Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was arguably the most outstanding revolutionary figure in Iran's modern history. He opposed the Shah's White Revolution in the 1960s, supported the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s and inspired the Green Revolution three decades later. He achieved the highest standing in the Shiite hierarchy, marja, or source of emulation, and was regarded as the most learned of Iran's religious scholars. He was fearless in the face of what he saw as wrong and suffered for his outspokenness at the hands of each regime - jailed and tortured in 1974, stripped of his title in 1988 and placed under house arrest in 1997.
An eminence grise, he disapproved of clerics playing an overtly political role, yet his death has led to an extraordinary response with estimates of a million supporters, fuelled by grief, pouring into the streets of the holy city of Qom. Although he died of natural causes (heart failure), the Grand Ayatollah's passing has added poignancy for Shiites, coinciding as it does with Muharram, the holy month that celebrates martyrdom.
He was the son of modest farmers from Najafabad in the central province of Isfahan, and never lost his rustic manner and tendency for straight talking, which middle-class opponents mocked him for. He undertook theological training in Isfahan and then in Qom, the traditional seat of Shiite learning, where he studied under Ruhollah Khomeini and joined his circle. He joined Khomeini's opposition to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's White Revolution. Khomeini was exiled in 1965 and in 1974 Montazeri was imprisoned and tortured. This experience, and sharing a cell with left-wingers and nationalists, informed his view on tyranny and human rights.
He was released in 1978 and after the overthrow of the Shah, he was instrumental in the creation of a new constitution, in particular an exposition of the doctrine of rule by clerics, but he insisted that this role should be advisory and not direct. Ayatollah Khomeini was by now Supreme Leader. He referred to Montazeri as 'the fruit of my life' and in 1985 he was designated successor. But by 1988 Montazeri was increasingly appalled by the execution of opponents of the Islamic Republic and the fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie, asserting that "People around the world were getting the idea that our business in Iran is murdering people."
In March 1989 his "resignation" was announced. He withdrew to Qom; his portraits and street signs that bore his name were taken down. On the death of Khomeini in June 1989, a middle-ranking cleric (and former pupil of Montazeri's), Ali Khamenei, was appointed Supreme Leader. Montazeri's supporters questioned the new leader's credentials, while his opponents dismissed Montazeri as "simple-minded". In 1997 he was placed under house arrest in Qom and was only released in 2003 when it was feared he might die.
He continued to speak out as the populist hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in 2005. He deplored the regime's aggression, deprecated its rule "by slogan" and declared that Iran's Islamic Republic was neither Islamic nor a republic, but a dictatorship. While the opposition Green Movement was generally disaffected from the clergy, they drew strength from Montazeri's outspokenness. He disputed the outcome of Ahmadinejad's re-election in June 2009, saying no one in their right mind could believe the results had been counted fairly. Following huge demonstrations throughout the country, he called for three days of national mourning for the protesters shot by government security units.
A guiding principle was an attempt to shift Shiite jurisprudence from protecting the rights of the faithful to protecting the rights of the citizens. In this context, he called for recognition of the rights, as citizens, of Iran's Bahai people. As recently as November he publicly apologised for his role in the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, declaring it a mistake. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei has offered his condolences on his rival's death and praised him as an outstanding jurist but hoped that God would forgive Montazeri for failing his "crucial test" by falling out with Grand Ayatollah Khomeini.
Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri was born in 1922 and died on December 20. He is survived by his wife and six children. * The National