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The Forgotten Ayatollah: The Man Who Almost Became Iran’s Supreme Leader

May 7, 2015

The only two heads of state in Iran’s history are familiar, albeit mysterious, figures to the West. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to become the face of the Islamic Revolution, with his image adorning posters outside the captured U.S. embassy in Iran throughout the 1979-1981 Hostage Crisis. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, never travels overseas, grants interviews, or meets with Western leaders.

Add in the clerics’ similar leadership styles and nearly identical surnames, and it’s easy to conflate the two. But an Iranian spiritual leader few westerners have heard of almost interrupted the 36-year-reign of Khomeini and Khamenei, and possibly could’ve started to ease Iran’s tension with its neighbors and the rest of the world years earlier.

For four years in the mid-1980s, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri was Khomeini’s designated successor. Trinity University political scientist Sussan Siavoshi has spent her career studying Montazeri, his falling out with Iran’s other ruling clerics, and why he spent his later years under house arrest despite a once-warm relationship with the man who took his place – Khamenei. She says his criticism of the regime started during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War – particularly Iran’s treatment of political prisoners.

“The end of the war more or less coincided with the 10th anniversary of the revolution, and he gave a talk during those days where he criticized the prolongation of the war. And he basically said that most of the warfare was for naught,” Siavoshi said. “Therefore in the mind of the conservative, he undermined the sacrifices of all these martyrs.”

Montazeri also spoke out against a mass execution of the main exiled opposition guerrilla group of Iranians that sided with Iraq and Saddam Hussein. After the way, they came into Iran with an army, which enraged Khomeini and the state and also highlighting their own insecurity about the fragile nature of the Islamic Republic.

“There was a rounding up of many people, many of them innocent, but they were all supposedly connected to this organization, and then there was an order to execute a lot of them,” Siavoshi said. “Montazeri became a very ardent critic of that. That basically was his ending.”

Siavoshi describes Montazeri as a straight shooter very interested in justice. When he was dismissed from his position as the successor to Khomeini, he felt free to become an “official dissident.”

“On the one hand he was a traditional jurisprudent, and he was very much attached to the old conservative way of thinking about life and the role of religion,” Siavoshi said. “On the other hand, the experience with the Islamic Republic made him rethink many of his positions, and as a result of that he became one of the ardent clerical supporters of democracy, and in some ways human rights.”

Khamenei ordered Montazeri to be put under house arrest in 1997 after Montazeri publicly questioned his qualifications to be Iran’s Supreme Leader. He also criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the country’s nuclear build-up. He even sparred with Iran’s first liberal president, Mohammad Khatami, and even though Montazeri died in 2009, Siavoshi suspects he would even be critical of Iran’s current moderate president, Hassan Rouhani.

“Eventually, at the end of Khatami’s administration, [Montazeri] started to criticize Khatami for not being able to bring up, or satisfy, fulfill the promises he made,” Siavoshi said. “So he was on the left of Khatami in some ways, as far as his practices were concerned. So I would say that he would urge Rouhani to be more assertive and pushing.”

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the differences between Montazeri’s relationship with Khomeini and Khamenei

When he became the Supreme Leader, Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader, was the teacher of Montazeri. So the relationship between the two was an interesting one. And Montazeri loved Khomeini, and revered him, but then they started to have their disagreement about policies. Khamenei, on the other hand, was a student of Montazeri. At least he took some courses with Montazeri. So their relationship was the opposite. And during the negotiation or discussion years earlier about whether Montazeri should be the next Supreme Leader, Khamenei was one of those who supported him. But then, later on, when he became the Supreme Leader, their relationship started to become very sour. And I would say that Montazeri had a much better relationship with Khomeini than he eventually had with Khamenei. In fact, Khamenei in 1997, after Montazeri attacked him for his credential, that he doesn't have the credential to be leader, the Supreme Leader or the source of emulation for all Shi'ites, gave a talk, and right after that Montazeri was put under house arrest for four years. So the relationship was really fraught with tension and I would say anger and animosity.

