Monday, December 21, 2009
Death of leading opposition cleric could spark new unrest in Iran
Sunday's death of reform-minded Shiite cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the most senior member of Iran's religious establishment, plunges the conservative government in Tehran into perhaps its most precarious state since the 1979 revolution that brought Islamic fundamentalists to power. Tens of thousands of supporters of Montazeri, 87, a founder of the modern Islamic republic who later broke with inspirational leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over policy, are expected to converge on the holy city of Qom for his funeral next week over the objections of the government in Tehran. Coming just months after the disputed presidential election in June that resulted in street protests, mass arrests and charges of mistreatment against authorities, Montazeri's funeral could pose a direct challenge to the rule of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, according to the New York Times. The government was said to be preparing for a showdown by dispatching legions of riot police to the Qom area and closing the main highway from Tehran. Opposition leaders, such as former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi, urged mourners to travel to Qom for the funeral, just days before a national day of protest planned for the Moslem holiday of Ashura on Dec. 27, the Times said. Montazeri, known throughout Iran as the plain-spoken cleric, had become an outspoken critic of the regime. He criticized Khameini and Ahmedinejad's government as non-Islamic and non-democratic, and accused the Basij militia, which has violently suppressed street rallies, of forsaking the "path of God" for the "path of Satan." Montazeri also has apologized for the 1979 sacking of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the holding of 53 hostages for more than a year, an event celebrated by the current government. “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate,” Montazeri wrote. Montazeri is considered the father of the concept of clerical rule, an idea he later said was misinterpreted by Iran's leaders, and was placed under house arrest in 1997 for criticizing Khamenei. The house arrest was lifted in 2003 after legislators appealed to then-president Mohammed Khatami, who also was a reformer, the Times said.