“Pity an Islamic society if even the possibility is raised that someone like me can be its leader.”
These are the shocking words that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke on June 4, 1989 during a crucial meeting of the Assembly of Experts (AOE), the body tasked with finding a successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and its first Supreme Leader, who had died the day before. Khamenei was not merely making a pretence of Persian humility, he was arguing that his selection as leader would contradict the constitution — and that clerics wouldn’t obey him because he wasn’t a senior enough cleric.
“I don’t deserve this position,” Khamenei, who was at the time Iran’s president, said. “My leadership would be ceremonial and not genuine.”
These words remained hidden from the public eye for more than 28 years. And then, on Tuesday, January 9, 19 minutes of filmed footage — including this statement — were leaked to Washington DC-based journalist Shahed Alavi.
Alavi, who is known for his Kurdish-language work for the Congressional-funded broadcaster Voice of America, says the footage was sent to him from Iran and that those who sent it intended for it to be published as fast as possible. Speculations abound as to the possible source of the leak, with some mentioning those close to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a possibility.
A much shorter version of the footage had been broadcast previously, but the new footage reveals two hitherto unknown historical facts, the first being Khamenei’s argument against his own eligibility as Supreme Leader given his lack of adequate religious qualifications.
In addition, it was revealed that the AOE session on June 4 had picked Khamenei as a temporary Supreme Leader, pending a referendum to approve the new constitution (which was in the process of being drafted when Khomeini died) — but this was deliberately not announced. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful cleric chairing the session, proposed that the “public shouldn't be informed” of the temporary nature of the vote. Two months later, after the referendum had approved the new constitution, the AOE met in a secret session to approve Khamenei’s status as Supreme Leader.
The two issues are related since the original constitution of the Islamic Republic held that only a cleric who had reached the rank of marja — “a source of emulation” — could become Supreme Leader. The rank is limited to a handful of clerics and was out of reach for Khamenei. The new constitution broadened the scope to make it possible for a cleric like Khamenei, who was politically astute and experienced but lacked religious qualifications, to rise to the leadership. Even this new constitution, however, required the supreme leader to be a mojtahed — a jurisprudent qualified to issue religious edicts — and the leaked footage shows that there were also possible doubts as to Khamenei’s qualification for even this lower rank.
The leaked footage has been something of a bombshell, leading to wide-ranging reactions.
“I have comments and criticisms on the way the Assembly of Experts was chaired and the events leading to the selection of [Khamenei as] the Supreme Leader,” Ebrahim Menhaj Dashti, a member of the AOE in 1989 who represented the southern province of Bushehr, wrote on his Facebook page, “some of which I have said privately and some which I have shared with the public.”
Ataollah Mohajerani, a former culture minister under reformist president Mohammad Khatami who now lives in London, outraged many by claiming that the new video shows how humble Ayatollah Khamenei was, in contrast to the Western attitude to power exemplified by the likes of Donald Trump. He recalled meeting Khamenei the day after his selection as Supreme Leader and said he was affected by his alleged humility. Mojaherani has also caused controversy by taking a harsh line against the recent wave of protests in Iran.
But many other observers take a different view.
Speaking to BBC Persian, Washington-based scholar Mehdi Khalaji made a case for the illegitimacy of Khamenei as leader.
He said that the footage showed that Khamenei had been giving the high clerics “his last ultimatum,” reminding them that they were picking him as the Supreme Leader despite his lack of religious qualifications. But since, according to the Shia tradition, a mojtahed should first and foremost consider himself worthy of the rank, Khamenei’s lack of qualification couldn’t simply be overcome by a vote, Khalaji said.
For Roozbe Mirebrahimi, a journalist and researcher based in New York who is writing a book on the office of the presidency in the Islamic Republic, the leaked footage was a reminder of how secretive and opaque the workings of the republic can be.
“The vote for Khamenei as a temporary Supreme Leader contradicted the constitution,” Mirebrahimi told IranWire in a phone interview. “To quote Mr Khamenei himself, it contradicts both the law and the Sharia law. We furthermore see how Rafsanjani suggests that the details of the vote should be kept hidden from the public, which shows systemic deception.”
In part of his short speech to the AOE session, Khamenei says he has been discussing the issue of his possible selection as the Supreme Leader with Rafsanjani “for a couple of weeks.” Both Mirebrahimi and Khalaji say this further proves that the AOE had little actual role in choosing the leader and that the real decision was made by a small group of three or four clerics weeks, or maybe even months, before.
The small group consisted of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Ahmad Khomeini (the son of the regime’s founder) and “for a period, [Abdul-Karim] Mousavi Ardebili,” Mirebrahimi says. Grand Ayatollah Ardebili, who died in 2016, held the rank of marja and was head of the judiciary in the early 1980s.
“The leaked footage also shows how weak Mr Khamenei’s position was,” Mirebrahimi adds, “Especially since he had been recently rebuked by Ayatollah Khomeini, who had questioned his understanding of the concept of Vilayat-e Faqih [Guardianship of the Jurist]”, referring to the principle the Islamic Republic is founded on, according to which a qualified jurisprudent has the right to rule the Islamic society.
A Meeting Run by the Iron Fist of Rafsanjani
More minor yet fascinating details also emerge from the recently-released video. For instance, we now know more about how different members of the AOE voted. Among those who voted against Khamenei as leader was Mohammad Momen, then a member of the AOE’s presidium and a current member of both the AOE and the Guardian Council. As illustrated by BBC Persian journalist Hossein Bastani, it can now be confirmed that Momen had previously lied about the 1989 meeting. In June 2016, according to reports published by Khabar Online, Momen had said that the vote to select Khamenei as the Supreme Leader “was not a standing vote, it was conducted via secret ballots that were collected in a box.” In an interview the same year with Hokoomat Eslami [Islamic Rule], a magazine published by the AOE’s secretariat, Momen had claimed to be among the first to suggest to Khamenei that he could become a leader.
In addition, the meeting appears to be a ruckus very much run by Rafsanjani with an iron fist and without much regard for protocol. Sitting on the presidium, Rafsanjani regularly interrupts speakers and calls the votes, while some clerics raise objections from the floor, causing a commotion and refusing to sit in their seats. Before this week’s revelations, the public had been aware that, in order to convince the AOE of Khamenei’s suitability, Rafsanjani had retold the story of how Khomeini had twice suggested that Khamenei could be a suitable candidate for succession. But now we also know that Khamenei had confessed himself that to make decisions on the basis of such an uncorroborated story went against the very letter of Khomeini’s will. In his last words — which had just been revealed that very morning during the AOE session, Khomeini had said: “Now that I am alive, some attribute unreal words to me, and after I am gone, there might be more of this. I therefore should state that what has been attributed to me or will be in future is not true unless it is in my own voice, my own handwriting and signature (as confirmed by experts) or in my remarks broadcast on the television of the Islamic Republic.”
The Islamic Republic had supposedly been based and built on lofty ideals. In accordance with this, a somber meeting of wise clerics was to pick an exceptional leader from among themselves to rule like something of a Platonic philosopher-king. But this week’s leaked footage proves what many had already believed: That the whole process was run by politicking middle-ranked clerics. It wasn’t that Iranian politics had become religious, it was that religion that had been put at the service of Iranian politics.