Timing, as the cliché goes, is everything. And in this case it may be right: Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, Iran's most prominent dissident cleric died at his home in the holy city of Qom in the early hours of Sunday morning. The significance of his death was apparent Monday as opposition Web sites showed video of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people who had flocked to Qom from Tehran and several other cities, despite reported arrests and harassment by security forces, to attend his funeral. Al Jazeera also reported the crowd as numbering in the "hundreds of thousands." It didn't take long before the ceremony took on a political bent with some reportedly chanting "Death to Dictator," a surprising development in a conservative city populated mostly by clerics and religious students. Some Web sites even reported clashes between crowds and members of the Basij, a pro-government militia.
Montazeri, 87, emerged as the de facto spiritual leader of the Green Movement in recent months, speaking out forcefully against the post-election crackdown and even criticizing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a high-ranking cleric, his statements gave the protestors some religious legitimacy in their criticism of the regime. But it's now, in death, that Montazeri may have his biggest impact, as a martyr and powerful symbol for the movement, who will no doubt use his death as an excuse to continue their protests. Perhaps more important, Montazeri's death gives dissident clerics, who have remained largely silent in recent months, an opening to bring their protest to the streets. Opposition Web sites reported that Ayatollah Yousuf Saanei, Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri, and several other prominent dissident clerics attended Monday's ceremony.
There is additional significance to the timing of Montazeri's death, which falls at the beginning of the month of Moharram, a period of mourning for Shiites. And the one-week anniversary of his death will be on Ashoura, the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein which is the most significant day of mourning in the Shiite religious calendar. Opposition members had already planned street demonstrations for Ashoura and now, with Montazeri's death, those protests will likely be much larger.
Montazeri wasn't always on the outs with the regime. In the early '80s he was a key regime insider whom Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had designated as his successor and once called the "fruit of my life." But Montazeri's outspoken criticism of the arrest and execution of dozens of regime opponents in the late '80s put him at odds with Khomeini and other top officials of the Islamic Republic. In 1997, Khamenei placed him under house arrest after Montazeri challenged his authority. At the funeral Monday, some protestors chanted "Montazeri, congratulations on your freedom!" a cynical reference to his years of confinement.
Perhaps more surprising, Khamenei even issued a public statement of condolence Sunday only a short time after the press ministry warned local newspapers not to print articles about Montazeri's death. It was a clear sign that the regime is worried about the fallout from his death, which has emboldened the Green Movement.