Bio Brief: Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei

Iran's supreme leader has held the post for 20 years

Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, who has been Iran's supreme leader for 20 years, was born in 1939 into a large family headed by a poor but very pious cleric in Mashad, a shrine city that is Iran's second-largest. At a young age, he was enrolled at a local seminary, and as he grew older he was sent to Qom, the seat of Shiite religious education in Iran.

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that while in Qom, Mr. Khamenei first fell under the spell of Navab Safavi, a militant cleric who railed against the corrupt secular government of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Mr Safavi was executed in 1955 for his efforts.

Khamenei's next mentor was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, who toppled the shah in 1979. When the shah exiled Mr. Khomenei in the 1960s, Khamenei became one of the key young clerics who continued to transmit his radical teachings about Islamic government inside the country.

Khamenei's political activism led to at least a half-dozen arrests, during which he was tortured by the shah's secret police, the Savak, an experience that scholars say helped cement his view that Islam and Iran were seen as implacable foes by the United States and Britain, both of which supported the shah and provided training and resources to his apparatus of repression.

In 1981, he survived an assassination attempt by the Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MKO or MEK) that cost him the use of one of his arms. Although the MKO is officially labeled a terrorist organization by the US, the US also provided the group with a haven in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Khamenei has called the MKO "America's servants."

Click here to read about how Khamenei sees the world.

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