Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri: Iran’s defiant voice

Itried to visit Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri once. He was 75 years old and had just been placed under house arrest. It was November 1997.

My interpreter and I drove through the streets of the holy city of Qom searching for him. We’d been directed to his neighborhood by a minor dissident cleric we’d found teaching a Koran class. Now we stopped and asked every few blocks whether anyone knew which house was belonged to Montazeri.

Qom is a smallish city, the foremost center of Shiite scholarship in the world and the place where the Iranian revolution was born. Montazeri’s arrest had left its people worried and shaken, and wary of the secret police combing the streets. His school had been closed and wrecked, his books burned by vigilantes. He himself was assaulted. “There will be no laxity,” said supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Montazeri -- who died late Saturday -- had once been Khamenei’s teacher. He’d also been a close aide (and, at one point, the designated successor) to Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But now Montazeri had offended the regime during a speech to a roomful of students in which he challenged the most basic underpinning of clerical rule in Iran: the doctrine of velayat-e faqih. As enunciated by Khomeini, it called for the elevation of a supreme political leader from among the top ayatollahs to run the government, much as the prophet Muhammad had governed the Islamic community in the 7th century.


This supreme leader -- Khomeini was the first, and Khamenei has served ever since -- is empowered to dismiss the president, appoint military commanders and declare war. The leader is chosen not by popular election but by top clerics.

In his speech, Montazeri charged that Khamenei was not qualified to serve as the leader (because he was neither a senior-enough cleric nor a serious-enough scholar). And he argued that the leader should act as an overseer, ensuring that secular government doesn’t conflict with Islamic law, rather than as a politician running the machinery of government.

Khamenei was incensed. Montazeri remained under house arrest for six years. But if Khamenei thought that he could successfully silence the elderly cleric, he was mistaken; Montazeri remained a powerful symbol of opposition until his death.

After the crackdown following last June’s presidential election, he wrote: “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened . . . and forcing them to make false confessions in jail is condemned and illegitimate.”


I never met Montazeri. We found his house, but as we approached, the secret police appeared. We were bustled off, detained, questioned for an hour or so and brought endless cups of tea. Finally, we were escorted to the city line and expelled.

Montazeri lived 12 more years, serving each day as a reminder -- or warning -- that the revolution that was made in Qom could be undone in Qom as well.

-- Nicholas Goldberg