Iran: What the death of dissident cleric Montazeri means for opposition

In Iran, Hossein Ali Montazeri had the theological gravitas and political moxie to challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His death now creates a rallying point for the opposition during this week's religious rituals.

Pro-reform Iranians attend the funeral ceremony of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the spiritual father of Iran's reform movement, shown in the poster, in the holy city of Qom, Iran, Monday.

Iran security forces and pro-government militants clashed sporadically with hundreds of thousands of reformist mourners at the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran’s top dissident cleric, on Monday.

The death of the grand ayatollah – a fearless critic for 20 years of the Islamic regime he helped to create – will be a blow to Iran’s opposition “Green Movement,” by silencing a supporting voice from one of the most high-ranking theologians in the Shiite world.

But Montazeri’s death – coming amid the most important religious event of the year, which commemorates resistance and martyrdom – is also problematic for the regime. It creates a powerful political rallying point that will bolster anti-regime sentiment and solidify the ranking cleric’s legacy.

The tensions over the death of an 87-year-old theologian get at the heart of the political and religious divide in Iran, where no one else has had both the theological gravitas and the sheer political moxie to challenge the position of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet the diminutive Montazeri did so, repeatedly, in keeping with a lifetime of challenging authoritarian rule as un-Islamic.

Montazeri called the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “fraudulent,” and had “no religious or political legitimacy.” He said: “No one in their right mind” can believe the results.” He issued a number of statements after the vote, including that Iran’s Islamic Republic was “neither Islamic nor republic.”

During the 10-day religious ritual now under way, Shiite Muslims commemorate the 7th-century resistance and faith of their most important martyr, Imam Hossein. The seventh day of mourning for Montazeri will coincide with the peak of that commemoration, called Ashura – the anniversary of Hossein's death and a day on which Iran’s opposition “Green Movement” had long been planning to demonstrate their continued strength.

Son: Montazeri's grief over elections led to his death

Huge crowds bearing opposition green colors, ribbons, and flags came from across Iran for the funeral in Qom, Iran’s religious center that is located 60 miles south of Tehran.

“Dictator, Montazeri’s way will continue,” was one chant reported by opposition websites. Another chant: “Montazeri is not dead, it is the government which is dead.” Opposition websites estimated the turnout at hundreds of thousands – those numbers were also corroborated by a conservative website.

Protesters also vowed, “Innocent Montazeri, your path will be continued even if the dictator should rain bullets on our heads,” according to another reformist website, as translated by Reuters.

And mourners chanted another reformist rallying cry, “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein,” coined to combine the name of the 7th-century martyr as well as opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi who, according to official election results, lost to Ahmadinejad in June.

Mr. Mousavi, a former prime minister, and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, another opposition leader and former parliament speaker whose presidential bid was quashed in the official results, both made appearances in Qom to pay their respects.

Montazeri’s son Saeed was quoted on Sunday saying: “I think one of the main reasons [for his death] was his grief for the post-election events which troubled my father a lot,” according to a translation at

Clashes on Monday erupted between reformist mourners pro-regime Basiji militiamen, who reportedly shouted: “Shame on you hypocrites, leave the city of Qom.” Iranian officials ordered journalists to play down the story; some received calls saying they would be arrested if they went to Qom.

Within hours of the announcement of Montazeri’s death on Sunday, some 50 buses full of Revolutionary Guard troops were reported to have deployed to Qom.

The reformist website reported that hundreds of Basijis and hard-line clerics chanted pro-regime slogans outside Montazeri’s house, and then attacked “and tore up his funeral banners,” according to Agence France-Presse.

Once Khomeini's chosen successor

For decades before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Montazeri was a loud critic, exiled to a remote city, arrested several times, and imprisoned for years by the pro-West Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Before the revolution, he was appointed the representative in Iran of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who once called him the “fruit of my life,” and made Montazeri his chosen successor.

But Montazeri’s determination to rebuke injustice wherever he found it prompted him to challenge Khomeini over the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. During the 10th anniversary of the revolution in 1989, Montazeri delivered unprecedented critiques, saying that Iran’s continuing of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s had been a costly mistake – not the “sacred” defense, with God on Iran’s side, as officials portrayed the war.

And Montazeri further noted a “great distance” between the promises of the revolution what “what we have achieved,” adding that the “denial of people’s rights ... delivered the most severe blows against the revolution to date.”

Khamenei expressed condolences, but also criticism

Montazeri kept up his criticisms of Iran’s Islamic system – called the velayat-e-faqih and headed by a supreme theologian – which Montazeri had helped create. He frequently denigrated the far less consequential religious qualifications of Ayatollah Khamenei, and in 1997 was put under house arrest for six years for suggesting that the power of the supreme leader be curbed.

Back then, pro-regime vigilantes stormed Montazeri’s theological school in Qom, raided his offices, and shouted for his death. Graffiti on the wall outside once said: “Death to the anti-veli-e faqih.”

Khamenei expressed his condolences on Sunday, but made clear his view that Montazeri had failed a “difficult and critical test” – one that prompted Khomeini to oust him as heir and rewrite Iran’s constitution so that a lesser theologian such as Khamenei would be eligible to be the supreme leader.

But Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan Khomeini, paid tribute to Montazeri’s commitment to a principled and benevolent Islam. He said he “spent many years of his honorable life on the path of advancing the high goals of Islam and the Islamic revolution,” according to Iranian news reports.

Iran’s Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi called Montazeri “the father of human rights in Iran,” and considered herself “one of the millions of his followers and students.”

Dilemma for government

Montazeri’s death presents the government with a dilemma: allow religious street celebrations or crackdown on the participants? The important seventh day of mourning will coincide with Ashura, the peak of the religious rituals around the death of Imam Hossein more than 13 centuries ago.

Iranians traditionally take to the streets that night, and opposition activists – who have hijacked most officially sanctioned street rallies since the disputed June vote – have planned to take advantage of religious observances to make clear the popularity of their cause.

Iranian authorities have for months made clear that they would crack down on any form of political dissent, and Khamenei has described not accepting the election results as the “biggest crime.”

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