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Could death transform the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri into the patron saint of the Iranian Opposition?

The passing of revered Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, 87 years old, this weekend sparked the massive protests at his funeral in the holy city of Qom yesterday. Hundreds of thousands turned out, despite heavy security arrangements, shouting “Death to the Dictators” and tearing up posters of Islamic republic founder Khomanei. Even today the protests continued in Qom. Watch these YouTube videos, here, and here.  

Montazeri a co-founder of the Islamic Republic and original successor to Ayatollah Khomanei broke with his fellow mullahs at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989 when thousands of opponents were murdered by the regime. He has been in virtual imprisonment under house arrest in Qom for the last decade.  Notwithstanding that, Montazeri had responded to thousands of messages concerning human rights and established a heterodox view of Islam, becoming in effect, a reformer. A reformer that the Mahdist Shia Mullahs and even the Wahhabi clerics of Sunni Saudi Arabia would consider an apostate to normative Islam. Amil Imani, an Iranian American writer, co-founder of Former Muslims United, involved in facilitating opposition communications here in the US said, “if the Mullahs consider Montazeri an apostate then 90% of Iranians must be apostates, too.”  That may transform the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri into something that the opposition needs, “a veritable patron saint.”

That is the sub text of Gerald Seib report in the Wall Street Journal: “In Death, Grand Ayatollah Could Unify Iran's Opposition.”

Can a deceased ayatollah offer in death what no one alive seems to be able to provide: a single, unifying figure for Iran's opposition?

That's the central question that emerges from the weekend death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a towering figure in the history of Iran's revolutionary government. At the time of his death, he was perhaps the most credible face of the country's persistent opposition movement.

Indeed, one of the most serious shortcomings of the opposition movement, despite its resilience in the face of concerted government attempts to squelch it, has been the absence of a catalytic personality to serve as its heart and soul. The logical leader should be Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who appeared to be robbed of his chance at victory in that June election. But he is too reserved and cautious by nature, and too vulnerable to pressure from the government, to have really stepped into that role.

Mehdi Karroubi, former speaker of the Iranian parliament, and Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president, both also have become champions of the reform movement. Yet they also are equally exposed to government pressure.

In death, though, Ayatollah Montazeri will be immune from government pressure and intimidation. His withering criticisms of the regime are on the record, and can't be compromised.

Michael Ledeen in his Pajamas media account, “Montazeri,” noted that the crowd at the funeral has developed an inner core of strength sufficient to ward off the depredations of the Basij, secret police and Revolutionary Guards:

We see several important things:

–First, the dimensions of the protest (enormous).  There have been monster demonstrations against the regime for several months now, and they are not likely to stop;

–Second, the discipline of the crowd.  This is extremely rare, especially when you consider that Iran is now in the annual period of mourning, and passions are very high.  Add to that the political dimension (Montazeri was a symbol of resistance to the regime), and the fact that there were regime provocateurs in the demonstration, trying to disrupt their disciplined chants.  This is an organized movement, not a group of wild-eyed protestors;

–Third, the regime is frightened.  The supreme leader and his acolytes (Ahmadinejad is less and less visible.  Somebody should tell Diane Sawyer) are groping for a way to survive.  They seem not to realize that they died before Montazeri, and that nobody cares to mourn them. And so they stagger about, and find the worst possible gesture.  As the indispensable Banafsheh tells us:

On Monday evening Saeed Montazeri announced that the Montazeri family was forced to cancel the post-funeral sacrament as the Islamic regime’s forces had invaded the A’zam mosque where the observance was to be held. Saeed Montazeri also added that the Montazeri residence has now been surrounded by various revolutionary guards, members of the Basij, intelligence agents, members of special force, etc.

As we shall see the massive protests at Monatzeri’s funeral may set the stage for a massive “Army of the People” who could turn out in the millions this weekend during the Ashoura holy day period. Note this from a report by Ken Timmerman of, “Iranian Opposition Marshals 'Army of the People' Protest:” 

A key leader of Iran’s green movement tells Newsmax that the opposition is gearing up for a massive protest this weekend that could see millions of people pour into a single street in Tehran, forming a green chain more than 15 miles long.