On evolving gender roles in Iran

If you look at the position of women, in terms of healthcare, and in terms of education, Iran has made huge progress in that way. Even the high proctor of the United Nations in his report in 2014 mentioned that. But then again, there are areas that women are basically pushed back. And these are mostly on the legal terms, particularly in family laws and penal codes, et cetera. That create a tremendous number of obstacles for women to assert themselves. So there are discriminatory laws against women. And those laws are still there. Although some things have changed. For example, well, let me backtrack for a second. After the revolution, the family law, which was pro-women, were shelved and new law based on the traditional interpretation of Islam, was put in its place. That actually undermined all of the achievements of women, and put them back. But, things change a little bit, especially due to the effort of many women. So there were some changes in the family law, but overall the family law is still very much against women.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Sussan Siavoshi, welcome to World Views.

SUSSAN SIAVOSHI: Thank you.

CRUISE: What I thought we would do is start out by talking about an ayatollah that you have written a great deal about. Ayatollah Montazeri. And this was a gentleman who was very influential during the Iranian Revolution, and then in the 1980s. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about him, and why you're so intrigued by this man, and why you've written so much about him.
SIAVOSHI: Well, I'm very interested him, or was, and still is, actually, because of his attitude and his behavior. He came from a humble background. And he was the first person in his family who went to religious seminary. He was a straight-shooter, and from very early on he actually gets on the nerves of his teacher by constantly bombarding them with questions. He was also a revolutionary. He really helped - after Khomeini was exiled, it was he, meaning Montazeri, who really became his deputy in some ways. Revolutionary deputy in Iran. As a result of that he was imprisoned, incarcerated, tortured along with his son. Then after the revolution he, both because of his activities, revolutionary activities, and his jurisprudential knowledge, he climbed a ladder of power. And by 1985 he became the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader.

CRUISE: So he was in line to take over...

SIAVOSHI: He actually was selected, officially, to be the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini by the Assembly of Experts. He was in that position for four years, but because of his criticism of state policies, particularly about the war...

CRUISE: The war between Iraq and Iran, you mean.

SIAVOSHI: ...and also about the treatment of prisoners. He did those criticisms early on, in closed circuit. He didn't go public even though you could hear certain things about his dismay at the treatment of generally the population, freedom of expression, et cetera. So he made some mild complaint publicly, but it was really after the end of the war that he gave, and the end of the war more or less coincided with the tenth year anniversary of the revolution, and he gave a talk during that ceremony, or during those days, where he criticized the prolongation of the war. And he basically said that most of the warfare was for naught. And therefore in the mind of the conservative, he undermined the sacrifices of all these martyrs. More than a half a million Iranians were killed during the war or died as a result of complications of the use of chemical weapons by the use of Saddam's army. And he also very much attacked the treatment of political prisoners. There was a mass execution of some political prisoners related, connected to mujahedeen who were the main exiled opposition guerrilla group who also were involved in terrorist action against Iranians inside Iran, and sided with Saddam. They actually, after the war ended, they came in to Iran with an army. And that both enraged the state, including Khomeini, and also made them feel insecure, that maybe they wanted to topple the state. So there was rounding up of many people, some of them, many of them innocent, but they were all supposedly connected to this organization, and then there was an order to execute a lot of them. Montazeri became a very ardent critic of that. That basically was his ending.

CRUISE: He had to have known that this would be the result. If he was going to be so vocal against the state, and by extension then, Khomeini, that this would not bode well for his political aspirations if he had them.

SIAVOSHI: Right. It was a combination of factors. Things built up from very early on. People knew that he was a straight shooter, but people thought that he might just sort of be on the side, not to interfere so much in politics, but he couldn't. He was a man who was very interested in justice. And that's what made me intrigued with him. So when he was basically dismissed from his position, then he felt free to basically become an official dissident, if you wish. But another thing that really intrigued me about him was this tension within him. Because on the one hand he was a traditional jurisprudent, and he was very much attached to the old conservative way of thinking about life and about the role of religion. On the other hand, the experience with the Islamic Republic made him to rethink many of his positions, and as a result of that he became a dissident. And he started to rethink his position about certain rules of Islam. And as a result of that he became one of the ardent clerical supporters of democracy, and in some ways human rights, I would say.

CRUISE: So Khomeini passes away, and although he had been in line to be the new Supreme Leader, he was no longer in that position and a new Supreme Leader was put in place, Khamenei. What had been their relationship? Did he feel more comfortable with Khamenei’s rule, or was that also a situation where he felt he needed to be a dissident, as you said?

