Iran’s Green Movement: Ashura and the death of Montazeri

Jan 6, 2010 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 6, 2010
Number 01/10 #01

The Iranian regime has had a bad few weeks internally, resorting  to considerable violence to suppress dissident protests first during the annual Ashura Shiite religious festival and then again during the funeral and other mourning ceremonies for leading dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri. This Update is devoted to analysis of what recent events reveal about the current state of the Iranian opposition “Green Movement”, which still seems to be going strong six months after apparently fraudulent elections brought it into being.

First up is Iranian-Israeli analyst and author Meir Javedanfar, who argues that recent events indicate that the Iranian regime is facing a prolonged “intifada” with constant unrest rising and subsiding over a considerable period. He argues that the regime will find such an ongoing campaign very difficult to defeat, as the regime’s forces have repeatedly targeted the public at large as well as protesters, angering the population. With these ongoing clashes, as well as the regime’s inability to maintain economic subsidies, he predicts very tough times ahead for the regime. To read his full argument, CLICK HERE. Michael Totten has more on the important religious implications of the deadly suppression of the Ashura protests – and the comparison of the regime with the oppressive (in Shiite eyes) Sunni caliph Yazid.

Next, leading American Iran scholar Abbas Milani looks at the larger picture of how the opposition green movement has survived and changed over the past six months, despite the predictions of many that it would be quickly suppressed. He looks at  how the  “nonviolent, nonutopian and populist” nature of the protest movement intersects with the youth and internet savvy of the Iranian population, making them uniquely well-placed to defy regime repression. Milani also raises the economic situation and falling subsidies as helping create a situation that looks much like the one in 1978-79 that led to the overthrow of the Shah. For the rest of his analysis, CLICK HERE. Der Spiegel has more on how the protests seem to be placing the regime on the defensive, as do writer Christopher Hitchens  and Iranian student leader Amir Fakhravar.

Finally, former intelligence analyst turned think-tanker Reuel Marc Gerecht looks in more detail at the legacy of the unlikely dissident Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, who helped create the Islamic revolution only to turn against its outcome in the 1980s. Gerecht points out that Montazeri was able to not only build common cause with, but win respect from, secular critics of the regime via his principled, Islamic objections to the idea of “rule of juriconsult” – the idea that an unelected cleric should have almost unlimited powers to dominate an “Islamic republic”. Gerecht says that the opposition owes most of its spark to Montazeri, and his legacy will continue to inspire them, while the regime has essentially lost any religious legitimacy, in large part because of his influence. For all of what Gerecht has to say about this important figure, CLICK HERE.

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The start of an Iranian intifada


, Dec. 29, 2009

An Iranian-style intifada seems to be in the making. At the beginning of the current period of opposition, which started soon after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial reelection, quiet periods of seeming normalcy occurred between what were less frequent demonstrations.

Judging from the events of Ashura, however, the protests now seem to carry the potential to turn into a full-scale civil disobedience campaign, not unlike the first intifada the Palestinians initiated against Israel in 1987.

Such an uprising will mean continuous periods of strikes and civil disobedience, as well as more confrontations between members of the public and security forces.

The main factor contributing to the new status quo is the unrelenting policies of the supreme leader, which have pitted his philosophy of the Islamic Republic against longstanding Islamic institutions.

THIS IS a battle that Khamenei will find extremely difficult to win. In fact, if developments continue in their current form, they can result in significant changes to the structure of his regime, or more drastically, lead to its total demise.

His decision to allow the Basij to mount an attack on mourners at Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral was one factor leading to the spread of opposition in rural areas, faster and more efficiently than any campaign the reformist camp could have orchestrated. Yes, members of the opposition tried to take advantage of the mayhem, but also many genuine mourners had come to pay homage to a grand ayatollah. To Khamenei’s forces, they were all the same. To allow attacks against the residents of a holy city where the seeds of the 1979 revolution were planted was not just dead wrong from a religious perspective, it was politically counterproductive as well.

To make matters worse, the very next day, the supreme leader’s forces attacked mourners attending a ceremony for Montazeri at Isfahan’s Seyyed mosque, where inside members of the public were beaten. The Basijis also tried to assault Isfahan’s former Friday prayers leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Jalaleddin Taheri, who had arranged the ceremony. However, his supporters protected him.

IF THE Shah had committed such an affront, one could have attributed it to his brute dictatorial secularism. But for the supreme leader of an Islamic republic to order violence against Islamic institutions means turning against the very establishment that formed the foundation – or the very DNA – of the current regime.

In 1987, to Palestinians, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the deteriorating political and economic situations there formed the nucleus of the political ideology that legitimized the first intifada.

