Death of an ayatollah

Why Iran's Montazeri represented hope for change

One of the most important points to be made about the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri is that the cleric was not a dissident voice from outside Iran's religious establishment. He was the man once designated as Ayatollah Khomeini's successor, and his credentials as one of the key architects of the Islamic republic were precisely why his opposition carried such weight. His criticism also underlined questions about the degree of legitimacy Ayatollah Khamenei could claim as Iran's Supreme Leader.

As this obituary in the Guardian puts it:

Montazeri moved to the view that the clergy should act as advisers, representing the electorate but without claiming a divine mission. He also became critical of Ayatollah Khamenei, Khomeini's successor, for issuing religious decrees. Montazeri saw Khamenei as having more of a political than a religious role - and as having too junior a religious status to be entitled to issue fatwas.

This is a crucial division in what can sometimes appear to be a monolithic group of clerics in Iran. I'm sure too that the similarity in names - Khomeini succeeded by Khamenei - led many to assume that the two enjoyed the same status. But that's not the case.

Perhaps I can draw readers' attention to a very useful guide to Iran's religious leadership that Professor Juan Cole, author of "Engaging the Muslim World", wrote in the NS this last August.

"Khamenei may be Supreme Leader," pointed out Cole, "but in purely religious authority it is believed he is outranked by more than two dozen grand ayatollahs. They may be among the chief beneficiaries of the damage to the Supreme Leader's standing, and a shift in public support towards the more reform-minded among them could signal a sea change in Iranian politics."

I would say that "reform-minded" is a qualification to be born in mind. In western terms, most of the moderates whose advance we may earnestly
wish for in Iran are still deeply devout conservatives. But they, and not the threat of Israeli bombs or US-led punitive sanctions, surely represent the best hope for this ancient civilisation that has turned its face against the rest of the world, and its own people, for too long.


Follow the New Statesman team on Twittter.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
New Statesman cover
Show Hide image

The New Statesman Cover | Cool Britannia 20 years on

A first look at this week's magazine.

28 April - 4 May 2017
Cool Britannia 20 years on

0800 7318496