January 2, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 782

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Iranian Regime vs. President Ahmadinejad – Part II: From Supreme Leader to Imam

January 2, 2012 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 782


The following document, the second in a series about the open rift in Iran's top echelon between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will examine Khamenei's reaction to the doctrinal shift which Ahmadinejad apparently attempted to instate, aimed chiefly at rendering Khamenei's role unnecessary.[1] Khamenei's response was to have his associates and faithful publicly glorify him and refer to him as an "imam"– a title of unique prestige that is applied in Twelver Shi'ism to the 12 Shi'ite imams who ruled after the Prophet Muhammad, and who are believed to have possessed divine qualities and authorities.

Indeed, in the last year, especially since the emergence of the crisis between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, regime circles have begun referring to Khamenei as "imam." The title has been applied to him in pro-Khamenei media and in videos depicting him as heralding the appearance of the Hidden Imam.

It is noteworthy that the Iranian public refers to the founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as "imam," implying that he had the same status as the Hidden Imam.[2]

Khamenei's associates are now stressing that he is the sole mediator between the people and the Hidden Imam, apparently in an attempt to counter Ahmadinejad's claim that he has a direct connection with the Mahdi and thereby render Khamenei's role superfluous. It should be stressed that the regime's campaign to confer the title of "imam" on Khamenei is a shift away from Khomeini's doctrine of "the rule of the jurisprudent" (velayat-e faqih). According to this doctrine, until the return of the Mahdi, Islamic society is ruled by the Jurisprudent Ruler (which is a lesser rank than "imam"). Unlike Khamenei, Khomeini did not support any regime-sanctioned initiative to elevate him to the rank of "imam."

In addition to their domestic campaign, Khamenei's associates are attempting, particularly vis-à-vis Muslim and Arab circles, to build up his image as a leader of the region, and even as a leader of the Islamic world. This trend was exemplified by Khamenei's speeches at two recent conferences in Tehran: the first at the September 17-18 Islamic Awakening conference, and the second at an October 2-3 conference in support of the Palestinians.[3]

Khamenei Associates: His Authorities Are Equal to Those of Muhammad and the 12 Imams

The effort to elevate Khamenei to the rank of imam commenced even before the current leadership crisis broke out in May 2011, and apparently began in response to the 2009 protests. As early as January 2010, Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi, who until recently was considered the spiritual mentor of Ahmadinejad, told members of the Iranian Basij, "The Leader [Khamenei] is a replication of the Imam [Khomeini]. He is an example, and an image, of the personality of the [12] Imams, and cannot be compared to any other leader in the world..."[4]

Also, in a March 2011 speech to Lebanese religious scholars, Mesbah-e Yazdi referred to Khamenei as "imam," and praised his rare qualities: "The virtues of the Imam Khamenei are unique, and he therefore has, in fact, no parallel." He added: "After the [12 Shi'ite] Imams and Imam [Khomeini], most beloved to God are Imam Ali Khamenei and the comrade of the Hidden Imam, [Hizbullah leader] Hassan Nasrallah."[5]

At a Qom mosque on Iran's Revolution Day, February 11, in response to a question about using the title "imam" in reference to Khamenei, Hossein Jalali, Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi's office director, said: "There's no reason not to do so. Many have [also] tried to remove him from [his post as] leader of Iran, but with no success." He also indicated Khamenei's superior character with a statement he attributed to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: "When I saw [Khamenei], I saw a sort of messiah, and as long as Iran has a leader like that, America cannot do a thing against it."[6]

After the rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei became public, and following challenges to Khamenei and his role by Ahmadinejad and his associates (who were dubbed the "deviant stream" by Khamenei's circle), Khamenei loyalists stepped up their efforts to bolster his status as Iran's leader, to attribute divine characteristics to him, and to label him "imam." For example, the head of the Qom Association of Religious Seminaries, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, stressed that only the jurisprudent leader mediates between the people and the Hidden Imam.[7] Ali Saeedi, Khamenei's representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said on June 5, 2011, at a mosque in Gorgan, in the north of the country, that the authority of Khamenei, whom he called a "divine leader," is the same as that of the Prophet Muhammad and the 12 Shi'ite imams.[8]

