Iran's most senior dissident cleric will be freed after spending five years under house arrest for challenging the nation's supreme leader, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported Monday.
The decision to lift the house arrest order on 81-year-old Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whose health has been deteriorating, was made by the Supreme National Security Council, Iran's highest security decision-making body. It takes effect today.
The move followed intense pressure by reformist lawmakers. Analysts said hard-liners feared that Montazeri's death under house arrest could become a lightning rod for protests against the political system.
Montazeri was once in line to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's supreme leader, but the two had a falling-out months before Khomeini died in 1989.
Montazeri has been confined to his home in the city of Qom, about 80 miles southwest of Tehran, since November 1997 after saying that Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was not competent to issue religious rulings.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, apparently approved the decision to end the house arrest.
IRNA said authorities ordered local governors to deal with any riots. Montazeri enjoys huge support in Qom and Esfahan province, his birthplace.
Although talking about Montazeri has been strongly discouraged since 1997, many Iranians have called for his freedom.
Iran's state-run media no longer use his religious title and call him a "simple-minded" cleric. However, reformists still refer to him as a grand ayatollah.