Praising national leaders and elevating them to mythic levels is as old as human civilization. Iran is no exception; indeed, the phenomenon has a very long history in the country, as manifested by the many tales of kings' bravery, vision, kindness, and generosity that one finds in the Persian literature. This practice continues -- the difference is that it is now entering uncharted territory and reaching absurd heights.
In the prerevolutionary era, as Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi consolidated his power after the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953, his supporters and cronies began to refer to him by a range of titles, such as Arya Mehr (Sun of the Aryans; subsequently applied to his son Reza by fervent monarchists after the Shah's death in 1980), Shahanshah (King of Kings), Khodaaygaan (God-like), and Bozorg Arteshtaaraan (Field Marshal) -- a photo often reproduced by anti-monarchists shows the Shah giving British Prime Minister Winston Churchill a military salute in 1941.
The tradition continued after the 1979 Revolution. In addition to the religious rank of ayatollah-olozma (grand ayatollah), Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was, and still is, called the Imam by his followers. The title, first used by Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, Dr. Hassan Rowhani, effectively assigns Khomeini a status akin to that of the Shiites' classical Imams: sainthood. During the revolutionary period, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization also referred to Khomeini as Qaed-e Azam (Great Leader) and Mojahed-e Azam (Great Mojahed -- one engaged in jihad). Khomeini's most ardent followers still use kabir (great) to refer to him, although its use is not widespread. In a meeting with Khomeini shortly after the Revolution, one of his well-known followers, three-term Majles deputy Fakhreddin Hedjazi (top vote-getter in the First Majles elections) spoke about him in &list=UUjOkqSSeffSWrXsPsRbVEsA&index=4&feature=plcp">extravagant terms, likening him at one point to the Prophet Solomon. Khomeini responded, "I am afraid that such praises will create a false sense of pride for me, and will cause deviation [from the Islamic path]. I take refuge in God. If I put myself on a level above others, this would be a mental deviation."
Today, in the case of Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the cult of personality and the ascription of unparalleled spiritual and leadership qualities to the Supreme Leader had reached a level never before seen. It all began the day Khamenei was appointed to the position -- June 4, 1989. The day before, he was still Hojatoleslam Khamenei, a rank below ayatollah, and was not considered a major religious figure. Upon his appointment as Supreme Leader, he became an ayatollah, making the transition to the high rank without any traditional basis; in the Shia hierarchy, such promotions are mostly in the people's hands and occur when a cleric gains significant popular acceptance.
After Mohammad Khatami was elected president in a landslide on May 23, 1997, the right wing closed ranks behind Khamenei. The reformists who had backed Khatami were known as the Khat-e Emam (Imam's Line) in the 1980s, so one of the first things that the conservatives did after his election was to form a coalition called Jebheh Peyrovaan-e Khat-e Emam va Rahbari (United Front of Followers of the Imam's and the Supreme Leader's Line), led by the Islamic Coalition Party, to distinguish themselves. To demonstrate their deep belief in Khamenei and his spiritual importance, they began to claim that they were zob shodegaan dar Velaayat (completely melted in Velaayat-e Faghih -- the doctrine of guardianship by the Islamic jurist, which is to say, Khamenei). The claim was frequently mocked by the reformists (see, for example, ">here, here, here, and here).
The process of elevating Khamenei to unprecedented spiritual heights accelerated following the presidential election of June 2009. On June 19, a week after the election, Khamenei publicly expressed his support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and threatened the Iranian people that if they demonstrated and were confronted by force, any bloodshed would be their responsibility. This greatly undermined his already fragile credibility among the populace. His main supporters -- the right-wing clerics, the Basij militia, and the top command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- thus began trying to repair the Supreme Leader's image.
Many of the top military commanders began calling him "Imam Khamenei," in an effort to accord him the same status as Khomeini. The ultra-hardline Lieutenant Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, then head of the Revolutionary Guards' political directorate, wrote in Sobh-e Sadegh, the directorate's weekly mouthpiece, that everyone must refer to the Supreme Leader as Imam Khamenei; Javani lamented that he had not been accorded the title since the first day he held ultimate authority. Many other hardliners also urged the use of the word.
Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, reportedly issued a highly classified directive in May, ordering all military personnel to use Imam when referring to Khamenei, Firoozabadi once declared, "The Supreme Leader is the star that lightens the Revolution Convoy and prevents it from going on the wrong path."
Khamenei's senior military adviser, former Revolutionary Guard chief Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, called Khamenei "a kindness by God and blessing by Mahdi for our nation and [other] Islamic countries" and "the authoritative leader of the world's Muslims."
A military officer who had been gravely injured in the war with Iraq recently claimed that when Khamenei touched his injured jaw, the pain disappeared.
The members of the Basij kiss his feet. A source in Tehran told me that even the Revolutionary Guard chief, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, kisses Khamenei's foot. Whenever Khamenei travels to Qom, the clerics arrange for long lines of people to come up and kiss his hand.
Outside the military, a leading force behind the lavish praise for Khamenei has been the reactionary cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. In addition to producing reactionary clerics to serve Khamenei and his power, Mesbah -- as he is commonly known -- has been the Supreme Leader's exaggerator-in-chief. Here are a few examples:
"Ayatollah Khamenei's saliva can cure diseases." According to dogma, only a saint can possibly perform such "miracles."
