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Montazeri: Spiritual father of Iranian reform

Montazeri was a key figure in the 1979 Islamic Revolution who later accused his fellow clerical leaders of imposing dictatorship in the name of Islam.

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His criticism persisted after June’s disputed presidential election ignited a new wave of anti-government protest.

The cleric had long been critical of the concentration of power in the hands of the supreme leader and called for changes to the constitution which he helped draw up after the Islamic revolution to limit the leader’s authority.

Montazeri had often criticised hardliner Ahmadinejad over his domestic and foreign policies, including Tehran’s nuclear standoff with the West.

He had also called on other leading clerics to break their silence over incidents and rights abuses during the government’s crackdown on opposition supporters protesting the June presidential election, which they claimed was massively rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour.

In August, he decried the “despotic treatment” of protesters at the hands of the ruling theocracy. A month later, he accused the regime of committing “crimes … in name of Islam”.

Opposition movement to continue

Despite his stature, Montazeri’s death is not likely to have a profound impact on the opposition movement, which has moved past allegations of vote rigging to assert that the entire ruling system has been corrupted, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University.

“I think the current opposition movement has gone way beyond and above what Montazeri was standing for,” Abdulla said.

Opposes political and cultural restrictions: late 80s

Montazeri, one of the main architects of the Islamic republic, was a student and close ally of Khomeini, whom he was set to succeed.

But the cleric fell from grace in the late 1980s after he became too openly critical of political and cultural restrictions, most notably Iran’s treatment of political prisoners and opposition groups.

Montazeri resigned months before Khomeini’s death in 1989, and was told by Khomeini to stay out of politics and focus instead on teaching in the city of Qom.

Unfazed by such warnings, he continued to speak out.

Five year house arrest

The grand ayatollah also questioned the theological credentials of current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This was branded as treason, and in 1997 Montazeri was placed under house arrest.

Freed after five years on health grounds during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the grand ayatollah vowed that he would continue to speak out in defence of freedom and justice.

In his latest reaction to the post-vote crackdown on protests, Montazeri strongly slammed “the killing of innocent people, the arrest of political activists and freedom-seekers as well as their illegal show trials.”

Montazeri regularly met pro-reform activists and rights campaigners who sought his opinion on political and religious issues.

Although the dissident’s comments rarely appeared in the Iranian press, his views and interviews were published on his official website as well as by the foreign and Persian-language media based outside Iran.

Reporting his death, pro-government news agencies IRNA and Fars dropped the clerical title of Grand Ayatollah and their headlines read “Hossein Ali Montazeri passed away.”

“He acted as the clerical figure of rioters in the post-election incidents and his unfounded statements were widely welcomed by anti-revolutionary media,” the official IRNA news agency said of Montazeri.

“Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri died of illness and senility… in the Qom city,” state television website reported.