Ayatollah Montazeri has emerged as the spiritual leader of the opposition, an adversary the state has been unable to silence or jail because of his religious credentials and seminal role in the founding of the republic. He is widely regarded as the most knowledgeable religious scholar in Iran and once expected to become the country’s supreme leader until a falling-out with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution and Iran’s supreme leader until his death in 1989.
Now, as the Iranian government has cracked down to suppress the protests that erupted after the presidential election in June and devastated the reform movement, Ayatollah Montazeri uses religion to attack the government’s legitimacy.
“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,” he said in one of a flurry of written comments posted on Web sites since the election.
Ayatollah Montazeri’s disillusionment, and his alienation from the state, came within a decade of the revolution. He mocked Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision to issue a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses,” saying, “People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.”
In recent times, Ayatollah Montazeri has kept up the pressure, taking the unprecedented step of apologizing for his support for the 1979 takeover of the United States Embassy. He also has said that the Islamic Republic is neither Islamic, nor a republic, and that the supreme leader has lost his legitimacy.
“Independence,” he said in a recent speech on ethics, “is being free of foreign intervention, and freedom is giving people the freedom to express their opinions. Not being put in prison for every protest one utters.”