Khamenei’s increasing attacks against the Iranian public, followed by full-scale assaults against mosques and religious members of the community, are creating the nucleus of an ideology that is legitimizing opposition, not just in cities, but throughout Iran.

However, ideology is not enough. To succeed, what is needed is to increase the frequency of opposition to the point where the morale of the regime and its forces are sufficiently eroded and they can no longer afford to carry on with their current policies, or their ability to function.

Here again, Khamenei seems to be aiding the opposition. The brutal attack against the mourners at Montazeri’s funeral meant that more people were motivated to turn up in the streets on Tasua (the day before Ashura), as well as on Ashura, which happened to fall on the seventh day of Montazeri’s passing. In fact, small demonstrations have continued in different places since Montazeri was buried.

Further, on Ashura, his forces killed Seyed Ali Habibi Mousavi Khameneh, the nephew of Mir Hossein Mousavi. It’s very possible that he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, the Mousavi family might understandably assume that he was targeted for assassination. After all, how is it possible that among thousands upon thousands of demonstrators, he was one of the few shot dead? Was he followed from the beginning by an assassination team? Was he marked for death before he left the house? These are questions that cannot be overlooked.

And now his funeral, as well as the seventh day of his death, will provide other occasions for the opposition to demonstrate. Add to this 15 religious holidays, plus at least five major political ones. Meanwhile, more are expected to be killed or arrested, meaning further mourning congregations and demonstrations. Put all of these dates together and the regime could start facing an unprecedented number of demonstrations.

Things could get much worse if the opposition turns to public strikes. With violence against the public expected to continue unabated and Ahmadinejad’s plan to cut subsidies, translating to more economic misery, the regime could add to the attraction of this backbreaking scenario.

More than ever, the future of this regime hinges on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He can save his regime and keep it in its current form if he learns from his recent mistakes and modifies the way his forces and government reach out to the public. Failure to readjust could turn out to be a very costly mistake.

This article was originally written for The Tehran Bureau, a partnership with PBS Frontline, at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau.


The Tipping Point in Iran

The past six months show that the democratic movement is here to stay. That movement now needs a coherent plan and more structured leadership.


Wall Street Journal, DECEMBER 29, 2009, 9:30 A.M. ET

When millions of peaceful demonstrators took to the streets of big Iranian cities in June to protest what was widely assumed to be a stolen election, many in the West wondered whether the movement had the will and vision to sustain itself.

Apologists for the regime here in America and in Iran dismissed the democratic protests as the angst of a small minority of Westernized yuppies or discontented academics. Clerics loyal to the regime used the incendiary language of class warfare. They dismissed the opposition as accomplices of the Great Satan and a small minority composed of wealthy urbanites fighting to reverse the gains the poor—mustazaf—have made around the country.

Over the past six months the regime has killed dozens of demonstrators, arrested hundreds of activists, and forced hundreds of others into exile. It took false comfort in the belief that it had defeated what it self-deludingly claimed had been nothing but an American-concocted velvet revolution.

This weekend’s bloody protests during the holiday of Ashura culminate a pattern of persistence and perseverance on the part of the opposition. There can now be little doubt about the movement’s staying power.

Western countries dealing with Iran must now recognize that the specter of this democratic movement hovers over every negotiation. Sunday’s protests might have even ended the regime’s delusions that it can once again cow the population into submission.

In cities big and small, people have continued to engage in large and small acts of civil disobedience. In the city of Rafsanjan, demonstrators freed two prisoners about to be hung by the regime. And in Tehran, those unwilling to come into the streets and brave the baton-wielding basijis and gun-toting policemen astride motorcycles, go to their rooftops under the cover of the night and shout “Death to the dictator!”

Even the mostly dormant but economically successful Iranian-American diaspora is beginning to show signs of eagerness to help those fighting on the front lines of democracy inside Iran. There are increasing numbers of solidarity demonstrations, efforts to lobby politicians, and aggressive fund-raising effort to provide support for Iranians being pressured by the regime.

Those who, for so long, have implicitly apologized for the regime by claiming that the only problem with it is that it is not afforded enough respect by the world, particularly by the U.S., must now see the poverty of their argument. The last six months have shown unequivocally that the problem with the Iranian regime is the regime itself.

Much has been written about the fact that Iran’s democratic movement today combines the three characteristics of a velvet revolution—nonviolent, nonutopian and populist in nature—with the nimble organizational skills and communication opportunities afforded by the Web. Less discussed has been the significance of the youthfulness and Internet-savvy nature of the Iranian population.

Seventy percent of Iranians are under the age of 30. And in a population of 75 million, 22 million are Internet users. In spite of the nominal leadership of reformists like Medhi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami, the real leaders of the movement have been the thousands of groups and individuals who work autonomously, and whose structure replicates the Internet.

