Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is often short of cash and has to borrow from his personal guards, according to an account by a man who's said to be one of Khamenei's oldest friends and aides.
"Sometimes when I bring him the money [that he is given as a religious offering], I see that he calls, for example, 'Mr. Reza, come get the money I owe you,'" Ayatollah Rasouli Mahalati told Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency in an interview
in which he discussed his memoirs.
Mahalati said that along with such offerings the supreme leader gets by on the rent he receives from a house he owns in Tehran.
And in a country where owning many carpets is considered a status symbol, he said, Khamenei owns just a single carpet.
"I have sometimes been to his private room," Mahalati said. "The only carpet in his house is an ordinary Tabriz carpet which is so old that it's threadbare in some places."
The cleric also said he sensed that Khamenei's sons, who are religious students, occasionally have trouble making ends meet.
Mahalati's description of the supreme leader's lifestyle plays into the state-sponsored public image of Iran's leaders as pious men who care little for worldly goods. It's not the first time such details have emerged about the way Khamenei is said to live.
Several other aides, including Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Abolhassan Mahdavi, have in recent years praised the supreme leader's modest existence. Mahdavi also confirmed in his memoir
that there is only one "threadbare carpet" in Khamenei's house and that the Iranian leader is often cash-strapped.
"[Khamenei] sometimes borrows money from me," Mahdavi wrote. "He has a significant amount of money at his disposal, but he doesn't spend a single rial for his own use."
Earlier this year, the "Mashregh News" website posted an account
by Ayatollah Ruhollah Garahi, the head of the Imam Mahdi Seminary, about a divan, or small sofa, that Khamenei's wife threw out of their house.
The cleric said that a doctor had told Khamenei to sit on a divan for his back pain.
"They brought a divan -- just one and not a complete set -- to [Khamenei's] house. His wife had gone to Mashhad on pilgrimage and to visit relatives. When she returned, she saw the divan in the house. She then put it out in front of the garden door. When [Khamenei] returned from work, he saw the divan by the door."
The cleric said Khamenei then asked his wife why she had discarded it.
"She responded, 'Do you want to drive us toward enjoying luxury?' Khamenei laughed and said, 'If it were for luxury, it would have been a set. The doctor ordered this.'"
According to the cleric's account, only then did Khamenei's wife consent to keep it.
Similar anecdotes occasionally appear in Iran's state media and blogs, including one by the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Yahya Rahim Safavi.
Safavi was quoted as saying that he was once invited to Khamenei's residence for dinner and was surprised to see that just "a simple omelet" was served.
Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is working on a biography of the supreme leader, says the accounts of Khamenei leading a simple life are largely true, albeit exaggerated:
"The clothing he wears, including his cloak, is made of the best material and is sometimes very costly. He doesn't necessarily buy them himself -- he receives them as gifts and offerings. He doesn't give money for it. Those who have been to his house have said that there are no signs of luxury in it. In Iranian law, no salary has been assigned for the supreme leader. The president has a salary, as do ministers and lawmakers; but the leader, because it is assumed that he is a source of emulation who receives money from religious payments doesn't have a monthly salary. He can, however, use part of the money he receives for his own life. The exaggerations they make [about his being indebted] are definitely not accurate. He has a decent life without it being luxurious."
Accounts from aides or disseminated by state media suggest most other Iranian leaders and politicians are also said to live frugally. They include current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is considered to be one of Iran's richest men.
Here's a video
purporting to show Rafsanjani's modest home:
The propaganda doesn't always sit well with average Iranians, many of whom experience corruption on a daily basis.
After reading the most recent interview about Khamenei's lifestyle, one young man wrote on social media: "If [Khamenei] is really so poor, then he must also suffer from the sanctions, rising prices, and poverty as much as we do. Yet he is, to a great extent, to blame for this situation."
-- Golnaz Esfandiari