|Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was a leader of the Islamic Revolution but became a critic of Ayatollah Khomeini. (Reuters/File 2003)|
Hossein Ali Montazeri; led Iran’s reformers
TEHRAN - Ayatollah Montazeri, a key figure in the 1979 Islamic Revolution who later split with Iran’s leaders and became the spiritual father of Iran’s reform movement, died yesterday of heart failure while sleeping in his home in Qum, his son Ahmad told Iran’s official IRNA news agency. He was 87.
His criticism persisted after June’s disputed presidential election ignited a new wave of antigovernment protest. In particular, he opened the door to direct condemnation of the ruling clerics, a bold step that energized Iran’s young activists. In August, he decried the “despotic treatment’’ of protesters at the hands of the ruling theocracy. A month later, he accused the regime of committing “crimes . . . in name of Islam.’’
Hossein Ali Montazeri was born in Najafabad in Isfahan Province to a peasant family. He studied under Ayatollah Khomeini in Qum and became involved in networks opposed to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, leading to a four-year prison sentence in 1974.
After the Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah, Ayatollah Montazeri was designated to succeed Khomeini, the movement’s spiritual and political founder, as the supreme leader.
Ayatollah Montazeri helped draft the nation’s new constitution, which was based on a concept called velayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamic jurists. That concept enshrined a political role for Islamic clerics.
But a deep ideological rift soon developed with Khomeini. Ayatollah Montazeri envisioned the Islamic experts as advisers to the government who should not have outright control to rule themselves. He was also among those clerics who believed the power of the supreme leader comes from the people, not from God.
Taking an opposing view, Khomeini and his circle of clerics consolidated power.
The two men also diverged over Khomeini’s fatwa, or religious decree, calling for author Salman Rushdie to be killed for writing “The Satanic Verses.’’ And Ayatollah Montazeri sharply criticized a wave of executions of political prisoners in the late 1980s.
During that period, Ayatollah Montazeri was gradually stripped of his official duties and became the focus of a high-level campaign to undermine his credentials as a leader and theologian.
In 1997, Ayatollah Montazeri was placed under house arrest in Qom after saying the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was not qualified to rule.
The penalty was lifted in 2003, but Ayatollah Montazeri remained defiant, saying the freedom that was supposed to follow the 1979 revolution never happened.
Despite his stature, Ayatollah Montazeri’s death is not likely to have a profound impact on the opposition movement, which has moved past allegations of vote-rigging to assert that the ruling system has been corrupted, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University.
“I think the current opposition movement has gone way beyond and above what Montazeri was standing for,’’ Abdulla said.
But his strong denunciations against Khamenei helped break the taboos against such criticism and pushed the protesters into bolder acts of defiance. In demonstrations earlier this month, students shouted “Death to the dictator!’’
Khamenei issued a statement of condolence yesterday that contained a mixed message.
He praised Ayatollah Montazeri as an outstanding jurist, but added that he hoped God would forgive him for what he called Ayatollah Montazeri’s “crucial test,’’ a reference to his falling out two decades ago with the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The opposition’s leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, called Ayatollah Montazeri’s death “a great loss,’’ and said he is hopeful other clerics will fill the gap left behind and answer the needs of Iran’s younger generation.
Mousavi’s assertions that fraud deprived him of the presidency in the June 12 election set off weeks of street protests.
He and another defeated proreform candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, called for a day of mourning and urged people to join today’s funeral of “the legend of jurisprudence and spirituality.’’