The Story About Iran's Khamenei That Netanyahu and Barak Should Not Ignore

A recent story about Iran's Supreme Leader testifies to the many disputes and rivalries among Iran's leadership, but also to Khamenei’s need to strengthen his position in the face of increasing domestic criticism.

So here’s something else we didn’t know about Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: The moment he emerged from his mother’s womb, he cried out “Ya, Ali,” referring, of course, to Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed and his exclusive heir, according to Shi’ite tradition.

This almost amusing story was revealed to the world by Mohammad Saeedi, the imam of the largest mosque in the holy city of Qom. In a recent Friday sermon, the imam said that Khamenei’s sister, who lives in Qom, testifies that she heard this from the midwife who assisted at the birth of little Ali Khamenei and insisted that he called out “Ya, Ali, Ya, Ali,” a few times, along with “Allahu Akhbar.”

The video of Saeedi telling this story has gone viral among Khamenei supporters and has become something of a hit. Saeedi, it should be noted, was appointed imam of Qom’s central mosque after Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli resigned the post to protest the abuse of demonstrators during the anti-regime riots in June 2009.

Myths about leaders are everywhere. Some are based on rumors, others on legends that the leaders themselves spread to increase their glory. Still, something that occurred in Iran after the distribution of this video testifies to Khamenei’s problematic situation.

One of his close confidants, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, who was once speaker of Iran’s parliament and is now an adviser to the spiritual leader, has experienced the “new Khamenei” up close. Two days after saying that the stories about what Khamenei said during his birth were silly superstitions, Nouri was scheduled to deliver the sermon at Friday prayer services in the central mosque in Mashhad, in northwestern Iran, the town where Khamenei was born. The sermon was even carried live on Iranian national television.

But immediately after he began to speak, his sermon was interrupted by a group of worshipers, zealous supporters of Khamenei, who cursed him and called out “Death to the enemies of the religious leader’s regime.” They then threw mineral water bottles at him.

This story seems to testify to the many disputes and rivalries among the Iranian leadership, but also to Khamenei’s need to strengthen his position in the country in the face of increasing domestic criticism.

Parts of the religious establishment are lining up in his favor. Thus, for example, in a recent film entitled “The Revelation is Near” (referring to the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam, who is supposed to reveal himself during the end of days), Khamenei was called “the master from Khorasan” – the Iranian province where Khamenei was born – who is, according to the Shi’ite faith, the person from the Khorasan district who will appear immediately before the arrival of the Mahdi.

One can imagine that this campaign was launched because of the doubtful status of the Khamenei’s religious authority. Many in Iran do not see him as the same authoritative religious figure that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had been. Many are also suffering from the deteriorating economic situation caused by the painful economic sanctions being imposed on the country, and Khamenei’s aggressive nuclear policy is coming under criticism, which the spiritual leader is trying hard to suppress. Meanwhile, he is focused on trying to improve his religious image among the public.

So, Messrs. Netanyahu and Barak: Beware of the master from Khorasan.