Ayatollah Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, leaving a leadership void at the top of the Islamic Republic. The amendments to the constitution, which diluted the qualifications for the supreme leadership, had not yet been ratified, but the situation's urgency required decisive action. The Assembly of Experts convened on June 4 to designate Khomeini’s successor. The meetings were classified and shrouded in secrecy, but it is believed that Rafsanjani engineered Khamenei’s rise, believing in his ability to manipulate the new Supreme Leader and remain the true power broker in the Islamic Republic. Rafsanjani had demurred at accepting the position, as he believed he would face allegations of conspiring to remove Montazeri.
According to Khomeini biographer Baqer Moin, “Sheikh Sadeq Khalkhali was the man who publicly mentioned Khamenei’s name for the first time. He gave an account of a conversation with Khamenei, in which he had made the suggestion and received the reply: ‘I won’t accept it. This is a grave responsibility.’” Khamenei’s stated reluctance to accept the position echoed his humility when he balked at assuming the presidency and cast him in a favorable light as someone who did not harbor grand ambitions but instead accepted the yoke of leadership at times when the survival of the Islamic Republic was at stake. For all of his self-effacement, however, Khamenei has adeptly maneuvered throughout his tenure to thrive in office and gain ever more power.
Once Khamenei’s name had been put forward, the Assembly debated his suitability. According to a later account by Rafsanjani, it was Rafsanjani who took the lead in speaking on behalf of Khamenei’s potential candidacy, informing the Assembly that Khomeini himself had endorsed him at a meeting with senior political leadership several months before his death. According to Rafsanjani, “A discussion ensued and we said to the Imam, if the need arose for a successor to you we would have difficulties, because with the present constitution, we could have a leadership vacuum. He said that this would not be the case since we had the right people. When we asked who, he pointed to Mr. Khamenei. … Following that session Mr. Khamenei asked us, in fact insisted, that we did not talk about this issue outside. We did not repeat it anywhere.”
Informed that Khamenei was Khomeini’s preferred choice to take over as Supreme Leader, the Assembly of Experts approved his candidacy, voting 60-14 in favor of his succession. Khamenei was the youngest potential successor put forth before the Assembly for consideration, assuming power just shy of his 50th birthday. Given his relative youth, lack of charisma, and dearth of religious qualification, Khamenei faced a steep uphill battle to be taken seriously in the role by ordinary Iranians as well as the country’s clerical elite, whom he was now ostensibly in control of, despite being outranked in terms of age, religious scholarship, and influence among the faithful.
Khamenei was keenly aware that he lacked the religious qualifications for the role. It later appeared that he had even tried to talk the Assembly of Experts out of giving him the job. However, this was likely a case of false modesty that played into the mythmaking of Khamenei as a reluctant leader who rose to the occasion when his services were needed. Speaking of his election, Khamenei said,
“I have always counted myself unworthy of critical and high-level positions. I have viewed myself lower than them and even much lower positions such as presidency and other responsibilities during the revolution. Of course, those hours after the death of the Imam were very difficult for all of us. Out of their sense of responsibility, brethren were trying to find a solution. They continuously named me as a candidate for leadership, which I continuously dismissed in my mind. … From the bottom of my heart I did not want to be designated for this position.
Finally, after lengthy discussions in the Assembly of Experts, my name came up as a candidate and they picked me. I first dismissed it and went to the Assembly to address them on this issue. I talked to them about all the reasons why I should not be picked for this position. No matter how much I insisted, they rejected my proposal. They had an answer for every reason I offered. So, I realized it was no use and accepted the nomination.
Even now, I consider myself an ordinary student and cleric, not only for this task but any task. But now that the responsibility has been placed on my shoulders, I shall carry it with all my strength, to the best of my ability with God’s grace and mercy. So, I prayed to God and committed myself to start this position by relying on His help, and He has helped me to this day.”
Years later, as his government ruthlessly cracked down on protests over government mismanagement and lack of social and economic freedoms, snippets of footage from the deliberations of the Assembly of Experts were leaked in an effort to embarrass Khamenei and call his authority into question. In the footage, Khamenei tells the Assembly, “We should shed tears of blood wailing for the Islamic society that has been forced to even propose me [as Supreme Leader]."