Khamenei was chosen to succeed Khomeini because he was considered a safe bet, someone who would not rock the boat, someone who could be easily controlled by more powerful, more charismatic figures who chaired the various clerical subcommittees, like his fellow revolutionary Hashemi Rafsanjani (now an ayatollah himself), who was instrumental in Khamenei’s selection to the post of supreme leader.
Devoid of Khomeini’s charisma and his religious credentials, Khamenei dropped into the background. Throughout his term as faqih, he has consistently played the role of neutral interlocutor among the competing poles of power in Iran, always strenuously portraying himself as the above the fray of common politics. This hands-off approach resulted in the gradual diffusion of the faqih’s powers both to the subcommittees beneath him and, more disastrously, to the state’s military-intelligence apparatus, the Revolutionary Guard, which has become arguably the most powerful force in Iranian politics (see my piece on how the stolen elections represent a military coup by the Revolutionary Guard). At the same time, the ranks of junior clergy studying in Iran’s seminaries have begun increasingly to question the theological validity of the Valayat-e Faqih, especially now that Iraq’s more traditionally inclined (read: politically quiescent) clergy, headed by perhaps the senior-most ayatollah in the world, Ali al-Sistani, have become increasingly active in Iran.
Now it seems Khamenei wants his divine authority back. Yet by so enthusiastically—and, as even his confidants have admitted, inexplicably—inserting himself directly into the election controversy, he has destroyed his reputation as a “divinely guided arbiter.” Worse, by so forcefully backing the unpopular Ahmadinejad, he has tainted himself with an aura of corruption and scandal. In short, Khamenei has utterly, perhaps irreparably, damaged the office of supreme leader. That is why the very people who helped put him in power 20 years ago are now trying to get rid of him. (As I write this, Ayatollah Rafsanjani is currently in Qom trying to garner support from his fellow Assembly of Expert members to remove Khamenei from power.)