Another blow to Iranian reform, but not revolution

Yesterday, Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri passed away at his home in the Iranian holy city of Qom, without question delivering another serious blow to hopes for internal reform to the Iranian political system. Montazeri leaves behind him a decidedly mixed legacy, and a very interesting set of questions about the immediate and long-term consequences of his absence from the Iranian political scene.

Montazeri was one of the most senior clerical figures in all of Shiite Islam, and also one of the original architects of the concept of villayat e-faqih (rule by jurisprudential scholars) most powerfully advanced by Ayatollah Khomeini. As such, he was a leading figure in the “Islamic revolution” that overthrew the shah in the late 1970s. Montazeri was one of the central figures behind the creation of the Revolutionary Guards organization that has now effectively taken over the Iranian government, and also the most enthusiastic of the senior “Islamic” revolutionaries in pushing for the exportation of the Iranian model and the establishment of sympathetic organizations among Arab Shiites such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and several of the Iraqi political parties that now dominate the government in Baghdad. His stature can be measured from the fact that he was at one point formally appointed to be Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader.

During the course of the 1980s, Montazeri became disillusioned with the path the “Islamic Republic” was taking earlier than most internal dissidents. Although he was in line to take over the leadership, he quarreled with Khomeini on several key points, including how aggressive Iran should be in trying to export its revolutionary ideals (Montazeri wanted to be more aggressive), the leaking of embarrassing information regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, and his increasing calls for the liberalization of the governing system. Montazeri, unlike Khomeini and certainly unlike Khamenei, apparently believed that the jurisprudential supreme guides should be more removed from power and act essentially in an advisory capacity rather than as direct rulers. It’s also clear that he was very uncomfortable with the mass executions of opposition members in the late 1980s. Beginning with his call in 1987 for the legalization of political parties, he increasingly became the most credible, and often lonely, voice for internal reform of the system. Following the election fraud and subsequent unrest this summer, most hopes for internal reform of the system centered around the idea that senior clerics led by Montazeri could make common cause with political reformers like Mousavi and Karroubi and create conditions for a nonviolent, peaceful “velvet revolution” in Iran.

There is a sharp disagreement over whether Montazeri’s death constitutes a significant blow to the opposition in Iran or not. On the other hand, there is almost universal agreement that the Khamenei-Amhadinejad clique will be utterly delighted to be rid of this turbulent priest. It was not just his reformist tendencies and liberal views that were a thorn in their side, but his scholarly eminence stood in marked contrast to Khamenei’s own dearth of academic credentials. His mere presence on the scene was an embarrassment, simply in terms of a contrast of academic CVs, to the current supreme leader. This alone suggests, but does not necessarily mean, that his death is by definition a blow to the Iranian opposition, whether reformist or more ambitious in its intentions.

Some argue that Montazeri’s death is not a blow to an opposition movement because it is largely spontaneous, barely organized, nascent, fledgling and essentially without coherent political leadership. Others say that Montazeri was an important source of inspiration and religious legitimation for the opposition, just as he was a powerful source of delegitimation for the regime. It strikes me that there is no way in which his death is not a blow to reformists, by which I mean specifically those who wish to transform the nature and behavior of the regime from within, without a total overhaul of the system and doing away with the whole bizarre concept of villayat e-faqih. Such forces would necessarily require not only religious legitimation and the validation of one of the foremost leaders of the “Islamic revolution,” but also someone who is ready, willing and able to say that the present system is not that intended by the originators of the villayat e-faqih system including not only himself, but also Ayatollah Khomeini.

This point, that Montazeri stressed time and again, that Khomeini himself would disapprove of the extreme illiberalism and repressive nature of the present regime is exceptionally dubious but also exceptionally powerful as a means of rhetorically undermining the current leadership. And, if Montazeri says so, few would be in a position to credibly disagree without invoking the idea that Khomeini too approved of repression and illiberal policies. Given their own belief systems and political rhetoric, this constitutes a trap from which the ruling elite had no easy way out other than ignoring it or arresting anyone who repeated these claims too loudly or vociferously. So the fact is that the Iranian reformist movement as such has lost its most authoritative and credible champion, and probably the only figure in its circles who was, essentially, untouchable (insofar as one can be effectively immune to the power of the state in a country like Iran).

On the other hand, as I have been stressing for many months now, I do not think there is any reason to believe that the movement for internal reform and civil rights in Iran has any serious hope of succeeding in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the centrality of people who essentially believe in but want to change the system, as Montazeri almost certainly did, it seems to me is becoming increasingly diminished as time goes on. I have written many times that I think the Iranian ruling elite has given the public a simple choice: stick with us on our terms or enter into a dangerous revolutionary spiral which will have unpredictable consequences and involve terrible risks and enormous pain. It seems clear that the reform movement, including Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, has found no effective answer to this. The regime is beyond scolding and shaming, and has answered calls for reform with brute force. Mousavi, Karroubi and Montazeri, it seems to me, although they serve as powerful voices of delegitimation of the regime from a position that is essentially within the system, have been rendered increasingly irrelevant by the tactics of the government. I suspect that the reformist movement has found itself in a lose-lose situation: if the government prevails, they remain marginal and things don’t change; but if change is actually to come, it will require much more far-reaching measures than they have been willing to countenance or would probably be enthusiastic about, again leaving them marginal.

Reformists including Montazeri have staked out an honorable middle ground that is sensible, reasonable and constructive. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any space in which it can operate effectively in the current Iranian scene, which the government has decided to force into a rather stark binary of acceptance of the present situation versus revolutionary change. Therefore, while Montazeri’s death is certainly a blow to the reformist movement, I doubt it’s a major blow to the prospects for significant change in Iran because I think these are only really possible, under the present circumstances, through much more far-reaching restructuring than reform proposes. Insofar as there are nascent revolutionary movements developing to correspond to the government-created revolutionary situation in Iran, the passing away of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri probably won’t be much of a blow to them, and could even serve as an inspiration and source of religious legitimation for measures, agendas and organizations that he might have recoiled from if he were still alive.