"No fair-minded person would have any doubt about the Velaayat-e Faghih and Ayatollah Khamenei."
"One of the greatest blessings of God to Muslim people in Mahdi's absence is the holy existence of the Supreme Leader." Devout Shiites await when Mahdi, the 12th Imam, will emerge from his centuries-long occultation to save the world.
"We must bow to God and beg him to give the Supreme Leader a long life."
"Is it possible for Mahdi to forget about his deputy, the Supreme Leader?"
"Today, Islam's symbol is Ayatollah Khamenei."
Khamenei has returned the "favor" by repeatedly praising Mesbah, calling him the "Motahari of our era." A leading Islamic scholar, Ayatollah Morteza Motahari (1920-79) was a student and disciple of Khomeini; he was assassinated shortly after the Revolution.
Others have competed with Mesbah in lavishing praise on Khamenei, and, in the process, have made some of the most astonishing claims. His representative to the Revolutionary Guards, Ali Saeedi, recently argued that the religious "leadership is at three levels, the Prophets, the  Imams, and Velaayat-e Faghih, [the last two of which] are the same in terms of the authority that they have, meaning obeying the Faghih is as religiously obligatory as obeying the Imams."
Mohammad Saeedi, the Imam of Qom's Friday Prayers, ">claimed that when Khamenei was born he immediately said, "Ya Ali": Oh, Ali -- Shiism's First Imam.
Ahmad Alamolhoda, Mashhad's Friday Prayer Imam, claimed that angels with trays of food greet Khamenei's guests.
Last year, a widely distributed documentary film, The Appearance Is Imminent, purported to explain that the return of Imam Mahdi is near. As "evidence," the documentary claimed that Khamenei is Seyyed Khorasani, a mythical figure whose emergence is supposed to presage that of Imam Mahdi's.
The cleric Ahmad Darestani extols Khamenei's sportsmanship and scientific acumen in a widely viewed ">YouTube clip. "Artists and poets meet with Agha [sir, a common epithet for Khamenei] and say he is an artist himself. Engineers meet with him, and he asks key questions, surprising them with his knowledge," Darestani says in part.
Khamenei's chief of staff and father-in-law of his daughter Hoda, cleric Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, asserted, "Many of the world's leaders are obedient to the Supreme Leader," and, "When people meet with him, they are shocked by his intelligence and insights." He also claimed that when South African Leader Nelson Mandela met Khamenei, he called him "my leader." Mandela's office denied it.
Cleric Mehdi Taeb recently said, "I know no one who works as hard as the Supreme Leader. The entire world has focused on him, but has accepted that there is no gray area in his life."
The monthly magazine Emtedaad dedicated an entire issue to expressions of praise for Khamenei by various officials.
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan met with Khamenei in Tehran in April, Iran's state and pro-regime media outlets claimed that when the prime minister's wife and daughter met with the Supreme Leader, they were so affected by his spiritual aura that they began to cry. One website even claimed that the two women said that Khamenei reminded them of the Prophet Mohammad.
Since the rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad became public, the Supreme Leader's followers have been trying to present him as a defender of democracy. Ahmad Khatami, Tehran's Friday Prayer Imam, recently claimed that during the 2009 "sedition" (the hardliners' term for the Green Movement), "the Supreme Leader supported the people's vote, as the Islamic Republic has the highest regards for people's votes."
And there is no let-up. This past Wednesday, a national congress was held in Isfahan to give thanks to God for keeping Khamenei healthy. Poets composed and recited verse in praise of the Supreme Leader. (The hardline Kayhan newspaper was the first to announce plans for the congress.)
Mehdi Mahdavinejad, commander of the Qom police force, said on June 28, "Today, the world's intellectuals listen carefully to what the Supreme Leader says, analyze it, and plan [for the future] based on it."
In Kerman province, the Basij has erected what is effectively a small shrine on a mountainside where Khamenei sat down on a rock while visiting the region. A similar site has been created in the province of Kurdistan. Page after page could be filled with such hagiographic words and actions.
Khamenei rarely tries to put a stop to such veneration. Though once, in a meeting with legislators, when Majles deputy Mohammad Dehghan used wildly effusive words to praise him, the Supreme Leader responded, "Such things do not aid progress. I become embarrassed by them. They hurt both me and the speaker."
Some of the praise heaped on Khamenei is borderline blasphemy. But as the Prophet Muhammad said, "A ruler and his rule can survive blasphemy, but not injustice." And terrible injustice is being done to a great nation and its people on a daily basis by Khamenei's supporters. As far as the fate of the nation is concerned, the critical question is, Given that Khamenei is surrounded by minions, flatterers, and cronies who compete with each other to praise him lavishly, how realistic a view does he have of what is going on, either domestically or internationally? When his own chief of staff exaggerates and even lies about him, what type of information can he expect to receive? Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was surrounded by the same sort of coterie, and by the time he realized the gravity of the state's situation in the fall of 1978, it was too late to reform his regime and put it on a democratic path.
If one day Khamenei finally recognizes what is happening that has put the nation on its increasingly perilous path, and if that day turns out to be late for a peaceful transition to democracy, Khamenei will have no one to blame but himself. Like the Shah before him, he and only he is responsible for the current state of affairs.
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI
Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to other Internet and print media.
Any opinions expressed are the author's own.