On December 19, one of the Iranian government’s most prominent critics, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, passed away. His demise may yet portend the beginning of the end for Iran’s oppressive regime.
The regime may have been relieved that this independent source of religious authority and popularity among the people would no longer be around, but the Shiite holiday of Ashura fell on the seventh day following his death. The rallies mourning Montazeri combined with the Ashura celebration, creating a storm of anti-regime activity that only brutal suppression can contain.
Ayatollah Montazeri was a ferocious critic of the regime and advocate of ending clerical rule in government. Clerics, Montazeri believed, should serve as advisors to elected rulers. He wanted freedom of speech and assembly, and became particularly incensed in recent months over the fraudulent re-election of Ahmadinejad and widespread human rights abuses. His ardent opposition to the regime made him a hero among the people, despite his original role in bringing Ayatollah Khomeini to power and founding the Islamic Republic.
This year, he even issued a fatwa declaring the regime illegitimate and listed various transgressions committed by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad and their underlings, including hurting Shiite Islam by misrepresenting it. The fatwa even said that by breaking the “contract” with the people, “the people may remove the position holder from his post,” a not-so-subtle endorsement of overthrowing the government. He followed that up with an even bolder challenge to the regime: a declaration that Khamenei lacked the religious credentials to be a source of canon law and did not have the authority to issue fatwas.
Montazeri’s religious credentials as a Grand Ayatollah made such statements deeply unsettling for the regime. Originally, he was so adored by Khomeini that he was appointed as his successor. However, moral and religious conviction led Montazeri to disqualify himself from this post by speaking out against Khomeini’s massacres and human rights abuses. He even called on Khomeini to stop trying to export the Islamic Revolution by supporting terrorists and militias, and urged him to lead by example instead of force.
In 1989, Montazeri was placed on house arrest and the regime began trying to marginalize him. The current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was chosen to succeed Khomeini, even though he lacked the religious qualifications and Montazeri’s education dwarfed his. Montazeri has thus been able to speak with greater authority than Khamenei, especially as Iran’s economy and human rights situation spiraled downhill. Following the June “election,” a Seven-Point Manifesto was spread about Iran listing the demands of the opposition for democratic reform called for Montazeri to replace Khamenei as Supreme Leader until the constitution is changed to reconfigure the government.
The death of Montazeri couldn’t have come at a worse time for the regime. The opposition had already been gearing up for massive demonstrations during the Ashura holiday, knowing that the regime could not ban gatherings on that day. The mourning that followed his death led to growing expressions of discontent that extended into Ashura, creating momentum that only gunfire and violence could stop from spreading to every street.
Voice of the people: Montazeri’s death has galvanized Iran’s opposition.
It became clear immediately following Montazeri’s death that the opposition was energized. On the day before Ashura, about 50 members of the Basiji stormed a mosque where former President Khatami, a critic of the regime, was speaking and ended the presentation. It is said that the attack happened as Khatami tried to equate the uprising of Imam Hussein, who Ashura honors, with the opposition movement fighting for freedom. To make things even more offensive to the regime, this took place at the home mosque of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The regime eventually had to ban public mourning of Montazeri, leading to ongoing clashes. People in Tehran were seen having their Iranian flags confiscated for removing the religious symbols in them and were arrested for wearing black to honor him. On December 21, one woman walked up to the Basiji militiamen blocking access to Montazeri’s home and ripped up a photo of Khamenei, knowing she would be beaten and arrested. The next day, in Kerman Province, protests went to a scheduled public hanging of two alleged robbers and freed them. They were recaptured later, but this is a very aggressive challenge to the government.
Opposition forces claim that at least four protestors have been shot and killed, including the nephew of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the man on the losing side of the rigged election. Hundreds of thousands are demonstrating in Iran’s major cities, chanting “death to the dictatorship” and making direct attacks on Khamenei. Video and photos leaking out show large pillars of smoke over Tehran from the mass use of tear gas to stop the demonstrations from spreading. Regime forces even ran over two protestors—twice.
The clashes with the security forces are getting longer and more vicious. At least ten motorcycles used by the forces are said to have been set ablaze in Tehran, along with a state building, police van, a Basiji outpost, state-owned banks and a vehicle used by the Revolutionary Guards. The windows of the Oil Ministry have reportedly been broken. Reports say that there have been numerous incidents where the Basiji have arrested a protestor only to have the crowd fight back and free them. Some police officers are said to be refusing orders to attack the demonstrators.
Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi, another man who competed with Ahmadinejad for the presidency and has rankled the regime by reporting systematic rape and torture and demanding full rights for women, boldly predicted recently that the current regime “will not last” its entire four year term. Based on the demonstrations going on today, Karroubi may be right.