A mid-ranking cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was unexpectedly chosen as supreme leader during an emergency closed-door session of the Assembly of Experts in 1989, just days after the death of the founder of Iran's Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
For the first time, footage of that secret session has emerged, revealing that Khamenei was only given a caretaker role as supreme leader for a one-year period. He is also shown saying he was not qualified for the position and that his selection was unconstitutional.
The video leaked on January 8 has not only raised questions about Khamenei's rise to the most powerful seat in the country but also his current leadership.
Khamenei has been singled out by antigovernment protesters across Iran who have chanted slogans like "Down with the dictator" and "Khamenei, time to step down," and are disillusioned with economic hardship and the lack of political and social freedoms.
Shahed Alavi, the U.S.-based Iranian journalist who first shared the video of Khamenei, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the footage was intended to bolster antiestablishment sentiment and question the authority of the supreme leader amid the protests in Iran.
"The person who people have accused of poor leadership and have demanded step down, admits himself that his leadership would make people shed tears of blood," Alavi said.
Alavi was referring to Khamenei's comment in the video in which he tells the assembly before his appointment that "we should shed tears of blood wailing for the Islamic society that has been forced to even propose me [as supreme leader]."
Alavi did not reveal who sent him the video, although he said it was from someone in Iran. He said the footage was of "historic importance."
Nojavan, a website affiliated with Khamenei, released a statement on January 9 defending the assembly's choice. It said the Assembly of Experts' decision was "lawful" and "correct" and was conducted during "a national crisis."
Naysan Rafati, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, says the timing of the leak is crucial. "Opponents of the Iranian government will likely focus on Khamenei's self-critical statements and appointment to what was intended to be a caretaker position, as evidence of inter-regime wheeling and dealing that left Iran led by a man who by his own admission was unqualified," he says.
Abolhassan Banisadr, Iran's first president, tells Radio Farda from France that the video will give protesters justification to criticize Khamenei. "The unemployed youth protesting on the streets will think that they are right [to question his authority]," he says.
Banisadr says he believes only someone inside the clerical regime had access to the video and was the source of the leak.
Banisadr, who was president from 1980-81 before fleeing to exile in France, says the video shows that "politically, the regime has lost its inner coherence" and is riddled with division. "The video has existential significance for the regime," he says. "They guarded it for nearly 40 years. Why have they leaked it? If the regime wasn't divided, how could something like this be leaked?"
The leaked video has also raised questions about how Khamenei became supreme leader.
Banisadr says Khamenei's selection was "engineered." He says former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who chaired the meeting, pushed for Khamenei to be picked because he considered Khamenei "weak" and easy to control.
"The leadership process was fictitious," Banisadr says. "It was not spontaneous but engineered."
According to the constitution, the supreme leader had to be a "marja," or a grand ayatollah. But Khamenei was only a mid-ranking cleric.
Khamenei admitted as much in the leaked footage. Addressing the assembly, he said, "based on the constitution, I am not qualified for the job and from a religious point of view, many of you will not accept my words as those of a leader."
Khamenei was also meant to be a caretaker ayatollah for one year, after which the country's leadership would be transferred to a council with members elected through a referendum.
The referendum never took place.
Khamenei later changed the constitution to allow him to stay on as supreme leader.