December 28, 2009 | CBS

A Martyr For the Next Iranian Revolution?

When I first encountered the Persian word mofangi, I struggled to grasp its meaning. It implies a certain timidity, physical weakness, and awkwardness. Seeking to put some flesh on that definition, my language tutor told me to envision Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri. “He's more than a little mofangi,” remarked the tutor, expressing the condescension that well-educated, leftwing Iranians often have for the clergy who stole their revolution.

That was in the mid 1980s, and Montazeri was the number two cleric in Iran, a mullah who once passionately believed in exporting Iran's revolutionary tumult and was instrumental in building the institutions of Islam's first theocracy. Yet, unlike his former teacher and friend, the formidable Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Montazeri didn't scare anyone. With his big owlish glasses, squeaky voice, and sartorial dishevelment, Montazeri was clearly a man of the people–to the extent that any accomplished Shiite jurist can be an ordinary man.

Yet in the end Montazeri, who died last week at 87, caused, and will continue to cause, untold trouble for the regime. By the end of his life, he had come to represent the fusion of three unstoppable ideas: that the Islamic Republic as built by Khomeini and led by Khamenei is illegitimate; that only democracy can redeem the republic and save Islam as a vibrant faith capable of shaping society's mores; and that clerics who support Khamenei are intellectual dullards and moral reprobates. It was Montazeri's religious passion, his argumentative rigor, his common-man roots, and his courage that drove the regime nuts. His disciples are everywhere.

No outsider can precisely date an inner change of such consequence, but it appears that Montazeri began to lose his faith in what he'd built when the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) started consuming tens of thousands of young men–the faithful for whom Khomeini never once wept. After Iran's defeat, Khomeini “defrocked” Montazeri for having the temerity to question his execution of thousands of jailed Iranians. Under house arrest, Montazeri became the leader of the dissident clergy.

Fallen from power, Montazeri wrote a six-volume critique of the velayat-e faqih, the “regency of the jurisconsult,” or “office of supreme leader,” which allowed first Khomeini, then Khamenei, dictatorial control of the state. Although Montazeri never took issue with the idea that clerics should have an important role in government, he relentlessly pursued Khamenei for his lack of religious qualifications and for the very idea that the supreme leader is unelected and not subject to law and tradition.

For Montazeri, the Islamic Republic was born in sin because the velayat e faqih was not prescribed by Shiite tradition. Montazeri put forth the notion, later refined and lethally sharpened by Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident cleric and probably the greatest orator of the opposition, that only religious leaders who are elected possess legitimacy. Iran's religious political system, accordingly, must be transformed into a velayat-e entekhabi e moqayyadeh, an “elected, limited regency of jurists,” where ultimate political power rests with the people and their parliament, and not with mullahs. Montazeri is best seen as an iron prow, crashing into and splintering Khomeini's state. And in Montazeri's wake, democratic dissidents of all stripes–from the religiously inclined to the religion-hostile–have grown strong.

Montazeri's most lasting achievement may prove to be the deepening marriage between religious -democrats and increasingly nonreligious, Western-style democrats. He didn't intend this when he first started challenging the regime's legitimacy. But Montazeri evolved, as has the entire Iranian democracy movement–now easily the dominant intellectual force in the country. Indeed, this rapid evolution is perhaps what is most striking about Iran's leading religious democrats–Montazeri, Kadivar, former president Mohammad Khatami (in office 1997-2005), and the lay philosopher/sociologist Abdul Karim Soroush. They have become much more explicitly democratic as they have reflected on the revolution. And they have become more tolerant of dissident ideas and people. On his deathbed, Montazeri remained deeply traditional, yet he was not the man he had been even in 1988 when he expressed his outrage at the casual killing of Iranian “political” prisoners. He had become, in his own very clerical way, a progressive.

And those to the left of Montazeri, which includes almost everyone in Iran's democratic movement, have in turn moved farther left. (“Left” and “right” are tricky terms to apply to the Islamic Republic, but their Western meaning is increasingly apt.) What Khomeini feared most–the satanic whispering of Western ideas that transforms good Holy Law-abiding Muslims into inquisitive, disrespectful devils–is happening. Thirty years of theocracy has been a powerful teacher.

It was just six months ago–on June 11, 2009, the day before the Iranian presidential election–that American officials, government analysts, and a good slice of the journalistic and academic community downplayed the idea of a powerful anti-regime democratic movement in Iran. For these folks, Montazeri was a has-been, if not something of a crank. They saw an Iran where opposing regime loyalists argued essentially about little pieces of the pie, and the population went along for the ride, accepting the regime's inadequacies as it had the failure of Khatami to change the system.

But this analysis was ten years out of date. Behind the scenes, among intellectuals, academics, and an ever-larger slice of the educated youth, the advocates of democracy actually grew stronger as President Khatami got politically stuffed. Montazeri knew this and played on the growing dissatisfaction–which is why he became even more influential in the second decade of his opposition than he had been in the first.

Iran is an odd place, where old men can become beloved by the young, where youths who don't have a religious bone in their bodies and wouldn't give clerics the time of day, can nevertheless be deeply respectful, even impassioned about, a grand ayatollah who fought the good fight against tyranny.

Montazeri's humanity and religion came together to create in him a profound respect for popular government, with all its enormous flaws (which Montazeri himself bitingly enumerated). What the regime perhaps detested most about Montazeri is that he made arguments and emotional appeals aimed directly at well-educated clerics and peasant believers alike, encouraging their spiritual migration away from Khomeini's state to an imagined new Shiite republic where basic decency could be seen in the conduct of officials.

Inspired by experience, inspired by Montazeri, millions of faithful Iranians have put their affections and hopes beyond the reach of the regime.
The massive turnout for Montazeri's funeral, and the palpable nationwide sense of loss, are likely to be just the first tributes that a democratizing Iran will pay to Khomeini's most beloved student. In Iran the dead live on through their disciples, through the honor and duty that the young owe to the old, that the untested owe to the fearless. Once provoked and outraged, Iranians, who often dismissively refer to themselves as sheep, can turn into lions.

Montazeri was one of the lions of modern Iranian history. With his writing and his oratory, he unrelentingly challenged what he'd once held holy. His disciples–the army of Iranian intellectuals who've been for twenty years quietly obliterating the legitimacy of Khomeini's state–and the democratic dissidents who've poured into the streets since June 11, now command the high ground. Though the regime continues to rule because the Revolutionary Guard Corps hasn't (yet) cracked, Khamenei and his office have permanently lost their religious credentials.

With his unrivalled stubbornness and scholarly reach, Montazeri deserves much of the credit for the regime's predicament. Americans, who generally don't have an acute appreciation for Islam's religious authorities or the tumultuous debates about popular sovereignty inside Iran's clergy, owe Montazeri a great debt. Not a lover of the United States, its all-consuming popular culture, or its indefatigable ally in the region (Israel), he would not expect a word of thanks. Nevertheless, we should pay homage where homage is due. He earned it.