Grand Ayatollah Hosein-Ali Montazeri has passed into the history of the Iranian Revolution as he was, potentially at least, about to create another. Thirty years ago, he was a vital figure in unseating the Shah, and well placed within the circle of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In June, he became a prominent critic of the re-elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, finding the result virtually inconceivable. Green-clad supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi enthusiastically embraced him. The government looked on with suspicion.
His death is seen by some pundits of Iranian affairs as a blow to the democratic aspirations of the green movement that sprouted in the wake of the last presidential elections. His revolutionary credentials made him an indispensable figure for reformists, a part of his curriculum vitae that proved paradoxical. He had a hand in the foundational elements of the Islamic Republic, assisting to draft the Iranian constitution as the inaugural chair of the overwhelmingly powerful Guardians Council. This is evident by the prominent role left to Islamic jurists in the political process.
Despite being conservative, he seemed impeccable, straddling the divide between revolution and change. In the words of Abbas Milani, Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, Montazeri was ‘a remarkable man, full of honesty – and therefore, a potent critic and a source of inspiration for the regime’s opponents.’ (TNR, 20 Oct).
He also proved a consistent opponent of the Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He took issue with the radicalization of the Presidential office by Ahmadinejad and Khamenei’s firm support for the candidate.
In 1997, Montazeri’s obstinate stance earned him a period of house arrest for five years. But the opposition that gave him a gloss of credibility as a ‘democrat’ to the outside world was his repudiation of nuclear weapons as state policy in October. Sharia or reason, he argued in an issued fatwa, did not permit the use of such weapons in light of the sheer sacrifices that would result to ‘innocent people, even if these innocent lives are those of future generations’ (translation from Milani).
For all the optimism shown towards Montazeri’s dissidence, his death leaves a few questions unanswered. Opponents to regimes, even authoritarian ones, are rarely purified by their behavior of protest and indignation. The system did not suddenly become ‘authoritarian’ under the reckless and theatrical Ahmadinejad.
By 1988, the slaughter of dissidents within the Republic had begun in earnest. Those on the Left were particularly vulnerable to Khomeini’s sanguinary regime, dying by the thousands. Montazeri objected to such excesses, but, like a Politburo member within the murderous apparatus, he would not get out. The faith had to be served, and the goals of the Republic had to be attained. He was, at heart, a revolutionary, and the train of revolution is not one its passengers get off lightly.
Montazeri may well have been a ‘bastion for all people opposing the excesses of the system’, in the words of senior research consultant Mehrdad Khonsari at the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in London (CNN, DeC 20), but democratic governance is not of its own accord guaranteed by protest against authoritarianism. Too often the rebel becomes the oppressor, and the shoe is placed rather swiftly on the other foot.
With all that said, the reformist movement may have suffered a blow that will blunt it, if only briefly. The authorities will be concerned about the demonstrations Montazeri’s death will bring. They fear an infection of pandemic proportions spreading from the religious centre in Qom to Teheran. But in the end, the green movement may have to seek inspiration from other sources. As Lenin observed on revolutions, their impetus often comes from without rather than within.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com