Iran After Montazeri
by MEA CYRUS in London
22 Dec 2009 03:35
[ analysis ] The demise of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri brought an important chapter in the history of the Islamic Republic to a close, but may have opened a new chapter for those in Iran who have defied intimidation to express dissatisfaction with June's controversial presidential election and its bloody aftermath.
One of the prime architects of the 1979 Revolution, Montazeri was in line to take over the rein of power from Ayatollah Khomeini, but went on to become a staunch opponent of the government instead. The regime reluctantly tolerated him, eventually placing him under house arrest and resorting to other means of restricting his influence: his seminary in Qom was effectively shuttered; a cleric who ran his website was summoned to the Special Court for Clergy; and three of Montazeri's grandsons were detained.
As a man who figured so prominently into the history of the Islamic Republic, Montazeri drew fire from all sides. In the mid-1980s, he was caught up in the Iran-Contra affair, one of the most controversial episodes in Iran-U.S. relations. Mehdi Hashemi, who was on Montazeri's staff, leaked information about the secret dealings and was later executed for it. Montazeri supported Hashemi to the end and paid a heavy price for it, labeled as "a fool" by Khomeini, who had once famously called him "the fruit of my life." After he fell out of the system he helped erect, Montazeri's pictures were removed from public places and jokes began to circulate about him as easily manipulated and foolish.
Over the years, Montazeri became one of very few clerics who dared to publicly challenge the religious credentials of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a rare speech made in 1997, he refused to recognize Khamenei as a Marja, or Source of Emulation, the highest religious status for a Shia cleric, after which Montazeri was put under house arrest for five years while government agents bulldozed the site Montazeri had used for his religious sermons.
At the end of President Khatami's first term, such pressures were lifted and students and others could meet with Montazeri more freely, but not without high levels of security. During a trip I made to Qom in 2001, the presence of plainclothes and uniformed IRGC agents on guard around his home and office was palatable. But Montazeri never backed down. In 2007, he told one of his students, Emad Baghi, "This is not an Islamic Republic" -- evidence of that would come to fore in the June 2009 election. Ayatollah Montazeri was first among the clerics to criticize Khamenei for the post-election chaos and employed such terms as "Estebdad" -- dictatorship -- to condemn the Leader for abuse of power. He reminded Khamenei that it was a sin to beat people with batons when they were acting within their rights and questioned his Islamic verdict that the confessions of detainees and other political prisoners were not the product of coercion and could be used as evidence against them in a court of law. In an apparent response to Montazeri, the Supreme Leader went public and announced that such confessions were legal if made by a person against himself. Montazeri even called on the military and Basij to refuse orders given to beat protesters and warned that everyone would be held accountable for their actions no matter on what justification they had been ordered to act so savagely.
The timing of his death immediately sparked many to assume the government was somehow complicit. Even though there is no evidence to suggest this, the Khameneists must be relieved to have a man of such colossal political and spiritual weight out of their way. The regime likely hopes that Montazeri's death will weaken the Green Movement by robbing it of a powerful ally, even as the leaders of the opposition try to iconize the outspoken spiritual leader and use his death to rally its supporters for a show of strength. For the reformists, however, reverence for Montazeri as a symbolic figurehead will not be enough to fill the void left by his death.
Iranians are known for singing the praises of the dearly departed, so Montazeri is guaranteed to be held in high regard in that respect,especially given the tense political climate in Iran. But the regime's long and heavy campaign of propaganda against Montazeri has chipped away at his name and stature. Kayhan, a newspaper run by Hossein Shariatmadari, the Supreme Leader's representative to the Kayhan Press Institute, was at the forefront of attacks on Montazeri, prompting Attaollah Mohajerani, Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture in the first Khatami administration, to ask in an interview, "Whose representative runs Kayhan, which has so rudely and abusively been attacking Ayatollah Montazeri?"
Ironically, even though Montazeri will be held in high regard by religious and conservative segments of Iranian society, many in the Iranian opposition do not hold any cleric in high esteem. Mullahs may be hailed when they come out against the government crackdown, but they can hardly be seen as leaders capable of uniting Iranian society under one flag after 30 years of a failed theocracy. In that sense, Ayatollah Montazeri was a revered figurehead to be used to attack the clerical establishment, but not one to lead it. That argument may apply to some extent to other clerics and ex-officials, including Mousavi. These figures are favored by the educated, secular elite only because they share a common goal: ousting Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. But until the time comes when the opposition movement is capable of producing leaders of its own, religious figures and ex-officials, dead or alive, are a good base to build upon.
Many flocked to Qom for the Montazeri funeral to showcase the strength of the opposition. The third, seventh and fortieth day after Montazeri's death will provide yet more calendar opportunities for such gatherings and protests, not to mention each forthcoming anniversary. Fearing this possibility, plainclothes IRGC and Basij agents so fully packed the mosque where Montazeri's memorial was supposed to have been held that the whole thing had to be called off. In interviews with the press, his son, Saeed, said that so many photos of Khamenei suddenly cropped up in the mosque that everyone thought it looked like the Supreme Leader's memorial service.
