The Lost Chance for a Political Violence Opponent to Lead Iran

He was faced with a terrible decision.  He could remain silent, as mass executions were carried out, or he could listen to his conscience.  He decided to speak out. 

It cost him dearly.  Not only was Montazeri removed as the heir to Khomeini, he was declared an enemy of the state, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

An audio file recently surfaced.  It was posted on a website maintained by Montazer’s son, and his supporters. It sheds new light onto his last, desperate efforts to limit the killings.

It seems to prove that had Montazeri who died in 2009, succeeded Khomeini, a very different course would have followed for Iran, as he criticized the concept of a theocratic state.  He believed that the clerics should be advisors only, while elected officials and ‘hired-on-merit’ technocrats governed.

In the last few months of the Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Iraq, the country was worn out and nearly bankrupt. In a fury of frustration, Iran went after those it deemed domestic enemies,  including Western-leaning students, ethnic minorities, and opposition factions like the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK.

A full accounting of the “death commission” created by Khomeini has never been carried out.  According to an Amnesty report in 1990, “Thousands of people were executed between 1987 and 1990 including more than 2,000 political prisoners between July 1988 and January 1989.” But the overall death toll has been estimated at much higher.

“In my opinion, the greatest crime committed during the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you,” Montazeri is recorded as saying on the July 1988 audio to a group of senior judicial and intelligence officials, including Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who now serves as justice minister under President Hassan Rouhani.  “Beware of 50 years from now, when people will pass judgment on the leader [Khomeini] and will say he was a bloodthirsty, brutal and murderous leader. … I do not want history to remember him like that,” added Montazeri, who was one of Khomeini’s most trusted allies for decades before they parted ways.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has provided a translation of the 40-minute recording, and similar translations were made by several other outlets, including the BBC’s Persian Service.

The authenticity has not been verified. Iranian intelligence official ordered Montazeri’s son, Ahmad, a moderate cleric, to remove the audio from the website, news reports said.

Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran opposition group, urged international prosecutors to “use the tape as further evidence that can be used to press charges for the political slayings of the late 1980s.” Mrs. Rajavi pointed out that some of the officials who helped carry out the purges “have, from the beginning of this regime to the present day, held posts at the highest levels of the judicial, political and intelligence apparatuses.”

After Khomeini’s death in June 1989, he was succeeded by a lower-ranking cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to Murphy, “Some detractors say Khamenei was selected as a low-risk leader who would not challenge the powers of the theocracy or its powerful backers such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

“Killing is the wrong way to resist against a thought, an idea,” Montazeri can be heard saying on the audio. “They have one thought, one idea. Responding to a process, a logic — even a faulty logic — with killing will solve nothing. It will make it worse.”

“We will not be in power forever,” he continued. “In the future, history will judge us.”

Montazeri’s house arrest from 1997 until early 2003, left him silent during most of the term of  President Mohammad Khatami.  But, he lived long enough to witness the Green Movement protests and encourage them. Before his death, he also issued a public apology for his participation in the 444-day hostage standoff at the U.S. Embassy that ended in 1981.  At his funeral in Qom, tens of thousands of mourners streamed through the streets, pumping their fists and chanting against Khamenei.

The state-controlled media continued to minimize Montazeri’s effect on the people.  They ignored his central role in the Islamic revolution, referring to him dismissively as the “rioters’ cleric.”