The contradictory figure of Ayatollah Montazeri died in the early hours of Sunday, December 20. In one of his last statements, he warned that the current crisis in Iran was threatening the entire basis of the regime.
Yet how did this man – originally a stalwart of the state, one of the main architects of the Islamic Republic of Iran and, until 1989, a designated successor of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Khomeini – come to such a dramatic conclusion?
The official version of events has it that they fell out over Montazeri’s opposition to the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. The truth is that conflict had flared between them earlier. Official history will remember Montazeri as the man who played a crucial role exposing the Iran-Contra scandal. This was a scandal that both revealed the emptiness of the regime’s ‘anti-imperialist’ credentials and also something about the nature of this man; a senior, yet simple cleric who had maintained illusions about these rhetorical pretensions (despite weight of the evidence to the contrary that had piled up by the mid-1980s).
Thus, he was genuinely horrified to discover that the inner circles of the regime – from Khomeini to Hashemi Rafsanjani, from Khamenei to Moussavi – were deeply implicated in the arms for hostages scandal. Iran was sold arms via Israel, including Hawk missiles, at a time at a time when the USA was publicly calling for a worldwide ban arms sales to the Islamic state.
Iran was loudly claiming to implacably oppose both US imperialism and the Zionist state. Yet the quid-pro-quo for the Israeli-brokered arms deal was Iran facilitating the release of US hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The negotiator in the US was Lt. Colonel Oliver North, a military aide to the National Security Council, reporting to Robert McFarlane, and later John Poindexter. An inventive reactionary, North improvised an addendum to the plan: diverting proceeds from the arms sales to support the counterrevolutionary Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Montazeri was horrified to when he found out about this sordid deal. It was his office that leaked the news of Reagan’s secret talks with Iran to a Lebanese newspaper and provided background information about the rest of the deal. The Lebanese paper’s scoop was picked up by the world’s media and this broke Iran-Contra affair worldwide.
Khomeini and others involved in the conspiracy were furious and started a campaign to undermine Montazeri. His solidarity organisation (set up to support ‘anti imperialist’ movements throughout the world) was taken over and its head, one of Montazeri’s relatives Mehdi Hashemi, was executed.
To undermine him, Khomeini’s inner circle (including Rafsanjani and Moussavi) encouraged rumours and jokes about his simple- mindedness. When Montazeri met students returning from higher education abroad, they introduced themselves to him as holders of Phds and MScs. Montazeri was supposed to have replied that his son had a BMW.
At the end of the Iran Iraq war in 1988, Khomeini issued orders to execute political prisoners who were beyond ‘redemption’. That year, thousands of Mojahedin and communist prisoners were executed – despite the fact that most of them had already received custodial prison sentences or even had served their sentence and were eligible for release.
Montazeri broke ranks with other clerics in condemning the executions. In a letter to Khomeini he wrote : “our prison system and our human rights record are worse than the Shah’s regime”. All this despite the fact that he was aware of Khomieni’s illness and was thus potentially weeks away from becoming “Supreme religious leader” himself.
Of course had he not been an Ayatollah, he would have paid with his life for any of the above offences. As an Ayatollah, Montazeri’s worst punishment was a period of house arrest in 1997 after he had criticised Khamenei’s leadership. In June 2009, he called the presidential election results fraudulent and later issued a fatwa against Ahmadinejad’s government.
Yet protest movements against religious states do not need ‘spiritual leaders’, and Montazeri himself would have objected to being dubbed as such by sections of the ‘Green Movement’ and the media. However, in one of his last statements he warned Khamenei that the current political crisis in Iran was now endangering the very existence of the Islamic regime. It is likely that the words of this senior cleric, one of the founding figures of an Islamic Republic now riven with crisis, will haunt Iran’s rulers in the months to come as they stumble from one crisis to another.
Yassamine Mather, Hopi Steering Committee