Maziar Bahari: The Legacy of the People's Ayatollah

Roundup: Talking About History

[Maziar Bahari is a Canadian/Iranian filmmaker and Newsweek correspondent.]

"If you're going to ask me questions about my regrets, plan to spend the next month or so in my house!" Those were the words with which Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri greeted me when I interviewed him at his home in the holy city of Qum four years ago. He was then 83 years old and could look back on a life in which he'd served as a founding father of the Islamic Republic only to become its most vocal critic. More recently, especially in the last seven months of protest and crackdowns following the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Montazeri has emerged as the authoritative voice of religious opposition to a supposedly religious regime. He has been lionized as an idealist speaking truth to those in a power structure riddled with cynical and corrupt ideologues. For many Iranians, Montazeri became more than a hero, more than an ayatollah; he was truly, as Shiites say, a source of emulation.

On Sunday, Iranian state news agencies announced that Montazeri had died at 87 of natural causes, and at first they didn't even want to call him an ayatollah. The paranoid regime in Tehran did its best to discourage people from attending his funeral on Monday. All major newspapers received a letter from Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance about how to play down Montazeri's death. The ministry even sent some agents to the printers to make sure that newspapers listened to its orders, according to one newspaper editor. They ordered the telecommunications company to slow the speed of Internet connections, and they shut down mobile phones in Qum for several hours, eyewitnesses said.

Iran's Ministry of Intelligence warned political activists not to attend the burial service next to Qum's Masuma shrine. The police and the Revolutionary Guards arrested others before they reached the city. Two Iranian journalists reported that security forces with riot shields and truncheons ringed Montazeri's house, and the streets were full of police in uniform and in plain clothes carrying walkie-talkies and stun guns. The Basij militia connected to Iran's increasingly powerful Revolutionary Guards corps attacked buses full of mourners, and the regime's partisans and thugs filled the main mosque in Qum rather than let a memorial service be held there. But according to eyewitnesses, hundreds of thousands of people came to the city anyway.

"Montazeri was, is, and will be the spiritual leader of the reform movement in Iran," said Siavash, who traveled to Qum from Najaf Abad, Montazeri's place of birth. In a phone interview with NEWSWEEK, Siavash apologized for not giving his full name. He fears reprisal, he said. "It's shameful that I don't even dare to mention my name in the funeral of a man who risked his life for us."

Montazeri's commitment to human rights was his greatest strength and also the reason for his fall from grace with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the most venerated and authoritative leader of the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979. Montazeri "was the only one who dared to stand up to Imam Khomeini and tell him that you can also be wrong--that Imam Khomeini, a great man, was not god," said Siavash.

In 1984 an assembly chose Montazeri as Khomeini's successor. But four years later, Khomeini forced him to resign when Montazeri objected to the mass killing of prisoners carried out on Khomeini's orders. Today, that incident and his critical voice afterward are what are most remembered.

Montazeri's pangs of conscience seemed, at the time in 1988, to have come a little late. The undeniable idealism that had made him a heroic figure during the years he was fighting against the shah had smacked of pure fanaticism once he was in power alongside Khomeini in 1979. Certainly he had trouble turning the corner from revolutionary to responsible official, and his doctrinaire positions spawned radical policies that all but ruined Iran.

In the early years when many in the Iranian government wanted to try to stabilize the internal situation, Montazeri insisted on exporting the revolution throughout the Middle East and far beyond. He initiated a conference of anti-imperialist movements that included communists from Panama and Nicaragua as well as Muslim fundamentalists from the Philippines and Afghanistan. Montazeri also played a part in exposing the Iran-contra affair, the abortive secret negotiations between the United States and Iran in 1985. After that, further official contact between Tehran and Washington was virtually impossible for more than 15 critical years...

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