WASHINGTON -- Iran's Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri resigned Tuesday as heir apparent to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in what is widely seen as a swing in the political pendulum back to the even more fanatical tone of the revolution's early days.
There seemed little doubt that Montazeri acted under pressure. "As you have written, leading the Islamic Republic is a difficult task and a grave responsibility requiring greater capabilities than yours," said Khomeini's curt reply to Montazeri's letter of resignation. "Both you and I were opposed to your choice from the outset."
The tone reflected a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of a man Khomeini once affectionately called "the fruit of my life" and whose picture has hung beside his in government offices and shop windows throughout Iran for years.
Montazeri's resignation statement said that he is "not prepared" to take on the sweeping powers of the "supreme jurisprudent." But both Iranian and U.S. sources said that the move was clearly forced.
"Khomeini has decided that he does not like the tone that the revolution has taken of late, since the cease-fire (in the war with Iraq) in mid-1988," said a U.S. official. "Montazeri's comments particularly rubbed him the wrong way. Khomeini felt that the revolution's future was no longer in good hands."
Montazeri's fall from grace, after Khomeini's death sentence last month against British author Salman Rushdie, the author of "The Satanic Verses," is taken by many analysts as a severe blow to moderate forces in Iran.
"This is a sea change in Iranian politics," said Shaul Bakhash, Iranian-born author of "The Reign of the Ayatollahs" and a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "This is the strongest indication of the strengthening of the radicals or hard-liners."
"The period from the summer cease-fire to the death sentence on Rushdie in mid-February--when the mullahs were almost galloping toward renewed relations, foreign help; and the realists were in the ascendance--is now over," added R. K. Ramazani, a University of Virginia professor and author of "Revolutionary Iran."
Most Iran specialists expect that a council of between three to five senior mullahs will eventually replace Montazeri. But in the present stormy political climate, the process may take time. Meantime, U.S. specialists predict an unsettled period in Iran.
The political shift inherent in the purge of so-called pragmatists has important implications for foreign policy, Persian Gulf affairs, oil policy and the fate of 16 foreign hostages in Lebanon.
Little Chance of Better Ties
Although some European ambassadors have returned to Iran since their symbolic withdrawal last month over the Rushdie affair, Tehran is not likely to seek improved ties or move soon to help win release of European and American hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.
"Khomeini has decided to stir Iran's foreign policy back on a hard-line track," said a State Department analyst. "He has done this from time to time, but this time the change appears rather remarkable."
Montazeri, a Khomeini disciple since the 1950s, lately has been among the most outspoken advocates of pragmatism in both foreign and domestic policies. Since Iran's agreement to end the war with Iraq last July, he has backed restoration of civil liberties, protection for the private sector and the return of Iranian exiles. During the Islamic Republic's 10th anniversary celebrations last month, he even called for correction of Iran's image as "a nation of killers."
Montazeri's criticism was so prevalent that "he was increasingly looking like an opposition figure," said Mansour Farhang, the Islamic republic's first U.N. ambassador after the 1979 revolution and now a professor of politics at Bennington College in Vermont. "Khomeini clearly thought he had gone too far."
In a widely heralded speech last week, Khomeini criticized those who suggested that Iran "embark on a revision of our policies, principles and diplomacy" and "not repeat previous mistakes." State Department analysts said the speech was a little-disguised reference to Montazeri and others who have urged an opening to the West, moderate rather than radical economic reforms and an easing of the revolutionary climate at home.
Montazeri's apparent ouster follows the resignation of two leading pragmatists in the Foreign Ministry, U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Mahallati and Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Larijani, who was in charge of the U.S. and European portfolios.
Larijani had been a leading negotiator in restoring relations with France, Britain and Canada last year. He was also in charge of indirect contacts with the United States through intermediaries.
Mahallati, who comes from a distinguished clerical family and whose brother teaches at Princeton University in New Jersey, apparently had come under criticism for not doing enough at the United Nations about the Rushdie affair. He was also a leading pragmatist on foreign policy.
Mahallati cited health reasons for his decision. But State Department sources contend that the two U.S.-educated men were "sacrificial lambs."
Khomeini's speech last week condemned "those who believe that extremist slogans or war will cause the East and the West to be pessimistic about us and that ultimately all this will lead to the isolation of the country. Those who believe that if we act in a pragmatic way, they will reciprocate humanely and will mutually respect nations, Islam and Muslims" should have learned otherwise from the Rushdie affair, he said.
The Iranian leader demanded an apology from Western nations for publication of "The Satanic Verses," which many Muslims have denounced as blasphemous. Instead, after his call for the faithful to kill Rushdie, Britain broke relations and the European Community recalled its ambassadors and criticized Iran.
The surprise announcement of Montazeri's resignation reopens the question of succession. Montazeri was selected in 1985 after a three-year debate by a nationally elected Council of Experts.
The succession issue led to such infighting and insecurity, tied in part to ever-persistent reports of Khomeini's frail health in the early 1980s, that the leadership decided not to wait until his death to appoint a successor.
Finding a replacement will not be easy, Iran specialists say.
"Montazeri was, in fact, the only grand ayatollah with revolutionary credentials who was totally submissive to Khomeini," Farhang said. "There is no other single person who meets the job requirements."
To assume Khomeini's job as Iran's "supreme jurisprudent," a candidate must be a grand ayatollah--the most senior rank among Shiite Muslims--of which there are now fewer than half a dozen in Iran. Except for Montazeri, Khomeini's peers have either kept their distance from the revolution or openly opposed it.
BETWEEN THE LINES From Ayatollah Montazeri's letter of resignation to Ayatollah Khomeini:
"I myself was seriously opposed to (designation as your successor) . . . and now I openly declare my lack of readiness, and ask you to . . . allow me just like before, to remain a small teacher in the Islamic schools under your guidance. And if there have been mistakes, which are the nature of mankind, God willing, they will be rectified by your guidance."
From Khomeini's reply:
"Having accepted your resignation, I sincerely thank you for declaring your lack of readiness for the position of deputy leadership. . . . In order that former mistakes are not repeated, I advise you to cleanse your household from unsuitable individuals, and seriously prevent the comings and goings of the opponents of the system."