SIAVOSHI: By the way, let me just make one thing clear, and that he was dismissed while Khomeini was still alive, the Supreme Leader, and then Khamenei was appointed Supreme Leader. When he became the Supreme Leader, Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader, was the teacher of Montazeri. So the relationship between the two was an interesting one. And Montazeri loved Khomeini, and revered him, but then they started to have their disagreement about policies. Khamenei, on the other hand, was a student of Montazeri. At least he took some courses with Montazeri. So their relationship was the opposite. And during the negotiation or discussion years earlier about whether Montazeri should be the next Supreme Leader, Khamenei was one of those who supported him. But then, later on, when he became the Supreme Leader, their relationship started to become very sour. And I would say that Montazeri had a much better relationship with Khomeini than he eventually had with Khamenei. In fact, Khamenei in 1997, after Montazeri attacked him for his credential, that he doesn't have the credential to be leader, the Supreme Leader or the source of emulation for all Shi'ites, gave a talk, and right after that Montazeri was put under house arrest for four years. So the relationship was really fraught with tension and I would say anger and animosity.

CRUISE: And one incident dealing with another leader of Iran, Ahmadinejad, Montazeri came out and said that he was very much against the policies of Ahmadinejad in regards to the nuclear buildup, which of course has caused concerns over here. He passed away in 2009, and Ahmadinejad is obviously no longer in power in Iran, is no longer president, and there's a new president in Iran, who seems to, at least from the west's point of view, be a little bit more liberal and more open to human rights and those sorts of concerns. Is this policy more in line with what Montazeri was thinking?

SIAVOSHI: Absolutely. And I would say Montazeri would go further, because if you compare Rouhani with Khatami, the president, the first liberal president of Iran, Khatami was much more liberal than Rouhani. Rouhani is pragmatic. He's very savvy. But Khatami had all the ideas that, as you said, in the west we agree with. But Montazeri really, eventually, at the end of Khatami’s administration, started to criticize Khatami for not being able to bring up, or satisfy, fulfill the promises he made. So he was on the left of Khatami in some ways, as far as his practices were concerned. So I would say that he would urge Rouhani to be more assertive and pushing.

CRUISE: One of the other issues that you've done a lot of research on, and obviously a lived experience, is the idea of gender in Iran, and relations between men and women.

SIAVOSHI: Well, there are several ways of looking at this. One is on the legal, institutional, constitutional way, the other one is really what's happening on the ground. If you look at the position of women, in terms of healthcare, and in terms of education, Iran has made huge progress in that way. Even the high proctor of the United Nations in his report in 2014 mentioned that. But then again, there are areas that women are basically pushed back. And these are mostly on the legal terms, particularly in family laws and penal codes, et cetera. That create a tremendous number of obstacles for women to assert themselves. So there are discriminatory laws against women. And those laws are still there. Although some things have changed. For example, well, let me backtrack for a second. After the revolution, the family law, which was pro-women, were shelved and new law based on the traditional interpretation of Islam, was put in its place. That actually undermined all of the achievements of women, and put them back. But, things change a little bit, especially due to the effort of many women. So there were some changes in the family law, but overall the family law is still very much against women. Discriminatory against women. But I can talk a little bit about the specifics of it, if you wish.

CRUISE: Sure.

SIAVOSHI: For example, the age of marriage. According to the traditional Islamic jurisprudence, the age for many of these clerics was nine years old. But through the effort of people, particularly during Khatami, the parliament passed certain laws, and the age was moved from nine to 13 in terms of custody. For example, if there was a divorce, the mother will have custody over their sons for two years and over the daughters for seven years. And then that would go to the father. But now, it's seven years for both children. Of course, these are not enough. And there are a lot of voices in Iran that are pushing for more. Still, I would say that the position of women, and the position and the position of liberals, or those who are for democratic reform, are very much meshed here. They're interconnected. If there is a backlash against democracy, there is also a backlash against women. So there is a women's movement in Iran, but its fate is very much connected to the fate of those who are pushing for democracy in Iran, I would say.

CRUISE: A very complex issue for sure. Well, thank you so much for coming in and sharing with us some of the history of Iran, and the political leaders there and of course, the situation with women in Iran as well. Thank you so much.

SIAVOSHI: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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