Until now, this lack of structure has given the movement its power. But the democratic movement has reached its own hour of reckoning.

As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts come nearer to a crisis, as rifts within the regime deepen in coming weeks, as the regime ratchets up its ruthlessness against the democrats, and as the world, with anxious eyes on the nuclear issue, carefully watches the domestic situation in Iran, the democratic movement must develop a more coherent plan of action and a more disciplined leadership. And the world, particularly the West, must also let the regime know that it will not stand by idly as the people of Iran are brutalized by the regime.

To many in the outside world, the regime’s brashness—its willingness to murder peaceful demonstrators in broad daylight and its adventurism in the nuclear arena—have been shocking. But to the people of Iran, who have long suffered the consequences of the regime’s political despotism, its ideological sclerosis, and its economic incompetence and corruption, recent events are only egregious manifestations of what they have endured for three decades. It is the slow, sinister grind of this structural violence that has now turned nearly every strata of Iranian society—save those who owe their fortunes to the status quo—into the de facto foe of the regime.

According to Transparency International, Iran is today one of the most corrupt economies in the world. It also has the ignominy of topping the list of all countries in terms of brain drain. Each year, between 150,000 and 180,000 of the country’s best and brightest leave the country. The yearly cost to Iran for this brain drain alone is estimated to be almost equal to the yearly cost of the Iran-Iraq War, according to the World Bank.

Falling oil prices are now forcing the regime to reduce the almost $100 billion of subsidies it pays to keep quiet a discontent population. The reserves it accumulated when oil prices were $150 per barrel have long been squandered by Ahmadinejad on harebrained schemes like carelessly making loans to start businesses that ended up fueling a real estate bubble, rather than creating jobs.

But this inevitable reduction of subsidies is sure to further reduce the standards of living for the poor and middle classes. This will make the horizon grim for the triumvirate of Revolutionary Guard commanders, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad who now rule Iran.

A politically discontent population forced to experience an unexpected economic downturn was a key element of the recipe that overthrew the Shah from the Peacock Throne in 1979. Poetic justice that the same sudden change in the country’s economic fortune—and even the same use of religious rites and rituals for political purposes that brought the clerics to power 30 years ago—is now coming back to haunt them.

Mr. Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University where he is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is “Eminent Persians: The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979” (Syracuse University Press, 2009).


Going Rogue

Hosein Ali Montazeri, 1922-2009.

by Reuel Marc Gerecht

The Weekly Standard, 01/04/2010, Volume 015, Issue 16

When I first encountered the Persian word mofangi, I struggled to grasp its meaning. It implies a certain timidity, physical weakness, and awkwardness. Seeking to put some flesh on that definition, my language tutor told me to envision Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri. “He’s more than a little mofangi,” remarked the tutor, expressing the condescension that well-educated, leftwing Iranians often have for the clergy who stole their revolution.

That was in the mid 1980s, and Montazeri was the number two cleric in Iran, a mullah who once passionately believed in exporting Iran’s revolutionary tumult and was instrumental in building the institutions of Islam’s first theocracy. Yet, unlike his former teacher and friend, the formidable Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Montazeri didn’t scare anyone. With his big owlish glasses, squeaky voice, and sartorial dishevelment, Montazeri was clearly a man of the people–to the extent that any accomplished Shiite jurist can be an ordinary man.

Yet in the end Montazeri, who died last week at 87, caused, and will continue to cause, untold trouble for the regime. By the end of his life, he had come to represent the fusion of three unstoppable ideas: that the Islamic Republic as built by Khomeini and led by Khamenei is illegitimate; that only democracy can redeem the republic and save Islam as a vibrant faith capable of shaping society’s mores; and that clerics who support Khamenei are intellectual dullards and moral reprobates. It was Montazeri’s religious passion, his argumentative rigor, his common-man roots, and his courage that drove the regime nuts. His disciples are everywhere.

No outsider can precisely date an inner change of such consequence, but it appears that Montazeri began to lose his faith in what he’d built when the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) started consuming tens of thousands of young men–the faithful for whom Khomeini never once wept. After Iran’s defeat, Khomeini “defrocked” Montazeri for having the temerity to question his execution of thousands of jailed Iranians. Under house arrest, Montazeri became the leader of the dissident clergy.

Fallen from power, Montazeri wrote a six-volume critique of the velayat-e faqih, the “regency of the jurisconsult,” or “office of supreme leader,” which allowed first Khomeini, then Khamenei, dictatorial control of the state. Although Montazeri never took issue with the idea that clerics should have an important role in government, he relentlessly pursued Khamenei for his lack of religious qualifications and for the very idea that the supreme leader is unelected and not subject to law and tradition.

