Large-scale public mourning for the passing of this Islamic ayatollah only shows that his ideas about the source of legitimacy in government are quite alive in the hearts of Iranians. Those ideas may yet bring about a successful revolution against the 30-year-old Islamic Republic.
Mr. Montazeri had a prominence in Iran like no other living figure in recent years. He was a leading figure in the 1979 revolution that overthrew one dictator, and then became a chief critic of an equally brutal dictatorship under the unelected “supreme” Muslim leaders of Iran.
And yet, despite widespread admiration for this Islamic scholar, he insisted that authority to govern comes from the people, not clerics like himself who he said must serve as only advisers to elected leaders. That was the central idea that led him to defect from the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the late 1980s – when hundreds of political dissidents were executed – and forced him to give up his role as heir apparent.
Montazeri, who was later under house arrest for six years in the religious city of Qom, will be remembered as one of the few champions in the Middle East for secular democratic rule – much like Europe’s reformers centuries ago who led revolutions against church authority over government.
His words will probably continue to create a crisis of authority within Iran’s ruling establishment. Internal dissent among the ruling clerics now reflects the ongoing pro-democracy protests that sprang from June’s rigged presidential elections – elections in which candidates had to first meet the approval of clerics.
And Montazeri’s passing comes as Shiite Muslims are commemorating the ceremonies marking the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Both the emotional ceremonies known as Muharram along with the public mourning for Montazeri’s death will make it difficult for the regime to crack down on the protests.
But even more so, it may be Montazeri’s recent words directed at Iran’s security forces that could really begin to unravel the government of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
He warned members of the pro-government Basiji militia – irregular police who have been the most brutal against demonstrators – that their actions run against Islam and “in the path of Satan.” Coming from one with high credentials in Islamic Shiitism, such religious censure in the name of freedom may have a sobering effect upon the regime’s henchmen when they again point their guns at protesters.
Still, the security apparatus under Mr. Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a mighty one. The battle between guns and the ideas of Montazeri and others may take a long time to play out.
President Obama, who has been careful not to play into the regime’s eagerness to paint the protesters as American stooges, was correct on Monday to praise Montazeri after his passing.
The Obama administration also provides a model for what Montazeri recommended for Iran. Last February, the White House set up a 25-member council, made up of mainly religious figures, who advise the president on federal projects that involve faith-based groups.
Religious ideas, rather than religious power, can help in the governing of a people who cherish their freedom of thought.