The death of Iranian Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri on December 19 has sharpened the crisis of the Tehran regime. Ayatollah Montazeri, 87 at his passing, was the most prominent and articulate religious critic of the clerical dictatorship headed today by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and of the country’s internationally provocative President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With Montazeri gone, the misrulers might have felt a sense of relief.

Instead, the passing of Montazeri produced a new wave of demonstrations against those in power. Montazeri’s standing as the main opposition cleric in the country was nothing new. He had been a mentor of, and was designated as the successor to, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the ultimate figure of authority in revolutionary Iran. Montazeri was a major theorist of the doctrine of vilayet-e-faqih, or governance by “the supreme jurist prudent.”

But in 1986, seven years after the revolution he helped inspire and organize, his descent from the summits of power began. His position was, at first, more radical than the policies of the Khomeinist state: he was outraged by the arrest of Mehdi Hashemi, Montazeri’s young associate, who called for active export of the Iranian Revolution, and promoted terrorism. Mehdi Hashemi opposed the involvement of Tehran in the “Iran-Contra” negotiations with the U.S. and was alleged to have leaked news of the discussions to a small periodical in Lebanon. Mehdi Hashemi was executed in 1987.

Montazeri’s disillusion with the regime thus began when the rulers appeared to turn away from an aggressive radical line. In 1988, however, he criticized the Iranian government for carrying out mass executions after the Iran-Iraq war ended, and in 1989 Montazeri’s position as Khomeini’s successor was nullified. He was put under house arrest from 1997 to 2003, in the Iranian religious center of Qom, where he remained until his death.

Although isolated, Montazeri spoke out against what he considered the illegitimate aspects of the clerical order. In the memory of Iranians as well as foreigners, his past as an architect of the tyranny he criticized, his extensive writings in justification of clerical governance, and his patronage for the ultra-radical line of Mehdi Hashemi, faded away - except for his distinction as the proposed successor to Khomeini, denied that promise.

With the internal conflict following the Iranian election in June of this year, Montazeri emerged as one of the most authoritative opponents of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, especially after it became clear that the pair would retain power and that the vote count was likely falsified to the detriment of the main opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Moussavi. Much of Montazeri’s discourse was broad enough to make him sound like a genuine defender of democracy. For example, on October 28, 2009, Radio Zamaneh, which broadcasts from the Netherlands, reported his denunciation of the mass trials of protestors against the stolen election. He then declared, “The authorities should at least have the courage to announce that this regime in neither a republic nor Islamic and no one is allowed to protest, to express an opinion or to criticize anything.” Participants in the “Green Movement” against Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have suffered rape of both men and women by members of the Basij militia. The nephew of leading opposition candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi was killed in the current demonstrations, and more deaths at the hands of the regime’s repressive bodies have continued.

Montazeri was a victim of his own contradictions. Although he became a symbol of discontent with the Iranian regime, he continued to defend its original goals and its basis in clerical rule. For him, the title of the Khomeinist political system - an Islamic Republic - meant that the people should freely elect representatives who would make laws under the supervision of a supreme religious official. In his view, the clerical stratum had usurped power from the people, which he argued negated the Islamic claim in the republic’s title as well as the presumption of electoral choice. He commented, “Freedom means people should be free; not that the government is free to do anything and the people not allowed to say anything.”

His funeral in Qom on December 21 brought hundreds of thousands of his admirers into the street. But a customary memorial service, to be held on the seventh day after his death, was to fall the day before Ashura, the 10th of Muharrem in the Islamic lunar calendar, which was observed on December 27. Ashura recalls the martyrdom in 680 CE of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala, in Iraq. Hossein was killed in an unsuccessful challenge to the Umayyads, a dynasty that had taken control of the Islamic empire. For Shias, Hossein’s death represents a sacrifice for justice, against injustice. At present, it is natural to see Montazeri’s trajectory in a similar light.

Hossein Ali Montazeri proclaimed his loyalty to the original conception of the Khomeini state while accusing its heirs of betraying its ideals. In supporting the opponents of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, he legitimized the demand for democracy in his country. To many, this unarguable and crucial fact absolves him of responsibility for his original involvement with the establishment of the Khomeinist order.

Those who honor Ayatollah Montazeri for the latter, rather than the earlier phase of his biography, will be vindicated if Iran finds its road to authentic democracy. But at least Montazeri expressed his disillusion with the system he had helped create, insistently and fearlessly. It is unfortunate that such dedication to popular sovereignty, during the 2009 Iranian confrontation, was found lacking in two places where it should have been most visible and audible. The first of these has been the current American presidential administration, which expressed a bland disregard for the outcome of the Iranian vote, affirming that in the “post-Bush” era Washington would seek a new posture of negotiation with whoever ruled Iran. President Obama’s latest pronouncement on the crisis consisted only of reassurance that the U.S. is “bearing witness” to the upheaval.

Second, Shia Muslims in many countries, including the U.S., maintained a shameful silence as their counterparts in Iran were denied a vote, then killed and tortured for their involvement in the Green Movement. The recollection of Ashura this year, apart from its impact inside Iran, should have caused a new reflection on the part of Shias regarding the meaning of the stand against corruption taken by Imam Hossein at Karbala more than 13 centuries ago. For Shias in Iraq, Bahrain, and other countries where they are well-represented, to have added their weight on the side of the Green Movement, would greatly increase the dissidents’ power.

If, in his death and its aftermath, Montazeri impels the Green Movement to a wider and more powerful challenge to the clique of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, his life will not have been in vain. But Iran must move beyond debates between clerics and others loyal to the basic order, over the real nature of the Islamic Republic, and find new, younger leaders who do not depend on religious status or past service to the regime for their credibility. Iran needs the emergence and growth of a civil society that will subject the entire historical experience of the Islamic Republic to a rigorous examination, and will find a way to end its experiment in clerical domination.

Executive Director, Center for Islamic Pluralism,

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