Why Iranian Grand Ayatollah Montazeri Was So Important

The reformist cleric's death has already set off protests in Tehran

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The death of Iranian Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri on Sunday quickly set off protests in Tehran, with students and others championing Montazeri's ideals of liberal reform as well as his criticism of the current Iranian regime. For those in Iran, Montazeri's importance as a proponent of moderate Islam and Iranian nationalism is clear. But for the rest of us, how can we appreciate the life and legacy of the man who was almost the Supreme Leader of Iran?

  • An Unrivaled Theologian The New York Times's Robert Worth writes, "Ayatollah Montazeri was widely regarded as the most knowledgeable religious scholar in Iran, and that gave his criticisms special potency, analysts say. His religious credentials also prevented the authorities from silencing or jailing him. Last month, he stunned many in Iran and abroad by apologizing for his role in the 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, which he called a mistake." Montazeri "long advocated greater civil liberties and women's rights in Iran, was angered by the bloody crackdown that followed the June election and issued a series of remarkable broadsides against the authorities."
  • Challenge To Iran's 'Theocracy' Hot Air's Ed Morrissey evaluates. "The death of Montazeri put Ali Khameini in a tough spot. Montazeri was one of the key figures of the 1979 revolution, which meant that a failure to honor him at his death would be an unconscionable snub for a government that clings to 1979 for its legitimacy. But the mullahs also knew that the out-of-favor cleric would inspire rebellion even after his death, especially so close to the summer of unrest throughout the nation. They had to allow his funeral to proceed and hope that their security forces would keep things quiet, and they barred the foreign press from covering it if it failed. So far, that strategy also seems to have failed."
  • Who Will Fill Montazeri's Shoes? The Guardian's Meri Javedanfar mourns, "The death of Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri is a loss for the opposition in Iran. However, much like his legacy, they will march on." He writes, "These days, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, who is also a critic of the current administration, is considered as the second best alternative to Montazeri. However, he does not have the same religious seniority or revolutionary credentials. In terms of lending religious credentials to the opposition, it will be a tall order for the 72-year-old ayatollah to fill Montazeri's shoes."
  • Reveals Khamenei's Religion Problem National Review's Michael Rubin says Montazeri was a constant reminder of the failure of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to live up to his religious duties as head of the Iranian theocracy. "While the media focuses on popular protests in Iran, such as those which occurred in Iran after this summer's flawed elections, the real Achilles Heel to the Iranian regime is Shi'ism. Simply put, it is hard for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to claim ultimate political and religious authority when he is outranked by many clerics who oppose him and his philosophy of government."
  • Iran Opposition Gains A Martyr Time's Robin Wright suggests Montazeri's death could be a net gain for the reform movement he championed. "Montazeri's transformation is a microcosm of Iran's revolutionary experience, and the evolving split among the clerics," she writes. "With his passing, the Green movement loses a spiritual mentor. 'His death is certainly a blow to the opposition, but it shouldn't dramatically affect their fortunes,' said [Iranian expat Karim] Sadjadpour. 'It could also prove a catalyst for more protests, especially given the fact that he died during Muharram [a Shi'ite holy month that celebrates martyrdom].'"
  • How Montazeri Fell From Power The New Republic's Abbas Milani recounts the struggle with Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s.
Tensions between Khomeini and Montazeri began when someone on Montazeri's staff leaked the story of secret deals between Iran and the United States--what turned out to be the Iran-Contra Affair. Khomeini executed the staffer, despite protestations from Montazeri. A few months later, as the nation learned of Khomeini's ill health, Montazeri learned of mass executions in prisons on the order of Khomeini. Prisoners serving time on earlier charges were to be retried--in procedures often lasting no more than a few minutes--and executed if found to be still opposed to the regime. Instead of keeping a pragmatic silence and awaiting Khomeini's death, as many of his advisors recommended, Montazeri wrote a harshly worded letter to Khomeini condemning the orders, saying that this is not the kind of revolution they had fought for together. This time, the price for protesting murder and moral perfidy was the direct wrath of Khomeini. Montazeri was not only stripped of all his power, but ridiculed in the press by many[...]
More importantly, he suggested that the supreme leader occupy his position only if he enjoyed the support and consent of the people, and that his tenure in office was intended to be limited in time and his authority impeachable by popular vote. In other words, he desperately tried to offer a more democratic reading of a concept that has been the chief obstacle to democracy in Iran for the last 30 years.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.