The Legacy of the People's Ayatollah: Montazeri

"If you're going to ask me questions about my regrets, plan to spend the next month or so in my house!" Those were the words with which Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri greeted me when I interviewed him at his home in the holy city of Qum four years ago. He was then 83 years old and could look back on a life in which he'd served as a founding father of the Islamic Republic only to become its most vocal critic. More recently, especially in the last seven months of protest and crackdowns following the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Montazeri has emerged as the authoritative voice of religious opposition to a supposedly religious regime. He has been lionized as an idealist speaking truth to those in a power structure riddled with cynical and corrupt ideologues. For many Iranians, Montazeri became more than a hero, more than an ayatollah; he was truly, as Shiites say, a source of emulation.

On Sunday, Iranian state news agencies announced that Montazeri had died at 87 of natural causes, and at first they didn't even want to call him an ayatollah. The paranoid regime in Tehran did its best to discourage people from attending his funeral on Monday. All major newspapers received a letter from Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance about how to play down Montazeri's death. The ministry even sent some agents to the printers to make sure that newspapers listened to its orders, according to one newspaper editor. They ordered the telecommunications company to slow the speed of Internet connections, and they shut down mobile phones in Qum for several hours, eyewitnesses said.

Iran's Ministry of Intelligence warned political activists not to attend the burial service next to Qum's Masuma shrine. The police and the Revolutionary Guards arrested others before they reached the city. Two Iranian journalists reported that security forces with riot shields and truncheons ringed Montazeri's house, and the streets were full of police in uniform and in plain clothes carrying walkie-talkies and stun guns. The Basij militia connected to Iran's increasingly powerful Revolutionary Guards corps attacked buses full of mourners, and the regime's partisans and thugs filled the main mosque in Qum rather than let a memorial service be held there. But according to eyewitnesses, hundreds of thousands of people came to the city anyway.

"Montazeri was, is, and will be the spiritual leader of the reform movement in Iran," said Siavash, who traveled to Qum from Najaf Abad, Montazeri's place of birth. In a phone interview with NEWSWEEK, Siavash apologized for not giving his full name. He fears reprisal, he said. "It's shameful that I don't even dare to mention my name in the funeral of a man who risked his life for us."

Montazeri's commitment to human rights was his greatest strength and also the reason for his fall from grace with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the most venerated and authoritative leader of the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979. Montazeri "was the only one who dared to stand up to Imam Khomeini and tell him that you can also be wrong--that Imam Khomeini, a great man, was not god," said Siavash.

In 1984 an assembly chose Montazeri as Khomeini's successor. But four years later, Khomeini forced him to resign when Montazeri objected to the mass killing of prisoners carried out on Khomeini's orders. Today, that incident and his critical voice afterward are what are most remembered.

Montazeri's pangs of conscience seemed, at the time in 1988, to have come a little late. The undeniable idealism that had made him a heroic figure during the years he was fighting against the shah had smacked of pure fanaticism once he was in power alongside Khomeini in 1979. Certainly he had trouble turning the corner from revolutionary to responsible official, and his doctrinaire positions spawned radical policies that all but ruined Iran.

In the early years when many in the Iranian government wanted to try to stabilize the internal situation, Montazeri insisted on exporting the revolution throughout the Middle East and far beyond. He initiated a conference of anti-imperialist movements that included communists from Panama and Nicaragua as well as Muslim fundamentalists from the Philippines and Afghanistan. Montazeri also played a part in exposing the Iran-contra affair, the abortive secret negotiations between the United States and Iran in 1985. After that, further official contact between Tehran and Washington was virtually impossible for more than 15 critical years.

Born into a peasant family in 1922, Montazeri moved to Qum when he was in his teens. There, he became a protégé of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was then a teacher at Qum seminary. Khomeini objected to the shah's land reforms and giving women the right to vote, calling them devious policies to uproot Islam in Iran. And Montazeri wholeheartedly agreed. When Khomeini was sent to prison and then exile in Iraq in 1964, Montazeri became Khomeini's most influential representative inside Iran. He spent many years in the shah's jails, where he was tortured by the shah's secret service, the SAVAK.

But Montazeri was more than a loyal follower. As one of Qum's most important scholars, he elaborated Khomeini's theological condemnation of the shah's regime. Montazeri's book about velayat-e faqih (the governance of the supreme jurisprudent), in which a high-anking cleric controls all aspects of life in the country, provided the core doctrinal basis for what has become the Iranian theocracy.

