The funeral of Iranian Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri attracted hundreds of thousands of mourners to Qom on Monday and "was turned into an opposition rally" attended both by Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the Financial Times of London reported Monday.[1]  --  A BBC TV news report, with some photographs, can be viewed here.  --  Video from a protest march in Qom can be seen here and here.  --  The London Guardian pointed out that the size of the funeral "openly challenged the authority of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei," since Montazeri was "a dissident cleric who had questioned Khamenei's fitness to rule."[2]  --  The London Independent said the day was a demonstration that the régime does not have protesters "under control."[3]  --  Ironically, a guest columnist wrote in Tuesday's Times of London, the West's obsession with Iran's nuclear program may "provide a dying regime with a lifeline at the moment of its greatest vulnerability," and "a military attack would be the ultimate gift to the theocracy, something hardline elements of the regime are reportedly seeking actively to provoke."[4] ...


Middle East


By Najmeh Bozorgmehr

Financial Times (London)
December 20, 2009

TEHRAN -- The funeral of Iran’s most senior dissident cleric on Monday was turned into an opposition rally in the holy city of Qom, with mourners chanting “death to the dictator,” in spite of attempts by the authorities to stop it.

The estimates of people who attended for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri vary from tens to hundreds of thousands.  But the boost for the opposition could be shortlived.

There were several reports of clashes between opposition supporters and security forces.  Late on Monday night it was reported on a conservative website that some 2,000 hardline Montazeri opponents had attacked the Qom memorial service.

If true, such reports underline the divisive nature of the 87-year-old cleric, who was once the designated successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution.

In recent years he has held an unassailable position within the regime that allowed him to criticize its leaders without facing serious punishment.  It gave him a free hand to condemn the post-election violence this summer and even take a swipe at the country’s supreme leader.

The opposition now has no equivalent figure, leaving its leaders with the challenge of keeping up with their increasingly radical supporters.

“Mr. Montazeri’s commitment to freedom and his political courage was unique and his death creates a vacuum which cannot be filled easily,” said Abolfazl Moussavian, a reform-minded cleric.

The condolences of Iran’s top politicians and clerics, in particular Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, prevented a large conflict with the mourners.

Mr. Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another senior opposition figure who lost to fundamentalist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June election, both attended Monday’s ceremony, which international media were banned from covering.

The comparatively incident-free funeral could also be because of the general anger among senior clerics in Qom with the conduct of the regime.

“The clergy has been generally unhappy with the suppression after the election and thinks there should have been compromises with the opposition,” said one analyst.

It is unprecedented for the clerical establishment in Qom to be so unhappy with a government, but there is no sign that they are going to deprive the regime of the religious legitimacy that Qom -- the largest seminary in Shia Islam -- provides.  “In the bigger picture they are still satisfied that the Islamic regime holds up the flag of Islam in the country and spends money for religious schools and scholars,” the analyst added.

Analysts in Qom and Tehran said the death of Mr. Montazeri -- one of the most respected theologians in Shiism -- is also a loss for advocates of a more modern interpretation of the religion.  Mr. Montazeri tried to overcome the obstacles of reconciling Islam with modernity through fatwas or new religious decrees.

His support for equal blood money for Muslims and non-Muslims and considering “citizen rights” for Bahais -- an offshoot of Shia Islam considered heretical by the regime -- were among his most controversial rulings at the conservative Qom seminary.

Such positions and his condemnation of political executions in the 1980s, which cost him his position as successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, saw human rights groups bestow awards on him recently.

Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, called him the “father of human rights” in Iran.

Analysts in Qom expected Ayatollah Yusef Sanei to attract the followers of Mr Montazeri.

“Mr. Sanei is the top choice by helping the creation of a new wave in Qom with such subjects as morality in media,” added the analyst.


World news



By Robert Tait

** Huge crowds in Qom defy security clampdown -- Mourners clash with pro-government forces **

Guardian (London)
December 21, 2009

Hundreds of thousands of opposition protesters openly challenged the authority of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday by mourning the death of a dissident cleric who had questioned Khamenei's fitness to rule.

The mass turnout in Qom for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who died on Sunday, aged 87, came just a day after Khamenei had dismissed him as a figure who had failed "a big test" and ordered a security clampdown to deter mourners from paying their respects.

Instead, the event turned into the opposition Green Movement's biggest show of strength in months.  The sheer numbers -- including many wearing the opposition's signature color of green -- seemed to confirm the Islamic regime's fears that Montazeri's death could provide a fresh spark for the simmering discontent over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hotly disputed re-election last June.

The authorities were powerless to stop a gathering officially meant to mourn the passing of one of the pillars of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  But its overtly political nature was displayed by the presence of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two defeated reformists from last summer's poll.

Montazeri had emerged as a spiritual leader to the pair after denouncing the election as fraudulent and declaring that the current ruling regime was neither Islamic nor a republic.

Those political overtones prompted clashes between mourners and security forces, with witnesses reporting that members of the pro-government basij militia rode into the crowds on motorcycles.  Teargas was said to have been fired on at least two occasions.

Hardline pro-government forces ripped up a condolence banner outside Montazeri's house while mourners were reported to have thrown stones at police who tried to stop them chanting pro-Montazeri slogans.  Mourners responded defiantly when ordered by loudspeaker not to chant, breaking into shouts of "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein" in support of Mousavi.  When a crowd of pro-government supporters chanted back:  "I will give my life for the supreme leader," they were booed by mourners, a witness said.

The clashes occurred despite the deployment of riot police throughout Qom, a religious shrine city about 90 miles from Tehran.  Political activists had been warned not to attend amid extraordinary measures aimed at stopping them from travelling.

The reformist website, Rah-e Sabs, reported that a busload of 42 activists travelling from Tabriz had been stopped and turned back by police.  Demonstrations in favor of Montazeri -- and implicitly against Khamenei -- also took place in the former's birthplace of Najafabad in Isfahan province.

Videos on YouTube showed female mourners chanting:  "You oppressed Montazeri, your path will be followed even if the dictator shoots us all" and "dictator, dictator, Montazeri is alive."

Montazeri was once heir apparent to the Islamic Revolution's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  But he was banished from the leadership after the pair fell out when Montazeri criticized the mass killings of political prisoners in 1988.  He spent six years under house arrest after questioning Khamenei's religious credentials and ability to be supreme leader in 1997.

Khamenei responded to Montazeri's death by saying that he hoped he would be subject to "God's lenience" after failing a "test" by disagreeing with Khomeini.

Hossein Bastani, an Iranian political analyst, said the protests had moved beyond anger over the election and were now aimed directly at Khamenei.  "Khamenei's comments about Montazeri met with a very negative reflection in Iranian opposition websites and media," he said.  "Today we had a very great demonstration in Qom, a small provincial city and the ideological center of the Islamic regime," he added

"I don't think there were demonstrations there of that size even during the revolution.  The slogans people were chanting were indirectly against the Islamic regime and similar to what was chanted before the revolution against the Shah."


Leading article


Independent (London)
December 22, 2009

If the Iranian authorities had hoped that they had finally got opposition protesters under control after this summer's disputed election, the demonstrations yesterday at the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri in Qom should have disabused them.  Despite every effort to control the crowds by stopping buses and trains to the city and arresting dissidents, despite interfering with the internet and trying to close down mobile phone messaging, tens of thousands took part in the funeral procession, many of them shouting anti-government slogans.

It is a sign of the continuing fracture of Iran's political society that a funeral should arouse such passions and repression.  But it is also a demonstration of the terms in which political debate in Iran is still carried out that the occasion should be the death of a senior cleric in a holy city.  Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was more than a revered religious authority in the wider Shia community.  Once regarded as the successor to the Islamic Revolution's founding father, Ayatollah Khomeini (junior to him in religious seniority), Montazeri had proved a consistent critic of the regime, arguing against the untramelled authority of the Supreme Ruler and in October condemning the disputed election as a fraud on the people and a betrayal of the principles of the revolution.

It is tempting for the outside world to regard what is going in Iran as a repeat of the Velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, a simple battle for democracy against autocracy.  In reality, the Iranian revolt is more complex, if no less threatening, encompassing not just the young and the educated of the cities but also factions within the ruling theocratic system itself.  The death of Montazeri is significant because, although long marginalized from power, his views chimed in with those of a sizable number of conservative clerics, as well as more secular radicals, worried about about the development of the revolution towards autocracy.

That doesn't make the task of the West in reacting to what is going on in Iran any easier.  On the one hand, there is the natural desire to support the voices of dissent within Iran.  The suppression of opposition within Iran is real, it is extremely nasty and it is getting worse.

On the other hand, there is the danger that, by taking up their cause, the authorities will find it the easier to paint them as anti-Iranian stooges of the West.  The dilemma is made all the more difficult by the growing confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.  It is a delicate path that the West needs to tread, but it is one where we must keep emphasizing our own belief in the virtues of free speech and democracy and our faith that Iran's future, even by its own Islamic ideals, lies down that path.




Guest contributors


By Nader Mousavizadeh

Times (London)
December 22, 2009

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s year of living dangerously is finding an apt end in the extraordinary scenes unfolding after the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.  The senior cleric’s funeral has turned into a huge demonstration against the Government, with tens of thousands of protesters descending on the holy city of Qom.

