshti. Among this inner circle, Ayatollah Montazeri and Ayatollah Taleghani were the most prominent within the struggle between Iran’s Islamists and the Shah’s regime.

In the days that led to the downfall of the Shah, a Revolutionary Council was established, but Khamenei was not among those first appointed to serve it.  At the time, Khomeini was in France, preparing to return to Iran, and, according to Ayatollah Montazeri, he suggested that Khamenei should be included in the council. In response, according to Montazeri, Khomeini said, “but Khamenei is in Mashhad,” to which Montazeri replied, “well, he can come to Tehran from Mashhad.”

Ayatollah Montazeri also said when he decided to reside in Qom, it was he who suggested that Khamenei replace him as Tehran’s Friday Imam.

During Khamenei’s second term as the president of the Islamic Republic (1985-1989), Khomeini forced him to appoint Mir Hossein Mousavi as his prime minister for a second time, against his will.

Publicly Humiliated by Khomeini — Twice

Ayatollah Khomeini also publicly humiliated Khamenei twice.

The first time was over the country’s labor laws. Responding to disagreements across the political spectrum about the new laws, Khamenei announced in his Friday sermon in Tehran on January 1, 1988: “Imam [Khomeini] has stated that the government can require employees to accept any condition set by the government; this means not ‘any’ condition but only those that are accepted within the recognized framework of Islamic edicts.” 

But, in a letter written on January 6 of that year, Khomeini debunked Khamenei’s claim, writing that his statements were contrary to what he had said. He wrote: “apparently you do not agree” that the absolute Islamic “guardianship,” as handed over by God to the Prophet Mohammad, has primacy over all Sharia rulings. He added that it was wrong to claim that he (Khomeini] had said that government is bound by the framework of individual Islamic rules. In other words, Khomeini outlined that the Islamic “guardianship” or government, in this case represented by Khomeini himself, can override individual Sharia restrictions.

After Khamenei retreated from his position and, with the mediation of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khomeini wrote another letter to Khamenei to take the sting out of the first, affirming that Khamenei “knows about Sharia issues and is committed to them.”

“Among our friends and those who are committed to Islam and Islamic principles you are among the few who shine like the sun,” wrote Khomeini.

The Salman Rushdie Affair

The second time Khomeini publicly rebuked Khamenei was over the statements Khamenei made regarding the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. 

On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to execute author Salman Rushdie over the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses, along with anyone else involved with the novel. Three days after the fatwa was issued, Khamenei said in his Friday sermon that Rushdie “might be forgiven” if he repents, denounces his book and begs the forgiveness of the Imam and Muslims around the world.

A day later, Ayatollah Khomeini categorically denied the possibility of retracting his fatwa to kill Rushdie even if Rushdie repented. “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and even if he turns into the most pious person of his time, it is incumbent upon every Muslim to do everything in his power to send him to hell,” announced Khomeini’s office in a statement.

Once again Khamenei had to beat a retreat. “Imam’s decree about this author is an unchangeable Sharia decree,” said Khamenei on April 8, 1989. “Rushdie’s sentence to death is unconditional because he has insulted what is holy for more than one billion Muslims.”

According to many accounts, after dismissing Ayatollah Montazeri as his “heir apparent,” Khomeini was not considering Khamenei exclusively. He was also thinking that Hashemi Rafsanjani or Ayatollah Abdul Karim Mousavi Ardebili could be his successor. In fact, he was leaning more toward Rafsanjani. In one account, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Tavassoli, a member of Khomeini’s office, said that a few days before his death Khomeini asked Hashemi Rafsanjani to prepare himself to become the Supreme Leader after him, but that Rafsanjani was against it.

According to some analysts, Hashemi Rafsanjani was under the impression that, after Khomeini’s death, he could still run the country without being the Supreme Leader, so that is why he led the Assembly of Experts to elect Khamenei and then he succeeded Khamenei as president of the Islamic Republic.