What do you do with a problem named Ayatollah al-Ozma Ali Montazeri, one of the few “grand ayatollahs” once designated the successor of the father of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini?
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, that’s the question irking Iran’s current leadership since they decided to release Montazeri last week from more than five years of house arrest. Days after his release, the 81-year old ex-detainee was taken to the Kamkar hospital in Qom with a heart attack. The doctors urged moving him to a better-equipped hospital in Tehran, but his family demurred, fearing that in the capital he would be exposed to attempts by the authorities to harm him by poisoning his food or administering a fatal injection.
Montazeri at large continues where he left off five years ago, shooting off salvos against the regime and its repressive ways at a time when Iran has never been riper for rebellion since the overthrow of the Shah 24 years ago.
He was arrested in November 1997 for a speech questioning the religious authority and constitutional legitimacy of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took it as a personal insult. Iran’s current leader was only a lower-ranking cleric – a Hojjatoleslam – when Khomeini died and senior religious figures in Iran never let him forget it. He was appointed Khomeni’s successor nonetheless at a late night meeting when it became clear that not one of the higher-ranking grand ayatollahs, all unworldly men, was qualified to rule the country. Khamenei was elevated to ayatollah there and then and despised ever since as lacking religious scholarship, never having penned a Ressala, a theological thesis that is sine qua non for attaining the rank of ayatollah.
Though he exposes and rails against the evils of Khamenei’s domination, Montazeri is no hero to the liberals. A founding member of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, he explained in an interview with The Gulf News on Monday, February 3: “Religion cannot be separated from policy and it is my religious duty to engage in our country's affairs of state.”
Montazeri remains faithful to the Khomeinist view of America as Big Satan and opposes the resumption of relations with the United States as well as its war on Iraq. Montazeri wants to see a fundamentalist Islamic state rise in his country. Its citizens’ freedoms would be curtailed – albeit with a less repressive hand than that of the present government. Jews are regarded by the octogenarian cleric as second-class citizens and his anti-Semitic statements are on record. As for Israel, he would like to see the Jewish state wiped off the face of the earth.
House arrest was no picnic for Montazeri and his wife. The only visitors allowed were his children and grandchildren. His telephone was cut off and his religious seminary and schools emptied. But Montazeri’s sons established a website, Montazeri.com, to air his sermons and statements. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that Khamenei, embarrassed by the attacks on his regime, arrested Montazeri’s sons and tortured them in prison. The Iranian government set up a rival site under the same name, featuring Khamenei along with photos and details of his life and speeches over the past five years.
Dozens of Montazeri’s followers and aides were jailed but the regime was never able to silence them.
Two weeks ago, news reached the Iranian leadership that Montazeri was on his death bed. Some said he had fallen prey to Alzheimer’s disease.
For Khamenei, the news was not good: Montazeri’s death under house arrest would win him martyr’s status, possibly leading to unrest that could topple the government. He sent doctors to his house to determine just how sick Montazeri was. They reported him as suffering from the usual afflictions of old age as well as depression aggravated by his confinement. Khamenei then sent over two informers in a group of students from Esfahan. They recorded Montazeri’s voice in a conversation over the intercom. It was clear and strong. The cleric assured the students he was in satisfactory health and had no intention of staying quiet or accepting restrictive conditions for his release.
Iran’s leaders finally took the chance of setting him free last Wednesday, January 29, whereupon hundreds of followers, including senior ayatollahs, mobbed his house to hear his sermons and attacks on the government.
For the time being, the government-controlled media are trying to ignore him. They did not report his release or at all or only in brief accounts. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources wonder just how long Iran’s leaders will tolerate the Montazeri time bomb, at a time when the country is ripe for insurrection. Poverty and drug addition – nearly one in 10 Iranians is an addict – are spreading. Prostitution is rampant. Married women are turning tricks to support their families and mothers are sending daughters to work the streets. Corruption is the norm among the children of the power elite, with wide-scale embezzlement linked to lucrative oil deals with foreign companies. Crushing repression has led to the jailing of religious leaders, journalists and writers critical of the government.
Montazeri’s followers have launched a charm offensive. His close aide, Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Ghabel has set up a “communications headquarters” to report to the world media on Montazeri’s doings. The BBC broadcast a long interview with Montazeri in Farsi in which he promised not to keep his mouth shut.
Khamenei’s intelligence operatives are desperate for a way to shut that mouth without incurring a backlash against the regime. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources note that Iranian intelligence is armed with a chemical substance that can trigger a heart attack without leaving a trace. Two stubbornly anti-Khamenei grand ayatollahs and several political prisoners are believed to have been disposed of in this way to avoid the public unrest that executions would have stirred up. The poison is most effective on subjects, like Montazeri, who are prone to depression.
This week, Iran’s chief prosecutor, Abbas-Ali Ali-Zadeh, publicly warned Montazeri that he would be put back under house arrest if he did not hold his tongue. The pro-Khamenei Jomhuri-e Eslami newspaper wrote that Montazeri’s declarations can no longer be tolerated.