While the protests in Iran continue to rage on, it might help to gain a bit of perspective on the country's leadership. Since 1979, the ultimate ruling power has been in the hands of the Supreme Leader "“ not the president.
Iran is currently under the rule of its second leader, Ali Hoseyni Khamenei (the first, you'll remember, was the leader of the '79 revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in June of 1989). With just over two decades of authority under his belt, Khamenei remains an obscure figure on the international political scene. We're just going to skip over the standard biographical details, however, to bring you these four quick stories:
1. He sticks to his word about America
In June of 1981, a few months before Khamenei was elected as Iran's president, his political career nearly ended with a bang. While he was speaking at a Tehran mosque, a bomb disguised as a tape recorder went off in front of him, leaving his right arm permanently damaged and injuring his vocal cords.
But what does this have to do with his attitude towards the West? Khamenei was one of the leaders in the 1979 riots, in which protesters rejected the U.S.-backed shah and denounced the United States' leadership and culture. When the future Ayatollah was offered American medical care for his injuries from the bomb blast, he turned it down. The reason? He realized he couldn't yell "Death to America!" in good conscience if he had been taken care of by the country's medical system.
2. He once stormed out of a state dinner
In 1986, a dinner was held in Zimbabwe to honor President Khamenei. But, as the New York Times reported in an article headlined "The Man Who Almost Came to Dinner," the president wasn't at all happy with how the dinner had been arranged: "Mr. Khamenei objected to seating arrangements, which placed two women at the head table, and to the inclusion of wine on the menu."
To Khamenei, the women and liquor were violations of Islamic law. But when his Zimbabwean hosts refused to compromise, saying that women were crucial to the country's mission, the president left. The dinner being held in his honor went on without him.
3. He can be a tad thin-skinned
If you believe the Iranian leadership's critics, the current protests are the beginning of Khamenei's undoing. Just in case that comes to pass, Iranian expatriates who have a beef with the Ayatollah's personality are coming out of the woodwork. Azar Nafisi, an academic now living in the U.S., told the New York Times that the Supreme Leader was not at all happy with those who dared disagree with him. "Khamenei would always come and say, "˜Shut up; what I say goes,'" Nafisi says. "Everyone would say, "˜O.K., it is the word of the leader.'"
This description is backed up by a story told in a report from The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They wrote last year that "criticism of the [Supreme] Leader is one of the few remaining redlines in Iranian politics, almost a guarantee of a prison sentence." And the taboo about criticizing Khamenei isn't limited by bloodline. The Grand Ayatollah's brother, a reformist cleric named Hadi Khamenei, delivered a sermon criticizing the powers of the Supreme Leader. Hadi was subsequently beaten up by members of the Basij militia, which reports to Iran's infamous Revolutionary Guard.
4. He argued for the rights of African-Americans
According to a 1984 article in the Times, when Khamenei was president (1981-1989), he called for the creation of an international committee to review the living conditions of black Americans. According to the national Iranian press agency, the ultimate goal of the proposed committee would be to "bring the U.S. Government to trial."
Khamenei is quoted by the press agency as saying, "a great majority of the blacks in the United States live in miserable conditions and do not have the least facilities for their daily living."