“We call it the army of the people,” says Mohsen Sazegara, a former government minister who has broken with the regime and works closely with the green movement leadership inside Iran.

The protests Saturday and Sunday are scheduled to coincide with Ashoura, the main Shiite Muslim religious commemoration and a national holiday in Iran. The green movement hopes to bring millions of people together on the north-south avenue traversing the center of Tehran, ending in Freedom Square.

“We want to show the world that this is the referendum of the people of Iran against the coup government of Ayatollah Khamenei,” Sazegara told Newsmax.

By all accounts, the funeral-cum-protest was a powerful demonstration of the opposition’s strength.

“Ayatollah Montazeri had great influence among Iranians, and was a big support for the opposition,” said Menashe Amir, the director of Radio Israel’s Persian language service, whose broadcasts are widely respected and listened to inside Iran.

During two days of programming devoted to Montazeri’s death, the Israeli radio played clips of mourners chanting slogans commemorating Ayatollah Montazeri’s long-standing rejection of the Islamic regime, and of large crowds shouting “Death to the Dictator,” now the trademark slogan of the pro-freedom movement.

Timmerman notes how much depth of support the opposition movement has from ethnic minorities like the Kurds and their motivation - transformation of Iran to a secular republic:

Rahman Haj Ahmadi, the leader of the outlawed Free Life Party of Iranian Kurdistan, told Newsmax in an interview in Europe last week that his party has pledged its support to the green movement as well, even though the Kurds have suffered extensively at the hands of successive Iranian governments, including the one Mir Hossein Mousavi led in the 1980s.

“The green movement comes in two colors: those who continue to push some form of political Islam, such as Mousavi and Karroubi; and the mass of the people who seek a secular government,” Haj Ahmadi told Newsmax.

“To transform the green movement into a secular democratic movement, we must prevent Mousavi and Karroubi from establishing another Islamic state, another dictatorship,” he said. Mousavi and former Majlis speaker Hojjat ol-Eslam Mehdi Karroubi were both candidates in the June 12 presidential elections.

The green movement is demanding the resignation of the “coup government” of Ahmadinejad and the installation of Mousavi, who they claim won the election by a large majority, as head of a provisional government whose main task will be to organize an internationally supervised referendum on the Constitution.

What has the Obama Administration done with the massive outpouring of protests – temporize.  Note this from the NewsMax report:

Until now, the Obama administration has refused to recognize the green movement, and when President Obama sent a message of condolences after Ayatollah Montazeri’s death, he sent it to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who had placed Montazeri under house arrest.

“This is hard to understand,” said Radio Israel broadcaster Menashe Amir.

Sen. John McCain criticized Obama’s gesture and called on him on to support the pro-freedom movement.

"The president should stand up for the people who are demonstrating and risking their very lives on behalf of freedom on the streets of Tehran," McCain said on Sunday. "Let's make it very clear we are with these people who are struggling for freedom as we always have."

A senior U.S. government official explained in a written response to questions from Newsmax that the assessment of Iran’s domestic turmoil has been provided to the White House as a basis for forming policy.

“The protests to this point haven’t overwhelmed the Iranian government’s repressive apparatus,” the U.S. official said. “Their brutality has, at times, made things worse for the state, but they’ve managed to prevent a situation in which large demonstrations are constant. Their goal from the early days seemed to be to break the momentum of the protests, to restrain their growth and their spread. “

The protests have exposed “cleavages” within the regime, which the regime has not succeeded in resolving. Rather than address these problems, regime leaders “seem to be trying to ride it out, hoping, perhaps, that the passage of time will lessen their trouble."

With these fast breaking developments, not unlike what happened in the Carter Administration, the US may be caught backing the wrong horse –dialogue with the panicky Mullahs- who could disappear along with the hated Islamic Republic before the Persian New Year in March, 2010.