When Khomeini became Iran's Supreme Leader in 1979, there was no doubt that Montazeri would be his heir apparent. He was called "the hope of the umma [Islamic nation] and of the imam [Khomeini]." Enormous murals of him were painted alongside Khomeini's all over Iran. He made regular visits to the front during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) to boost the spirit of the troops.

But Montazeri was never a politician. And while many other figures in the Iranian leadership grew comfortable with the cynical lies and compromises endemic to the practical business of holding on to power, Montazeri became disillusioned. Occasionally he argued with Khomeini about what he considered the hypocritical policies of the young Islamic state. But Montazeri, out of deference to Khomeini and against his own will, kept his arguments to himself.

Finally, in 1988, only months before Khomeini died, Montazeri had had enough. In the summer of that year, after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the opposition terrorist group the Mujahedin-e Khalq organization attacked Iran with the help of Saddam Hussein. Khomeini, who had learned the practical uses of ruthless power quite fast, decided to teach his opponents a lesson. He ordered the mass execution of MEK prisoners still in jail and several of those who had been released as well. According to a Human Rights Watch report, almost 5,000 people were killed during that period.

According to reliable accounts, most Iranian officials were ashamed of this slaughter, among them then-president Ali Khamenei (now the Supreme Leader), then-prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, and then-Parliament speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (now leaders of the opposition). But none of them dared to condemn the killings or their imam in public. Montazeri did. He told Khomeini that the prisons of the Islamic regime were worse than the shah's and he said he was afraid for the future of the Islamic government.

For Khomeini, such insubordination was too much to bear. In a public letter, Khomeini called Montazeri a "simpleton" who was surrounded by the wrong people. Khomeini also ordered Montazeri to resign from positions of power and return to teach in Qum. After that, Montazeri held religious classes at his modest house and office until 1997, when he gave a sermon pointedly reminding Iran's current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, that he was not qualified enough as a religious scholar to hold the position. That was enough for Khamenei to order his thugs to ransack Montazeri's office in Qum and put him under house arrest for six years.

Montazeri remained confined there until 2003, although he continued to criticize the regime in different statements. In 1999 he said, "I know that I was one of the main proponents of a religious government, of course, a supporter of a real one and not what we have in our country now. Nonetheless, I apologize to the great Iranian nation for the oppression and the crimes that have been committed in the past 20 years." But it was only after the last presidential elections in June that Montazeri regained his prominence. The post-election demonstrations started as protests against the reelection of Mahmoud Ahamadinejad. But when Khamenei asked the protestors to go home and subsequently ordered the Revolutionary Guards to crush the demonstrations, the protests turned against Khamenei's leadership.

Montazeri was always fond of saying, "The Iranian revolution had two leaders. One of them was Imam Khomeini. The other one was the shah," whose mistakes did so much to undermine his own authority. In recent meetings with journalists and students, Montazeri mischievously compared Khamenei's misrule to the shah's. "They loot the mosque where I preach and put a picture of Ayatollah Khamenei there. What's the meaning of this? It means that he is responsible for the damage. People lose their respect for the leader," Montazeri told me once.

Khamenei offered his condolences yesterday. He called Montazeri "an exceptional jurist" and praised his revolutionary past. But Khamenei could not stop himself from reminding everyone of Montazeri's differences with Khomeini, which Khamenei called "an important test" that Montazeri failed. And he went beyond damning with faint praise. Khamenei asked God not to punish Montazeri in heaven and "forgive him through kindness and make his miseries on earth his punishment for what he has done." The last part of the message did not please the mourners on Monday. Many of them called Khamenei "a murderer" and Montazeri "his victim."

Ashura, the commemoration day for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the third saint of the Shia Muslims, will be in a week's time. Every year on Ashura, millions of Shias around the world celebrate Imam Hussein's battle against Yazid, the oppressive seventh-century caliph. The leaders of Iran's opposition movement, the Green Movement, have called upon Iranians to turn the Ashura ceremonies into a day of demonstrations against the oppressive policies of the regime.

Ironically, on the same day, according to Shia traditions, there will be ceremonies for Montazeri's seventh day of mourning. The Iranian regime can be sure that the hundreds of thousands of young people who have been to Montazeri's funeral Monday will compare him to Imam Hussein and will liken his oppressors to Yazid. Montazeri's death may not have an immediate effect on the Iranian opposition. But in the long run, in the absence of another leader with such standing, Montazeri's moral courage and his ability to say no to power will guide many young Iranians.