Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, b. 1939, was named supreme religious and political leader (Faqih) of Iran by that country's Assembly of Experts on June 4, 1989. He succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, who had died the previous day.
Khamenei began his religious studies as a young boy in his birthplace, Mashhad. He later studied in the Shiitereligious centers of Najaf, Iraq, and Qum, Iran. He was arrested and imprisoned for his antigovernment activities in 1963 and again in 1974–75. Subsequently, he helped to found the Islamic Republic party (IRP). Khomeini appointed him to the Revolutionary Council in January 1979. The following year he became a member of the legislature (Majlis). Khamenei lost the use of his right hand in a June 28, 1981, attack on the IRP headquarters by an Islamist guerrilla group supporting moderate president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. (Bani-Sadr had been impeached by the legislature on June 22 and was subsequently dismissed by Khomeini). More than 70 leading members of the IRP died in the attack. New president Mohammad Rajai was assassinated on August 30 of that year. Khamenei was elected to succeed him in October. He won a second 4-year term in 1985 and subsequently emerged the victor in a power struggle with more moderate cleric Ayatollah Ali Hossein Motazeri, who had been designated Khomeini's successor in 1985. Khamenei was granted the religious title of Ayatollah shortly before Khomeini's death. Khamenei's successor as president was Hashemi Rafsanjani.
As Iran's supreme leader, Khamenei used his control over the judicial system and other unelected conservative bodies to keep power in the hands of the conservative clergy. In 1997, however, 69% of Iran's voters rejected his chosen candidate for the presidency in favor of reformist Mohammad Khatami. Khatami, who advocated a restoration of the balance between Islamic and civil democratic rule and won a second term in 2001. Reformist candidates also captured control of the legislature in 2000. This sparked a confrontation in which Khamenei and his allies were the ultimate victors. Most reformist legislation was vetoed by the unelected conservative Council of Guardians. Almost all reformist newspapers were shut down, and all of the well-known reformist candidates were barred from standing in the 2004 legislative elections. Many approved reformist candidates then withdrew from the race, which was boycotted by the major reformist parties. Khamenei's allies thus regained control of the legislature by default.
Khatami's successor as president, the outspoken conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, soon became the public face of Iran's increasingly combative foreign policy and its nuclear ambitions. Nevertheless, many believe that Khamenei had played a major role in Iran's more confrontational approach to the West and the rapid expansion of its regional influence.
After the June 12, 2009, presidential election, Khamenei declared that Ahmadinejad had been reelected before all of the votes had even been counted. Many believed, despite his claim to have won 63% of the vote, that Ahmadinejad had actually not won the 50% required to avoid a runoff. Khamenei's handling of the election provoked the worst domestic crisis since the Islamic Revolution. Huge crowds from all walks of life turned out to protest. Many members of the ruling elite, including former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, boycotted Ahmadinejad's inauguration ceremonies. Although the hard-liners cracked down swiftly and harshly on dissent, many believed that Khamenei's actions had shattered any notion that Iran's supreme leader stood above the political fray, or that Iran's much-vaunted elections were free and fair. In August a group of former legislators appealed to the Assembly of Experts to investigate whether Khamenei was fit to rule; they denounced the postelection crackdown on protests, alleging that some protesters had been abused while in custody.
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