Reports of sporadic clashes, including an attack on Mousavi's car in Qom, in which shattered glass injured a companion, and subsequent attacks on the offices of the late Ayatollah and that of Ayatollah Sanei, are signals that the government is not going to allow Montazeri's death to be used as a platform to stage more protests. More importantly, these attacks appear to illustrate that Ahmadinejad and his IRGC patrons listen to the Supreme Leader only to a point. For even as Khamenei paid his respects, his militia went on a rampage, attacking Montazeri's mourning relatives and fellow clerics.
Even as security forces tried to dissuade his supporters from traveling to Iran's religious capital, reports and videos showed that the government had not been very successful. Many important clerics also attended and paid their respects to a man many believe was unique in Islamic studies. Some even asked for his burial to be delayed so more would have time to make their way to Qom to pay their respects, citing Khomeini's example as a precedent (his corpse was on display for three days). But the regime preferred Montazeri put to rest sooner than later.
Ironically, a Grand Ayatollah whose stature was above almost any political or non-political cleric, became an icon for those who seek democracy and transparency, or even the more radical notion of a secular political system. Just a few months ago, Ayatollah Montazeri admitted that what he and possibly others wanted in Velayat-e Faghih (rule of the jurisprudent) as the basis of a post-revolutionary governmental system was a "mistake," and declared that the system had derailed from its intended course. Yet the government's official line towards Montazeri depicted him as the one who changed course and became nothing short of a puppet for anti-revolutionary elements, serving enemies and Zionists.
The Ayatollah even renounced his support of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, calling it a mistake as well. However, the initial clash that made Montazeri an enemy of the state was his robust and public protest to mass executions of thousands of prisoners -- many MKO members, an organization that with Iraqi help tried to overthrow the clerical regime during the war in the late 1980s.
In a famous letter to Ayatollah Khomeini, Montazeri strongly condemned the killings and called them an act that would reflect poorly on the regime. Instead of heeding his call, the political propaganda machine of the Islamic Republic worked hard to depict him as an impotent and incapable person who did not deserve to lead the country. Khomeini, in the letter in which he dismissed Montazeri as his successor, stated that he had not been in favor of electing him (by the Assembly of Experts) to be second in line to power because of his "weakness and foolishness."
Clerics such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was then Speaker of the Parliament, collaborated in the campaign. Rafsanjani came down on the side of the government and remained cautious in later years to avoid publicly sympathizing with Montazeri. This explains why many political clerics did not attend his burial; those who did were mainly from a camp of clerics noted for their dissent. There were other well known clerics who rushed to pay their respects, but like Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, they were not involved in politics, and saw Montazeri primarily as a religious figure.
After Khomeini, any political or religious figure who exhibited any sign of sympathy towards Montazeri was ostracized, even in the realm of Islamic seminaries. The new Supreme Leader saw to it, for example, that Mousavi and Abdullah Nouri, a former Interior Minister, were politically redundant as they continued to show outright respect for Montazeri. In Qom, being a student in Montazeri's school carried certain dangers, but also an element of distinction. One academic I knew almost whispered in our university classes whenever he wanted to mention Montazeri's contributions to Islamic political thought. He called him Faghih-e Alighadr (His Excellency or highly important scholar), a trend that continues to this day.
In Montazeri's death, the Green Movement lost an important figure at the top of its ranks whose ideas and criticism were very hard for the regime to combat. Mousavi and other opposition leaders used to depend on Ayatollah Montazeri for advice and to reach other clerics rankled with the establishment. Others, and to some degree, Ayatollah Yousef Saanei, have been active in encouraging people to resist crackdowns. But the lack of such an important leading figure will have its effects on the movement.
Still, in person or spirit, Montazeri and other clerics lack the appeal to be leaders of the political opposition, and ultimately, a new government. The trend so far in the Islamic Republic has been to veer away from the clergy in political posts. Just compare the cleric-dominated second or third Majlis with the one of today. Or take posts as high as the president, where new leaders are coming from the ranks of the military and security apparatus, not Qom.
To stay relevant, clerics have started to side with the people. When you listen carefully to their rhetoric, they have increasingly taken their cues from the demands and wishes of the people, and acted accordingly. Not too long ago, high clerics such as Montazeri or Khomeni churned out revolutionary principles, like that of an Islamic government in the framework of a republic. But now, they are no longer in a position to ask people what to do or seek. Instead, they listen and lend their political and religious weight to the people.
This makes it almost impossible to predict who will be first in line to take over after Khamenei dies. But that is not to say that clerics have seized to carry any influence or power, just that their image has been tarnished and their influence on the wane. A majority in the rural and even urban areas of Iran continue to be religious, which gives clerics some sway. However, a historical undercurrent has been long at work in the past century, at least since the Constitutional Revolution, which could eventually push clerics back to the seminaries and separate politics from religion.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau