Ever since he became Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has had to contend with the nagging doubt that he is simply not up to the job. Unlike Cyrus the Great, who was born into one of the great Persian dynasties and acceded effortlessly to the throne on his father's death, Khamenei's rise owed everything to the patronage of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his mentor and the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution.
As Khomeini neared the end of his life, the succession became increasingly important. It was generally accepted by Iran's clerical establishment in Qom that this privilege would fall to Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, one of the original leaders of the Iranian revolution who was widely regarded as the country's most knowledgeable Islamic scholar, enjoying the title "Grand Marja", or religious authority, of Shia Islam.
By Iranian standards, Montazeri enjoyed a reputation as a human rights campaigner. He championed the legalisation of political parties, was a staunch advocate of better treatment for Iran's minority Bahai sect and wrote many articles arguing in favour of civil rights and equal opportunities for Iranian women. Montazeri's increasingly outspoken behaviour, though, soon brought him into conflict with Khomeini, particularly after he publicly condemned the mass executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in late 1988, which were carried out on Khomeini's orders.
Khomeini's response was to rid himself of this troublesome cleric. In March 1989 Montazeri was stripped of his position as Khomeini's official successor, but not before he had publicly denounced Khomeini's fatwa ordering the assassination of the author Salman Rushdie, with the memorable remark, "People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people."