In Iran, ghosts of revolution’s mass killings come back to haunt
Beirut - In 1969, a pamphlet appeared in Qom, Iran’s religious centre, with a new take on Imam Hussein, killed with reputedly 72 followers during the Battle of Karbala in 680AD. “The Eternal Martyr” argued that the Shia leader had gone into battle not expecting to die but in hope of overturning the unjust order of Caliph Yazid I.
Many senior clerics condemned the pamphlet but among those who did not was Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a former pupil of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then in exile in Iraq due to his agitation against the shah. Montazeri believed in the power of human agency, of activism: The world should not only be understood, it should be changed.
This commitment to activism remained a central thread for Montazeri until his death in 2009 at the age of 87, despite his shift from being Khomeini’s designated successor as Iran’s leader to becoming an inspiration for the opposition Green movement. It has been inherited by his son Ahmad, at 60 recently sentenced to 21 years in prison on charges linked to national security.
The sentence, which in practice will be six years in respect of Ahmad Montazeri’s standing, is related to the publication in August on a website devoted to Ayatollah Montazeri, and edited by Ahmad, of a sound clip from 1988 in which the leading cleric criticised the prisoner executions carried out at the end of the 1980-88 Iraq war.
Ayatollah Montazeri referred to the executions, which were authorised by special process and carried out with great haste, as the “biggest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us”.
He was apparently speaking to the judges hastily appointed for special commissions, and he was certainly speaking as a leading Islamic jurist.
His appeal to the judges was one step in Montazeri’s fall from power. Given the responsibility of drafting the post-revolutionary constitution and regarded by 1985 as Khomeini’s designated successor, Montazeri was in March 1989 removed as successor by Khomeini. In 1997, Montazeri was put under house arrest after questioning the religious credentials of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the previously mid-ranked cleric who had succeeded Khomeini as rahbar — leader.
Montazeri said the leader should be pre-eminent religiously and endorsed by the people.
By the time of his death, Montazeri was seen as a guide by reformists, as someone who wanted not only to protect politics from religion but to protect religion from politics and to apply rules to both.
Some of the many thousands at his funeral wore the green scarves favoured by supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two reformist presidential candidates under house arrest for their support of street protests against the disputed 2009 presidential election.
But if Montazeri’s long career involved him wrestling with the complex relationship between God and politics in the Islamic Republic, his activism did not stop at Iran’s borders. He was a strong supporter of extending the international reach of the revolution, particularly in Lebanon.
His close ally, Mehdi Hashemi, a volatile character who had been accused in 1976 of killing an ayatollah who allegedly supported the shah, was executed in 1987 after his attempts to expose the secretive dealings of the Iran-Contra scandal. This was a time when the Islamic Republic looked to the United States and Israel for weapons to help fight Iraq.
While Khamenei and his then ally Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani saw expediency and vital national interest in such a move, Montazeri saw the principles of the revolution.
Iran’s factionalised politics has always encompassed the judiciary. Two active judicial figures in 1988, the time of the prison executions, are prominent today.
Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi is minister of Justice and Ebrahim Raisi, in 1988 Tehran’s prosecutor-general, was appointed by Khamenei in March as chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, the foundation that manages the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad.
Judges seem to be part of the political fray. Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief identified by some as a possible leader after Khamenei, has been recently dragged into public controversy after a reformist-inclined parliamentary deputy, Mahmoud Sadeghi, raised allegations that Larijani held public funds in personal bank accounts.
The charges not only recalled suggestions from former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the Larijani brothers — there are four prominent in public life — but also looked like a counter to constant sniping from principlists against the large salaries and bonuses being enjoyed by technocrats linked to the government of President Hassan Rohani.
Ahmad Montazeri is unlikely to abandon his activism even in prison and his father will remain an influential symbol even in death. The 21-year sentence reflects the leadership’s sensitivity over Ayatollah Montazeri and the continued importance of religious standing in Iranian politics.
Quite how important will be seen in the succession to Khamenei as rahbar as and when it comes.