The YouTube clip of the murder of the young protester Neda Agha-Soltan in the summer’s demonstrations against the stolen elections symbolized the Tehran regime’s betrayal of its youth.  The death of Montazeri was a reminder of how an older generation has been betrayed.  Montazeri, a founding father of the republic and once a chosen successor of Ayatollah Khomeini, came to despise the monster that grew out of the revolution.  He recently denounced the regime’s shock troops, the Basij, as having chosen the “path of Satan.”

Diplomatic observers in Tehran have no doubt about the potential of this moment to change the course of history.  Ambassadors from Eastern European countries sense a familiar spirit in the air, and regale their colleagues with stories of the final days of Honecker and Ceausescu.

Its legitimacy eviscerated, support crumbling from top to bottom, you would imagine Tehran to be fielding international protests about its repressive handling of the protests.  Instead, it has secured almost a free hand at home by distracting the world with its nuclear ambitions.

From the very first days of the post-election violence, Western leaders, with President Obama in the van, chose circumspection over condemnation.  Nothing -- no protests about human rights abuses -- could get in the way of securing a deal with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Iran’s program to create a nuclear bomb.  What do we have to show for this venal bargain?  Very little.

Untenable as this ought to be, strategically as well as morally, a more damning prospect still is emerging.  The West may be about to provide a dying regime with a lifeline at the moment of its greatest vulnerability.  Even if intensified sanctions forced the regime to comply with Western demands over its nuclear project -- an unlikely prospect -- an agreement between Tehran and the West would benefit one party above all:  President Ahmadinejad and his illegitimate Government.

Deeper sanctions would be welcomed by Mr. Ahmadinejad -- it would allow him to appeal to nationalist sentiment and tighten his grip on the economy.  (Of course, a military attack would be the ultimate gift to the theocracy, something hardline elements of the regime are reportedly seeking actively to provoke.)  Worse still, an agreement would enable the leadership to claim victory without actually impeding its repressive rule.  Having lost legitimacy in the streets of its own cities, the regime is being offered a chance to regain it, in different form, in the halls of the United Nations.  With its very existence in the balance, pressure on the regime to freeze its nuclear program is not a threat, but an opportunity to regain international credibility.

The fracturing of the Islamic Republic’s traditional élite, and the persistence and power of Iran’s democratic awakening six months and countless acts of arrest, torture, and repression later, make clear that regime change is under way in Iran.

The protest movement is the most promising development in the Middle East in the past quarter of a century.  Rather than being viewed as a sideshow, the uprising should be at the core of every policy decision made by Western statesmen on Iran.  Western leaders should ask just one question whenever faced with a new set of measures towards Iran:  will they help or hurt the Green Movement?

For all the concern about a fitful and still highly vulnerable nuclear program, a far greater prize is in sight:  the Iranian people and their manifest aspirations for a freer society and an accountable government.  The question is whether a Western policy of pressure, threats, and further isolation aimed at forcing a nuclear deal with Mr. Ahmadinejad will risk promise of real change for the illusion of a security arrangement with a regime built on enmity against the West.

Before being led down a strategically barren path of sanctions and threats focused exclusively on the nuclear program, Western leaders have a unique opportunity to seize on the promise of a movement far more consequential to the future of Iran and the broader Middle East than any nuclear deal with the existing regime.  This is a moment for Europe’s leaders to draw on their countries’ longstanding knowledge of Iran to explore a different path.  The U.S. Government, even under Mr. Obama, appears constrained by history and an unwillingness to think creatively about Iran.  And yet the moment cries out for something other than a predictable set of tortured Security Council negotiations that will achieve little.

The West should redirect its focus to helping the new Iran emerging, however erratically, however slowly, from the fallout of the June elections.  This means using every opportunity to highlight support for the Iranian people’s legitimate aspirations in every international forum where Iran is discussed.  (The reform movement’s recent chant -- “Obama, are you with us or with them” -- makes plain the need for the West to do more than merely “bear witness”.)  It means making clear to the regime that a nuclear deal should no longer be considered a get-out-of-jail-free card as it continues its despotic behavior.  It means providing Israel with additional security guarantees robust enough to dissuade it from a calamitous strike on Iran.  It means developing more ways to disable and delay the nuclear program through even more creative covert operations.

And it means creating a containment and deterrence regime around Iran strong and patient enough to ensure that whatever outcome the nuclear negotiations have, they will be but a footnote to the story of a regime changed by its own people, on their own terms, for their own sake.

--Nader Mousavizadeh, a special assistant to the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan 1997-2003, is a consulting senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.