He said: "Following [the death] of the Prophet [Muhammad], the authority [of ruling] was given to the infallible imams, and after them, to the Jurisprudent Ruler. Therefore, the authority of the rule of the jurisprudent ruler is identical to that of the Prophet [Muhammad]. At the time of the occultation [of the Hidden Imam], a decree by the Jurisprudent Ruler is a decree by the Hidden Imam, which is like a decree by the infallible Imams... Obeying the Jurisprudent Ruler, the Imams, and the Prophet [Muhammad] are all the same thing, and constitute obedience to God's commands. There is no distinction between the three... Devotion and obedience to the Jurisprudent Ruler of our time, and of all time, is a duty incumbent upon everyone everywhere, and the essential condition for divine rule is the existence of a divine ruler in society...

"Today the people of our country have understood that if they abandon the 'Ali of our time' [i.e., Ali Khamenei],[9] they will be subject of curses of the Ashura [i.e. curses inflicted upon the killers of the third Imam, Hussein]... Today our nation is sober... It discerns deviance, internalizes the concerns of the leader [Khamenei], and obeys him without delay... If we aspire to establish the global rule of the Hidden Imam, we must continue on the same path, because the Jurisprudent Ruler is the only mediator between the people and the Hidden Imam, and those who say that the 'minor appearance' is nigh [referring to the claims of Ahmadinejad's loyalists] are talking nonsense."[10]

In a June 6, 2011 editorial in the IRGC weekly Sobh-e Sadeq, the head of the IRGC political bureau, Yadollah Javani, called on the broadcast authority, mosque preachers, and journalists to refer to Khamenei as "imam." According to Javani, this would be apt compensation for the "big mistake," namely that Khamenei was not given this title immediately after being appointed Iranian Supreme Leader in 1989, after Khomeini's death.

Javani explained that, "in an Islamic society with an Islamic religious regime, the leader of society is called imam." He said that, at the onset of the Revolution, there were those who opposed calling Khomeini "imam," on the grounds that the Shi'a recognizes only 12 Imams. However, he said, this objection failed thanks to the extensive use of this title for Khomeini in sermons and speeches by regime officials, and in the media.[11]

It should be mentioned that since June 6, 2011, the IRGC weekly Sobh-e Sadeq has occasionally referred to Khamenei as Imam. Friday preachers, as well as the website for the global Ahl Al-Beit association (, also began referring to him as such.

Further examples of the institutional effort to raise Khamenei to the status of imam can be found in statements by senior regime officials. For example, in early December, the Governor-General of the Bushehr province, Mohammad Hossein Jahanbakhsh, said at a conference of his province officials: "From now on we must call the Leader 'Imam Khamenei,' so that Iran's enemies burst with disappointment."[12] At a Basij meeting in late October in Mashhad, Mohammad Rezai, the IRGC political bureau representative in the Bushehr province, also referred to Khamenei as "imam."[13]

At a Friday prayer in Shiraz on December 9, 2011, the prayer leader, Asadollah Imani – Khamenei's representative in the Fars province – referred to Khamenei as "imam" and said: "Regarding societal management, the authorities of the Prophet of Islam [Muhammad] and those of the Imam Ali are equal, and there is no difference between the authority of the Imam Ali and that of the Imam Khomeini. The authority of the Imam Khamenei is also equal to that of the Imam Khomeini."[14]

At a ceremony celebrating the publication of a new book by Khamenei on December 21, 2011, Tehran's prayer leader, Kazem Sediqi, said that "the actions of the Imam Hussein can be seen in the existence of the Imam [Khomeini] and the Leader [Khamenei]. Both of these great men have the smell and the color of the Imam Hussein, and thus communicate with God."[15]

It should be mentioned that Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hizbullah, which is a proxy of Iran, has adopted the practice of calling Khamenei "imam." At a June 6-7, 2011 Hizbullah conference in Beirut on "The Innovation and Intellectual Ijtihad of the Imam Khamenei," Nasrallah told the Iranian delegation that Hizbullah is at the service of Khamenei, and called him "a great Imam who is peerless in leadership and religious ruling."[16] The title is also used by Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV.[17]

It is worth mentioning that the websites for Khamenei's office (; do not use the title.

