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Iran eases limits on Monatzeri

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Authorities have moved toward easing restrictions on Iran's top dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, under house arrest since 1997 for challenging the country's supreme leader, a household member said on Tuesday.

An aide to Montazeri, speaking by telephone from the holy Shi'ite Moslem city of Qom, told Reuters security officials on Monday permitted the first visitors, including two leading conservative clerics, to enter the house since the arrest order.

But he said Montazeri, once the anointed successor to late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had refused to see them, declaring he would not allow anyone to dictate who could visit and who could not.

``He told them it was all, or no one,'' the aide said.

Montazeri, one of Iran's most senior theologians, has long served as a lightning rod for religious and political doubts about the system of supreme clerical rule.

He has taken on renewed prominence in recent months as reformers and conservatives within the clerical elite battle for influence within the Islamic republic.


Pro-reform forces grouped around President Mohammad Khatami, trying to strengthen civic institutions at the expense of the establishment clerics, say the velayat-e faqih, the system of clerical rule, must be subordinate to the law of the land.

Their conservative rivals look to the supreme clerical ruler as the source of ultimate political authority.

Since the death in 1989 of the charismatic Khomeini, who seamlessly united political and religious power, the debate has picked up speed, highlighted by Khatami's landslide election in 1997 on a platform of civil society and the rule of law.

The sensational trial of Abdollah Nouri by a special clerical court, which broke a number of taboos in its six public sessions, has put Montazeri back in the political limelight.

Nouri, a former student of Montazeri and publisher of the reformist daily Khordad, was convicted last week of political and religious dissent. Charges included publishing Montazeri's views, which the prosecutor said violated a government ban.

The court found Nouri, close Khatami ally and top vote-getter in this year's Tehran city council elections, guilty on 14 other counts. But it was the Montazeri charge that drew the most attention in the press and among the public.

In an opinion survey published on Tuesday by the pro-reform daily Asr-e Azadegan, 82 percent of Tehran residents questioned said Nouri was innocent, and 54 percent of those responding said the court wanted to punish him for printing Montazeri's views.


Last June, Montazeri denounced the conservative theological establishment in a letter printed in the weekly Aban for trying to dictate who may stand for parliamentary polls in February.

The letter said Iran's Guardian Council, dominated by hardline clerics, had overstepped its authority to protect Islam by interfering with the democratic rights of the people through the advance elimination of candidates from the ballots.

Nouri's daily Khordad reported on Tuesday that the visit to Montazeri's house was part of a gradual easing of restrictions. The arrest order denies him non-family visitors, his bank accounts are frozen and aides say his fax machine was seized.

``In the late hours of Monday night, the house arrest on Ayatollah Montazeri was eased as a first step,'' Khordad said. ``Fifteen people were allowed to enter through the southern gate of Mr Montazeri's house, the first such visit in two years.''

Montazeri has been Iran's most prominent dissident since 1989, when Khomeini dismissed him as heir apparent in a row over the treatment of political prisoners and other issues. He completed his fall in 1997 with a critique of supreme clerical rule and its current officeholder, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


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