Thousands of supporters of Iran’s most senior dissident cleric marched through streets in his hometown and descended upon the country’s main theological center today to mourn his passing just days before the climax of a politically charged religious commemoration.
Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a pillar of the Islamic Revolution three decades ago who became a staunch defender of the nation’s current opposition movement, died late Saturday of complications due to advanced age, diabetes and asthma, his doctor told state television. He was 87.
His death could further galvanize the protest movement that grew out of disputed presidential elections in June but that has been driven as much, if not more, by raw emotion over perceived injustice as rational political calculation.
Montazeri was an important figure in Iran’s post-revolutionary period, a widely respected and creative Islamic jurist and political theorist. He was slated to take over as the country’s supreme leader until a falling out with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, over killings of political prisoners in the late 1980s. Montazeri became a harsh and defiant critic of the revolution he helped create.
“Ayatollah Montazeri will be remembered in the history of Iran as brave, open-minded and willing to say the truth at any time, even when encountering danger,” Fazel Maybodi, a mid-ranking reformist cleric and a well-known disciple of Montazeri, said in a telephone interview from the city of Qom, the country’s religious center.
His death comes as the opposition prepares to hold protests to coincide with the emotionally charged Muharram ceremonies marking the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and a highly revered figure within Iran’s majority Shiite Muslim faith.
Adding to the potential for unrest, the religiously significant seventh day following Montazeri’s death will fall on Ashura, the often-frenzied culmination of Muharram, when Shiites pour into the streets to beat their chests and weep in ritual mourning of Imam Hussein.
Opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi declared Monday a national day of mourning and called on Iranians to come to Qom, where he died and is scheduled to be laid to rest during the day in the shrine of Fatemeh Masoumeh, the second holiest site in Iran.
Already today the roads leading south out of Tehran were clogged with traffic as opposition supporters and others headed to the shrine city to pay their respects. Residents and students in the city of 1 million began text messaging and e-mailing friends in the capital to invite them to stay at their homes overnight.
On the restive campuses of Tehran, students gathered to mourn Montazeri, according to witnesses and videos posted to the Internet. The main market and schools of Montazeri’s hometown, Najafabad, shut down as thousands holding black flags marched through the streets.
“Dictator! Dictator!” they chanted, according to videotape posted to the Internet. “Montazeri’s path will continue.”
Security forces spread out along the main squares of the capital and were reportedly flooding Qom to head off any potential unrest. At least one student of Montazeri, Ahmad Qabel, was arrested en route to the shrine city, a reformist website reported.
State-controlled television carried minimal coverage of his death. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who followed Khomeini as the nation’s supreme leader, offered his condolences to Montazeri’s family while acknowledging the key role the cleric played in creating the ongoing rift within Iran’s establishment.
“For a long period of his life he had been at the service of the [Khomeini’s] movement,” Khamenei said in a statement published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “In the later part of his life there was an ordeal that I wish Almighty God will forgive and conceal, and that his worldly suffering will be atonement for that.”
Born in 1922, Montazeri pursued his religious studies in the seminaries of Qom. The scholar and theologian organized clergy to oppose the monarchical regime of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, spending several years in prison during the 1970s.
Cast out of the inner circle of power and stripped of his official posts after his split with Khomeini, the small, bespectacled cleric over the last two decades became an outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic, calling for greater democracy and respect for human rights and civil liberties.
His stature and relevance rose following the disputed elections, when he became a strong advocate for the opposition movement. He urged fellow clergy to stand with the Iranian people just as they had in the face of all “oppressive” regimes.
“The regime has savagely suppressed million-strong protesters who were legally objecting to the election outcome,” he wrote in September.
“The grand ayatollahs are well aware of their influence on the regime, and they know quite well the regime needs their approval for its legitimacy,” he continued. “Their silence may give the wrong impression to people that the grand ayatollahs approve of what is underway.”
The Iranian human rights group founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi awarded a Montazeri an annual award this month.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.