I’ve been following the Iranian election and ensuing protests with immense interest over the past few days. Through it all, I’ve been wondering what has been going on in Qom, amongst the clerics who wield immense authority. As I dug around, one name stood out was that of Ayatollah Montazeri, who made a statement earlier in the week that he considered the election results highly questionable.
I knew next to nothing about him, but a little bit of digging around suggests Montazeri is among the more intriguing clerics in Iran, and may be more liberal than I personally would have expected an Iranian ayatollah to be. Reading about him has forced me to acknowledge that I prejudged some of the participants. What has also struck me as I’ve read more about the clerical system in Iran is its discursive aspect, and how much authority Montazeri appears to have, apparently only because of his ideas. He has been at odds with the regime for years, but it seems to me that questions about his religious authority just wither away, and he remains resilient. There is a must-read article from the new York Times in 1989.
I’ve always felt that Iran was special in the Middle Eastern context because of the age, strength, beauty and resilience of its culture. I now think my feelings have been more right than I thought.
Ayatollah Montazeri was Khomenei’s designated successor till he was forced to resign in 1989. After his release from house arrest in 2003, he was quite outspoken about the injustice of a repressive regime. From all accounts he is a highly respected cleric, committed to change from within. I particularly liked this quote, he advised his listeners as “brothers and sisters to seek knowledge and don’t chant slogans about it.”
His political thinking has evolved over time, there is a remarkable BBC interview with various clerics where he spoke of how the execution of a 13 year-old girl was the catalyst for his split from the more hard-line elements. Particularly striking is his early criticism of the harsh treatment and arbitrary executions of critics. The current uproar may have made for strange bedfellows, since Montazeri seems to have come into conflict with Rafsanjani in 1987 over the Iran-Contra affair. In each episode I’ve read about, it seems Montazeri has been on the side of reflection and thoughtful action, and his opponents in the regime have been focused on creating and retaining power. He’s been a thorn in the side of the regime for a while, and they have gone so far as to make veiled accusations of treason against him in 1997. He has survived earlier, dramatic purges, and in 2007 he went so far as to question the confrontational manner in which the regime was pursuing its nuclear ambitions. I think the wikipedia article on him is required reading.