Videos on Khamenei's "Divine Qualities"

In the last year, videos have been circulated throughout Iran aggrandizing Khamenei and attributing divine or messianic qualities to him. For example, on the occasion of Iran's Revolution Day, in February 2011, a CD was distributed titled "The appearance [of the Hidden Imam] is near," which claimed that Khamenei was actually Seyyed Khorasani, who, according to the Shi'ite tradition, will rule the believers in the period before the return of the Hidden Imam.[18] The video caused a political storm in Iran, due to its messianic content, which contradicts conservative orthodoxy. It should be mentioned that Khamenei's circle attributed its distribution to Ahmadinejad loyalists. However, Ahmadinejad's associate, Rahim Mashaei, denied it.[19]

Recently, a Youtube clip was circulated in Iran, in which Qom Friday Preacher Hujjat Al-Islam Mohammad Saeedi claimed that, when Khamenei was born, his midwife began shouting because, according to her, the newborn Khamenei had cried "O Ali" – a common call among Shi'ites, referring to the first Shi'ite Imam, Ali bin Abi Taleb.[20] The preacher attributed the claim to associates of Khamenei himself.

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof is a research director at MEMRI.


[1] Ahmadinejad's circles have claimed that he has a direct connection with the Hidden Imam (or the Mahdi), which renders superfluous the role of the Supreme Leader as mediator between the people and the Mahdi. For more on this, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 773, "Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Iranian Regime vs. President Ahmadinejad – Part I: Messianic Group Threatens the Regime," December 14, 2011, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Iranian Regime vs. President Ahmadinejad – Part I: Messianic Group Threatens the Regime.

[2] Ayatollah Khomeini silently approved of the title "imam" granted him by the Iranian public. However, in the early 1980s, he outlawed the messianic Hojjatieh Society, which claimed to have ties with the Mahdi.

[3] The website Digarban assessed that, at these conferences, Khamenei had launched his campaign to become a leader of the Islamic world.

[4] Parto-ye Sokhan (Iran), January 6, 2010.

[5], March 14, 2011.

[6] Ayande News (Iran), February 11, 2011.

[7], July 10, 2011.

[8] IRNA (Iran), June 5, 2011.

[9] Here Saeedi is comparing Khamenei to the first of the twelve Shi'ite Imams, Ali Ibn Abi Talib.

[10] IRNA (Iran), June 5, 2011. Several days earlier, Saeedi said in a similar vein: "The authorities of the Jurisprudent Ruler are identical to those of the Shi'ite Imams, and therefore obedience to him is equally obligatory." According to him, violating the orders of the Jurisprudent Ruler is tantamount to violating the orders of God and the Hidden Imam. He stressed that obedience to Khamenei is a duty for everyone without exception, regardless of status, and mentioned that Ayatollah Montazeri was rejected by Khamenei as his heir after he disobeyed him. Fars (Iran), April 27, 2011.

[11] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), June 6, 2011.

[12] Fars (Iran), December 3, 2011.

[13] IRNA (Iran), October 30, 2011.

[14] IRNA (Iran), December 11, 2011.

[15] Fars (Iran), December 21, 2011.

[16] Fars (Iran), June 8, 2011. Prominent Shi'ite-Iraqi official 'Omar Hakim – who appears to be an Iranian agent in Iraq – referred to Khamenei as "imam" in a message he sent to the Hizbullah conference in Beirut. Kayhan (Iran), June 9, 2011.

[18] The clip is posted on Youtube in eight parts. Link to part 1:

[19] On April 14, 2011, Kasem Ravanbakhsh was quoted as saying that Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi said: "I believe in Khamenei more than I believe in Seyyed Khorasani," and that there is no need to turn to various traditions in search of approval for Khamenei.

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