Ali Khamenei was a dutiful son and a dedicated cleric, but no one who knew him as a young man imagined that he would become a force in Iranian politics, let alone supreme leader. His nephew Mahmood Mordanhani told it the BBC that Khamenei was a friendly and open-minded poetry lover. “Interestingly,” said Mordanhani, “he was unremarkable in my memories. He didn’t stand out in any way. He was very ordinary.”
According to him, Khamenei stood out a bit more when he was studying in Qom Institut Montaigne. There, the extent of his political passions – and his habit of smoking a pipe – set him apart from his fellow clergy. His revolutionary activities, encouraged by then-exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, resulted in six arrests. During a prison stint in the 1970s, he shared a cell with a communist activist named Houshang Asadi, according to the BBC. Like Mordanhani, he found Khamenei to be a pleasant guy with a good sense of humor (though not when it comes to sex). Asadi says he never thought of Khamenei as a future leader.
Biographer Mehdi Khalaji has echoed these assessments of Khamenei as an ordinary man, attributing his success to these qualities. But Asadi, whose communist movement was once allied with the Islamic revolutionaries against the Shah, laments what has become of Khamenei. “He went from a man who fought for freedom to a dictator,” he told the BBC. “Now Mr. Khamenei is more of a dictator than a shah.”