A key figure in the growing movement against Iran's theocratic regime, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri may, in death, prove to be a more powerful voice for reform.
What began as a funeral procession for the dissident cleric in the holy city of Qom yesterday was transformed into a defiant demonstration as opponents of the regime, many clad in reformist green, chanted anti-government slogans. Ayatollah Montazeri was a leading figure of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran before becoming one of its most outspoken critics.
Ayatollah Montazeri - though he apparently died in his sleep over the weekend at age 87 - is being cast as a martyr of the reform movement, a role that carries particular resonance since a ceremonial day of mourning to mark the seventh day following his death will coincide with Ashura, a holiday honouring the Shia martyr Imam Hussein. The two events set the stage for protests that could well be larger and more threatening to the regime than any seen since June's disputed election.
"Montazeri's death is a catalyst for a broader showdown between the regime and the opposition, and the regime is clearly pulling out all the stops," said Robin Wright, a historian, Iran observer and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"This is an important moment. History is made by a confluence of factors, and you have in this year or the past six months a series of major developments [in Iran] all things that intersected. Montazeri's death is another turning point."
Yesterday's demonstration in Qom, which photos suggest involved tens of thousands of people, came in defiance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who expressed his condolences on the death of Ayatollah Montazeri, while adding that he had prayed that his fellow cleric be forgiven for failing a "difficult and critical test" when he fell out with the revolution more than 20 years ago.
A coffin carrying the body of Ayatollah Montazeri, Iran's most senior Shia cleric, was carried amidst throngs of mourners in Qom, a holy city about 150 kilometres south of Tehran. Chants of "death to the dictator" reportedly erupted from the crowd, which included a broad range of mourners and opposition supporters. Scuffles broke out, and there were reports of clashes with the hardline Basij militia.
Many of the demonstrators wore green, which became a symbol of support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, whose bid to wrest the presidency from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed six months ago in what many deem to have been a rigged election. Mr. Mousavi was among the mourners yesterday.
Observers say reformists are using any holiday or celebration as cover to hold what would otherwise be unapproved demonstrations. The strategy is spreading from the heart of Tehran, where demonstrations broke out after the disputed election, to cities such as Qom.
"Any time there's an opportunity, they pour into the street," said Saeed Rahnema, an Iranian and professor of political science at York University in Toronto. "The Iranian civil society is taking advantage of every single moment to come out and object [to the government's leadership]"
Accounts of yesterday's protest were hard to come by, with most foreign media shut out and Iran's cellphone network and Internet access restricted. Foreigners instead turned to clandestine video and photos leaked over the Internet.
Ayatollah Montazeri was once poised to take over as supreme leader from revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But in the 1980s, Mr. Montazeri turned against the movement, objecting to the government's killing of dissidents. He was under house arrest for much of the rest of his life, but had continued to serve as one of a handful of ayatollahs.
"Here is a man who was one of the most outspoken and active revolutionaries, who within a decade had broken [from the ranks] and was the first and most prominent voice to criticize it," Ms. Wright said. "Montazeri was a microcosm of the revolution's evolution."
After this year's disputed election, he wrote a letter to other clerics denouncing the government's role in the vote, she noted.
"He gave clerical legitimacy to the opposition. It was really hard to challenge the opposition as against the regime when you had Montazeri … speaking out," Ms. Wright said.
To be cast as a martyr carries particular significant during the holiday of Ashura, which honours Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who died as a martyr in the seventh century.
Yesterday, shouts of, "Oh Hussein, Mirhossein," rose from the crowd in an apparent nod to the martyred grandson and the opposition leader, Mr. Mousavi.
With a report from Reuters News Service