Observers with a working knowledge of Iranian politics have largely been able to shrug off President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bluster and bullying, knowing the diminutive President must still answer to a far more powerful figure: Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. Since 1989, the shadowy cleric a former president himself has sat at the apex of Iran’s complex hierarchy as the final word in all political and religious matters. The massive protests roiling Tehran in the aftermath of the June 12 elections have underlined both the vast sweep of Khamenei’s powers and, perhaps, its limitations. After hailing Ahmadinejad’s “divine victory,” Khamenei backpedaled by ordering the country’s Guardian Council to investigate the results a decree that some took as an implicit capitulation to factions sympathetic to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s challenger. In his two decades at the helm of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei’s present challenge to guide Iran through this stretch of turbulence while the world watches transfixed may be his toughest yet.
Khamenei, 69, was born in Meshhad to a family of religious scholars. Began advanced religious training in Qom while still a teenager, and shortly thereafter became a protege of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini
In 1963, took part in street protests against the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran. After the uprising was quashed, Khomeini was exiled, and between 1964 and 1978 his protege continued to espouse dissident views in his absence, mobilizing protests and demonstrations and maintaining close ties to his exiled mentor. Khamenei was imprisoned multiple times and, in 1975, was internally exiled to a remote region in southeastern Iran
In 1979, after the Islamic Revolution ousted the Shah, Khamenei became one of the Ayatullah’s primary lieutenants
Briefly served as Minister of Defense in 1980. Also supervised Iran’s influential Revolutionary Guards
Was the target of an assassination attempt in June 1981. While speaking at a rally in Tehran, suffered severe injuries to his right hand and arm when a bomb hidden in a nearby tape-recorder exploded
Was elected President of Iran in 1981 and reelected in 1985. During his two terms, was a key player in guiding policy for the Iran-Iraq war working with Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the primary challenger in this month’s election
Became Iran’s Supreme Leader in 1989. In the view of most experts, his appointment by Iran’s Assembly of Experts is attributable to the strength of his relationship with Khomeini rather than his religious credentials, which, among the upper echelon of Iran’s clergy, are viewed as comparatively weak
According to a confidant who spoke to TIME in 2006, Khamenei hikes in jeans, sports a watch and plays the tar, a stringed instrument popular in Iran; this embrace of some of the trappings of modernity separates him from many of his fellow hard-line clerics
Named to the TIME 100 in 2007
Has bristled at the notion of engaging with the United States, even after President Barack Obama signaled his Administration’s desire to adopt a more conciliatory stance toward the Islamic Republic
“I am an individual with many faults and shortcomings, and truly a minor seminarian.”
Speaking during his first address as Supreme Leader, in June 1989
“They say, ‘We have extended a hand toward Iran.’ What kind of hand is this If the extended hand is covered with a velvet glove but underneath it, the hand is made of cast iron, this does not have a good meaning at all.”
Responding to President Obama’s video message in a speech before a crowd of tens of thousands in the northeastern city of Mashhad.
“The Iranian nation needs nuclear energy for life, not weapons.”
Insisting that Iran’s commitment to uranium enrichment was born out of a desire to harness nuclear technology for peaceful purposes; he has repeatedly stressed this point, noting that the use of nuclear weapons would violate Islamic law
“The Iranian people’s hatred for America is profound.”
In a speech on Iranian state TV.
Quotes about: :
“Khamenei likes to project the image of a magnanimous grandfather, selflessly staying above the fray to guide the country in a virtuous direction … in reality he is notoriously thin-skinned. Criticism of the Leader is one of the few remaining redlines in Iranian politics, almost a guarantee of a prison sentence.”
Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a March 2008 report
“Khamenei would always come and say, ‘Shut up; what I say goes.’ Everyone would say, ‘O.K., it is the word of the leader.’ Now the myth that there is a leader up there whose power is unquestionable is broken.”
Azar Nafisi, the author of two memoirs about life in Iran, on how Khamenei’s decree that the election results be reviewed which he issued shortly after praising Ahmadinejad’s “divine victory” has undermined his claim to absolute authority.
“An unusual sort of dictator. He has a down-to-earth image and calm demeanor that sit uneasily with the praise he often heaps upon Iran’s militants. His austere lifestyle stands in jarring contrast to the corruption and ostentatious wealth of many other Iranian leaders.”
On Khamenei’s disposition.
Read a 2-Min. Bio of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the challenger in Iran’s election
Read TIME’s Top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms