The death of Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri was good news for Iran’s supreme leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei. With his passing, one of his biggest religious opponents is now out of the way.
Khamenei’s animosity towards Montazeri ran deep – in fact it was personal. Montazeri had dared question his religious credentials. What really angered Iran’s supreme leader is the fact that Montazeri had a valid point. Khamenei is not a real ayatollah. He never completed a resaleye amalie (equivalent to a PhD dissertation for Shia religious students), nor did he pass the 20 years or so required to reach the grade of ayatollah, from the mid-level ranking of hojatoleslam. He was upgraded in a space of three months (some have even suggested one night), prior to being appointed as supreme leader.
This is one of the main reasons why he put Montazeri under house arrest. The other is because Montazeri continued with his calls for Iran’s religious authorities to have a supervisory role, and not a legislative one. In other words, Iran’s clergy should not get involved in politics. Rather they should be there as an Islamic guide to the politicians and to ensure that their policies didn’t deviate from religion’s teachings.
Even when he was under house arrest he did not stop his criticism of Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and what he saw as their abuse of their powers and oppression of the public.
Despite his later opposition to the revolution’s leadership, at the beginning he was fervently in favour of Iran’s Islamic revolution. In fact, the shah sent him to jail for it for four years. And when he came out of jail, he backed Ruhollah Khomeini’s purge of the armed forces of shah loyalists. In fact, he did not complain when scores of officers and officials loyal to the shah were executed – because he saw them as guilty. His loyalty to Khomeini was unwavering.
However, as time passed and the killings got worse, he started becoming openly disillusioned. This is especially true when it came to mujahideen and Tudeh party members. To him, their mass killing by the thousands was becoming senseless. The execution of Mehdi Hashemi, the brother of his son-in-law, for his role in the Iran Contra affair added to this.
Montazeri, one of the highest authorities in Shia Islam, was as religiously gifted as he was stubborn. In fact some believe that because of his obstinacy he betrayed those who wanted to change the revolution for the better. Already appointed as the next supreme leader, all he had to do was to tone down his attacks and just wait for Khomeini to die. He could have started making real and powerful changes once he attained the post.
However, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and continued to criticise, to the point that Khomeini saw him as a danger to the revolution and replaced him with Khamenei as his successor. This was a kiss of death to Montazeri’s political ambitions.
Once he was placed under house arrest in 1989, Montazeri, despite his religious influence, became a marginal political figure. This is demonstrated by the fact that despite his opposition to the ruling clergy for the last 20 years, he did not manage to bring out the masses to the streets, like Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi did after the recent elections. He was much more a religious force than a political one.
In terms of replacing Montazeri, his son Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Montazeri perhaps could have been most suitable candidate. However he was killed in 1981 by a powerful bomb, planted by the People’s Mujahideen movement. Had he stayed alive, it is very possible that Mohammad Montazeri could have become a very powerful politician.
According to Mohsen Rafiqdoost, one of the first senior officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Montazeri was the first person who came up with the idea for this force. He was also one of the first advocates for the creation of a sympathetic force among Lebanon’s Shia, which later found fruition in the creation of Hezbollah.
These days, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, who is also a critic of the current administration, is considered as the second best alternative to Montazeri. However, he does not have the same religious seniority or revolutionary credentials. In terms of lending religious credentials to the opposition, it will be a tall order for the 72-year-old ayatollah to fill Montazeri’s shoes.
The death of Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri is a loss for the opposition in Iran. However, much like his legacy, they will march on.
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-born, and Iranian and British educated, Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv. This article originally appeared in The Guardian.