x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Iran regime fears its opponent in waiting

The death of Hossein Ali Montazeri left an immeasurable void for his followers, but a new spiritual leader is apparent.

Hossein Ali Montazeri's death has left the Iranian regime stunned and reeling. The grand ayatollah's passing at the beginning of the religious mourning month of Moharram galvanised an opposition movement that the regime, despite its repressive muscle, has failed to crush six months after the disputed re-election of the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For those wondering who could possibly fill Montazeri's shoes as the regime's most potent clerical scourge, the authorities betrayed their fears by providing a swift, if unofficial, answer that few would dispute.

After Montazeri's tumultuous funeral in Qom last Monday, hundreds of plainclothes militiamen ransacked the premises of his close friend, the Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei. There was no surer sign that the regime believes he will become the opposition's new spiritual leader: like Montazeri, the 72-year-old cleric is an outspoken champion of democratic values in an Islamic system. He has made no secret of the fact, like millions of Iranians, he believed that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition's political leader, was the real winner of June's presidential election.

"By sending their goons to attack Sanei's home and office, it is quite clear that he's the one they are most worried about assuming Montazeri's mantle," said Farideh Farhi, an eminent Iran scholar at the University of Hawaii. "Sanei does not yet have Montazeri's gravitas," she said in an interview, but by focusing its ire on him, the regime is, ironically, helping to boost his stature. Although deceased, Montazeri has given his potential successors time to shoulder his awesome burden.

"I wouldn't - write off Montazeri just yet: Iranian politicians and statesman tend to cast a long shadow in death and invariably exercise a greater influence on events," Ali Ansari, the director of Iranian studies at St Andrews University in Scotland, said in an interview. The authorities' jitters about Grand Ayatollah Sanei are understandable. Like Montazeri, he is a marja, or source of emulation, with impeccable revolutionary credentials. His theological standing easily trumps that of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been branded a "dictator" by opposition protesters. Those same demonstrators have chanted, "Long live Sanei," in recent days.

The Grand Ayatollah Sanei scorned Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election in June. He has condemned the "persecution and forced confessions" of arrested reformists. And he has warned the regime that the "sighs of the innocent will inevitably end in the entrapment of the instigators of oppression and violence in a future not so far off". He has the same broad-based appeal as Montazeri, whose funeral attracted not only the provincial devout but also young middle-class admirers from Tehran, inspired by his fearless commitment to human and civil rights.

"He is Montazeri's most obvious successor. He's the most progressive cleric on many issues. People like him: he's open, outspoken, moderate, socially very conscious and politically very aware," said a former Qom seminary student, who declined to be named. "By singling him out for attack the government is stupidly making him even more prominent." Among the Grand Ayatollah Sanei's famous dissenting fatwas are ones declaring that women have equal rights to men and can be judges, presidents and sources of emulation. His website, http://saanei.org, insists that "Islamic law does not allow any discrimination on the basis of race, nor does it condone discrimination on the grounds of sex and ethnicity".

Such proclamations have made him particularly popular with women, who comprise half the electorate and are the vanguard of opposition protest. The regime, unsurprisingly, regards the Grand Ayatollah Sanei as a formidable adversary. His revolutionary and theological credentials are impeccable. Born into an esteemed clerical family in the province of Isfahan, he was an active opponent of the US-backed shah as far back as 1965, when his signature was among those of several leading clerics denouncing the monarch's authoritarian rule.

The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revered founder of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, hailed him as one of his best students in Qom, and in 1980 insisted that he take his first political post by appointing him as a jurisprudent on the powerful Guardian Council. Two years later, he was also elected to another prominent position, as a member of the Assembly of Experts, a body empowered to appoint and, theoretically, dismiss, the country's supreme leader.

Within three years, he resigned his post on the Guardian Council, whereupon Khomeini appointed him Iran's prosecutor general, declaring that he regarded his disciple "like a son". In 1985, the Grand Ayatollah Sanei, with similar praise ringing in his ears, resigned from all his government posts to return to Qom to establish himself as a marja. A staunch supporter of a "dialogue of civilisations" - which was promoted by Mohammed Khatami, Mr Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor - the Grand Ayatollah Sanei insisted the current nuclear dispute should be resolved by "open, direct negotiations".

Like the regime, he has insisted Iran's nuclear programme was solely peaceful in intent, declaring that the Islamic republic vehemently opposes weapons of mass destruction on religious and cultural grounds. In an implicit sideswipe at the regime, he told a Greek television station last year that nuclear weapons were anyway useless in providing security against nuclear attack by an enemy if a government lacked popular support.

"Any ruling system which is respected and supported by the mass of the people, is lasting and stable," he said. "But if the people are not interested in the ruling system, even a single firecracker can cause that system to collapse." @Email:mtheodoulou@thenational.ae