Tehran Braces for Fresh Protests After Death of Rebel Ayatollah

Patrick Goodenough | December 21, 2009 | 5:34am EST
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Mourners gather around the body of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri at his home in Qom, south of Tehran on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009. (AP Photo)

(Update: Tens of thousands of Iranian mourners turned the funeral procession of the country's most senior dissident cleric into an anti-government protest Monday, chanting "death to the dictator," the Associated Press reported. Slogans in support of the opposition rang out amid heavy security.)

– The death of an 87-year-old dissident ayatollah, one of the most senior scholars in Shi’ite Islam, presented a new headache for the Iranian regime Monday, with leading opposition figures declaring a day of national mourning.
In a joint statement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi invited Iranians to attend the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died in Qom on Saturday night.
Non-official media in Iran reported that thousands of mourning Iranians were making their way to Qom overnight Sunday. With Mousavi planning to attend, the event could be a new rallying point for supporters of what has become known as the green movement. Students were also reported to be gathering in Tehran.
Montazeri’s death came at an inopportune time for Tehran for another reason: it occurred during the Islamic month of Muharram, just days before Ashura, a day of mourning for the “martyrdom” of Hussein, Mohammed’s grandson and a central figure in Shi’ism, in Karbala in the 7th century.
Scholars say Ashura is still associated with the fight against repression and injustice; it was an important symbol used by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Islamic revolution against the Shah.
This year it falls on December 28, which will coincide with the end of a week-long period of mourning for Montazeri. Even before he died the green movement had earlier this month signaled plans to mount new protests around Ashura.
Mousavi’s call for Iranians to attend Monday’s funeral in large numbers was posted on various Web sites associated with him and the green movement. Mousavi was the man defeated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed election last June. Karroubi also ran for president in the poll, which was marred by allegations of massive vote rigging.
Montazeri was a key figure in the Islamic Revolution and in 1985 was named by the Assembly of Experts, a top body of religious scholars, as eventual successor to Khomeini.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (Photo: Montazeri Web site)

But following his criticism of regime actions including the execution of dissidents, he had a falling out with the supreme leader. When Khomeini died in 1989 he was succeeded instead by the incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a man Montazeri easily outranked in Shi’ite hierarchy.
From his base in Qom Montazeri taught and wrote, continuing to espouse dissenting views and becoming a thorn in Khamenei’s side. After questioning Khamenei’s religious credentials in 1997 he was placed under house arrest until 2003. (The Tehran Times on Sunday said the period of house arrest had been “due to his views on Iran’s Islamic establishment.”)
In the ferment following the June election this year Montazeri spoke out, despite his advancing years and ill health, returning to the theme that the regime was acting in dictatorial ways, under the cover of Islam.
In August, Montazeri issued an explosive fatwa in which he accused the government in Tehran of being “neither Islamic nor a republic.”
Referring to the state crackdown and jailing of opposition supporters following the post-election protests, he said it was pursuing a “deviant path.”
 “I still hope that [the] authorities will come to their senses before it is too late and will not inflict further damage to the respect that the Islamic republic enjoys among people in Iran and abroad, causing their own fall and that of the government,” he wrote, according to a translation published by the reformist news site, Rooz.
Just days before he died Radio Zamaneh, a Farsi-language media outlet based in Europe which describes itself as impartial and says its mission is to promote democracy and pluralism in Iran, quoted Montazeri as telling his students in Qom, “freedom means people should be free – not that the government is free to do anything and the people not allowed to say anything.”
In a brief statement on Montazeri’s death, Khamenei alluded to their differences. After praising his religious expertise and the “long portion of his life” dedicated to Khomeinism, he said that towards the end of Khomeini’s life, Montazeri had been “faced with a difficult test.” He asked Allah “to bestow forgiveness and mercy upon him.”
Letters to the imam
According to the France-based exiled opposition group, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Montazeri’s split with Khomeini came after he wrote to the supreme leader in 1988, urging him not to go ahead with mass executions of opponents of the regime, including NCRI members.
The NCRI said in a series of letters to Khomeini he had appealed to him at least to spare women, especially those with children.
Montazeri had argued that the way to counter the ideology of regime opponents was to challenge wrong logic with correct logic – “you cannot rectify wrong with killing; you only spread it.” In one letter he had also protested against the rape of “virgin young girls in prisons,” NCRI said.
NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi said in a statement Iranians should take part in Montazeri’s funeral and use the opportunity to chant, “Down with Khamenei.”
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