Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ayatollah's Death Could Unify 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.

The role Ayatollah Montazeri will play in death will come into clearer focus during the next two weeks. His admirers began to vent their sorrow Monday in funeral processions, at the outset of a 10-day religious holiday that figures to produce more public shows of opposition.

Ayatollah Montazeri was a religious leader of considerable import -- indeed, he once was designated to become the nation's supreme religious leader -- but in the past six months was most noteworthy as the senior religious leader most openly sympathetic with the opposition movement that sprang up in Tehran's streets after June's disputed presidential election.

Yet at 87 years of age, in poor health, and restricted to the holy city of Qom, he was never likely to become the active leader of a movement opposing the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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.

It isn't unusual for revolutionary and counter-revolutionary figures to provide inspiration from the grave. Indeed, the Iranian opposition already has, to some extent, one such figure, albeit of far less stature: Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old woman whose death at the hands of government agents trying to suppress a street protest was captured on video and galvanized government foes in and out of Iran.

History offers other examples. Newspaper publisher Pedro Chamorro, murdered by enforcers for Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1978, became the rallying figure for the Nicaraguan revolution in following years -- and, ultimately, the galvanizing figure for the counter-revolution that followed. Similarly, both the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro and the counter-revolutionaries that resisted him rallied around a deceased Cuban nationalist, Jos[eacute] Marti.

The potential role for Ayatollah Montazeri as an opposition icon lies not just in his vocal dissents in the latter months of his life, but in the outsized role he played in his country's history over the past quarter-century. It's a role that may not be immediately apparent to those who don't follow Iranian politics closely.

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