For Montazeri, the Islamic Republic was born in sin because the velayat‑e faqih was not prescribed by Shiite tradition. Montazeri put forth the notion, later refined and lethally sharpened by Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident cleric and probably the greatest orator of the opposition, that only religious leaders who are elected possess legitimacy. Iran’s religious political system, accordingly, must be transformed into a velayat-e entekhabi‑e moqayyadeh, an “elected, limited regency of jurists,” where ultimate political power rests with the people and their parliament, and not with mullahs. Montazeri is best seen as an iron prow, crashing into and splintering Khomeini’s state. And in Montazeri’s wake, democratic dissidents of all stripes–from the religiously inclined to the religion-hostile–have grown strong.

Montazeri’s most lasting achievement may prove to be the deepening marriage between religious -democrats and increasingly nonreligious, Western-style democrats. He didn’t intend this when he first started challenging the regime’s legitimacy. But Montazeri evolved, as has the entire Iranian democracy movement–now easily the dominant intellectual force in the country. Indeed, this rapid evolution is perhaps what is most striking about Iran’s leading religious democrats–Montazeri, Kadivar, former president Mohammad Khatami (in office 1997-2005), and the lay philosopher/sociologist Abdul Karim Soroush. They have become much more explicitly democratic as they have reflected on the revolution. And they have become more tolerant of dissident ideas and people. On his deathbed, Montazeri remained deeply traditional, yet he was not the man he had been even in 1988 when he expressed his outrage at the casual killing of Iranian “political” prisoners. He had become, in his own very clerical way, a progressive.

And those to the left of Montazeri, which includes almost everyone in Iran’s democratic movement, have in turn moved farther left. (“Left” and “right” are tricky terms to apply to the Islamic Republic, but their Western meaning is increasingly apt.) What Khomeini feared most–the satanic whispering of Western ideas that transforms good Holy Law-abiding Muslims into inquisitive, disrespectful devils–is happening. Thirty years of theocracy has been a powerful teacher.

It was just six months ago–on June 11, 2009, the day before the Iranian presidential election–that American officials, government analysts, and a good slice of the journalistic and academic community downplayed the idea of a powerful anti-regime democratic movement in Iran. For these folks, Montazeri was a has-been, if not something of a crank. They saw an Iran where opposing regime loyalists argued essentially about little pieces of the pie, and the population went along for the ride, accepting the regime’s inadequacies as it had the failure of Khatami to change the system.

But this analysis was ten years out of date. Behind the scenes, among intellectuals, academics, and an ever-larger slice of the educated youth, the advocates of democracy actually grew stronger as President Khatami got politically stuffed. Montazeri knew this and played on the growing dissatisfaction–which is why he became even more influential in the second decade of his opposition than he had been in the first.

Iran is an odd place, where old men can become beloved by the young, where youths who don’t have a religious bone in their bodie and wouldn’t give clerics the time of day, can nevertheless be deeply respectful, even impassioned about, a grand ayatollah who fought the good fight against tyranny.

Montazeri’s humanity and religion came together to create in him a profound respect for popular government, with all its enormous flaws (which Montazeri himself bitingly enumerated). What the regime perhaps detested most about Montazeri is that he made arguments and emotional appeals aimed directly at well-educated clerics and peasant believers alike, encouraging their spiritual migration away from Khomeini’s state to an imagined new Shiite republic where basic decency could be seen in the conduct of officials. Inspired by experience, inspired by Montazeri, millions of faithful Iranians have put their affections and hopes beyond the reach of the regime.

The massive turnout for Montazeri’s funeral, and the palpable nationwide sense of loss, are likely to be just the first tributes that a democratizing Iran will pay to Khomeini’s most beloved student. In Iran the dead live on through their disciples, through the honor and duty that the young owe to the old, that the untested owe to the fearless. Once provoked and outraged, Iranians, who often dismissively refer to themselves as sheep, can turn into lions.

Montazeri was one of the lions of modern Iranian history. With his writing and his oratory, he unrelentingly challenged what he’d once held holy. His disciples–the army of Iranian intellectuals who’ve been for twenty years quietly obliterating the legitimacy of Khomeini’s state–and the democratic dissidents who’ve poured into the streets since June 11, now command the high ground. Though the regime continues to rule because the Revolutionary Guard Corps hasn’t (yet) cracked, Khamenei and his office have permanently lost their religious credentials.

With his unrivalled stubbornness and scholarly reach, Montazeri deserves much of the credit for the regime’s predicament. Americans, who generally don’t have an acute appreciation for Islam’s religious authorities or the tumultuous debates about popular sovereignty inside Iran’s clergy, owe Montazeri a great debt. Not a lover of the United States, its all-consuming popular culture, or its indefatigable ally in the region (Israel), he would not expect a word of thanks. Nevertheless, we should pay homage where homage is due. He earned it.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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