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Iran Special Analysis: After Montazeri --- From Protest to Victory?

MONTAZERI FUNERAL3For an observer 1000s of miles away, the movement of events was dream-like. Initially, as Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's body was moved from his house to the Imam Hassan Mosque, the report were "30,000 to 40,000" on the streets. An hour later, as the procession moved from the mosque to the Massoumeh Shrine, where Montazeri would be buried, the news came of "more than 100,000".

Then it was hundreds of thousands. Not just claims of hundreds of thousands but the first pictures, with an aerial shot of of Qom filled with mourners and demonstrators. Then the videos, first in a trickle, soon a torrent, from Montazeri's house, from the mosque, from the shrine, throughout the city, in Najafabad (Montazeri's birthplace), and in other cities.

Just put two images side-by-side. Three days before Montazeri's burial, the regime struggled (and possibly manipulated) to fill Tehran's Enghelab Square with supporters. Yesterday, there was no need for PhotoShop: this was the genuine expression of emotions from anguish to anger to hope, in numbers not seen since the first days after the Presidential election.

For me, there was one key sign that this was beyond even the moments of the mid-July Rafsanjani Friday Prayer, the "40th Day memorial" of 30 July, the Qods Days demonstration of September, the 16 Azar protests two weeks ago. At no point, even as "Western" media were going Page 1 with their discovery that Iranian post-election resistance had not died, could I step back to evaluate the political significance. This was too big for snap judgements of the type that I could venture a few hours into the protests of previous occasions.

For this was a combination not only of a movement of the past six months but of political and religious sentiments of decades. Montazeri --- the pariah of 1989, dismissed as the next Supreme Leader and shunned by Ayatollah Khomeini, placed under house arrest, condemned as an irrelevancy by the regime --- was now Iran's hope.

Perhaps the most eye-catching testimony to that came not from an admirer of Montazeri or a member of the Green Wave but from a critic and defender of the current regime. Tehran Unversity academic Seyed Mohammad Marandi --insisted Montazeri "said the same thing" for 25 years, Montazeri was an insignificance, Montazeri was linked to "terrorism". What was meant to be a dismissal turned into a tribute: Marandi's words just did not match up to the videos that were reaching our desk at the same moment.

How much of yesterday's sentiment was sympathy, affection, and admiration of an important but singular figure, and how much was a well-spring of wider beliefs about the current state of an Islamic Republic, two decades after Montazeri's ostracism? And does this mean that the movement for fundamental change in the Iranian system, a movement put aside by many observers only weeks ago (note the lack of attention outside Iran to the significance of demonstrations of 4 November), is now unstoppable?

I'm not sure this morning. I'm not sure primarily because, even acknowledging that the mass sentiment yesterday was not only for Montazeri but for Montazeri as a symbol of what could and should be in Iran, a ground-swell still needs focus, direction, objectives.

The practical demands of politics are messy and long-term, compared to the sudden, clear expression we saw yesterday. So, even in the run-up to the ceremonies of Ashura on Sunday --- now how large the demonstrations? --- in the background will be all the legal, political, and religious calculations and manoeuvres that have both preoccupied and frustrated since June. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi made their appearances yesterday, but the reconcilation now has to be not only with a crowd of mourning but of a movement that seeks a significant victory for its demands of recognition and justice.

So, no easy answers. However, I will venture one far-from-tangential conclusion. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, six months after his claims of victory over the "dust" of opposition, is now a President of the past. I am not sure he was even prominent enough yesterday to get a specific chant from the demonstrators, but he was swept away in the cry, "Montazeri is not dead; the coup Government is dead."

It is surreal but essential ---the relevance of the irrelevant, so to speak --- to watch the interview of Ahmadinejad broadcast by America's ABC News last night. Because the encounter took place last week, both the President and the interviewer, trading punches over the nuclear issues and the detained US hikers, are unconcerned with Grand Ayatollah Montazeri and (in the interviewer's case) the political state of the opposition. So the interview now becomes testimony to a discussion taking place outside the realities of the conflict, both over the last six months and as they have evolved over the last 48 hours.

Ironically, however, Ahmadinejad's marginal position is important. Combined with the "marginal" on the other side --- the failure of Mousavi and Karroubi to get any concessions from the regime on their core demands, being met instead by more threats, the failure of others to establish a National Unity Plan --- it has led to the sharpening of the conflict between the Supreme Leader and a "radicalised" opposition. That, in turn, has led to a muddling, rather than clarifying, of the issues at hand: "radicalised" is at that point laid on certain symbolic acts such as "Death to the Dictator" chants and the omission of the Islamic Republic's coat of arms on the Iranian flag.

It is from that muddle that the next steps and possibilities will emerge. Is Ayatollah Khameini really willing to take this to a battle to the death with the Green movement or will he offer any way back from his threat to arrest them all? Does any space remain for those "within the Establishment" --- a Rafsanjani, a Larijani, other high-profile members of Parliament and Ministers --- to craft a settlement? Does the mantle of Montazeri lead Mousavi, Karroubi, or other opposition figures back to prominence not just through periodic statements but through a sustained public presence, accompanied by clear demands for changes in the Islamic Republic? Is there any possibility of a "movement from below" that frames and presses those demands to a satisfactory conclusion?

After emotions has to come political calculation. But right now, I don't have an answer to those sums and equations. I'm not sure anyone else --- Khameini, Mousavi, Karroubi, or anyone in that crowd at Qom --- does either.

Reader Comments (22)

All those people who participated in the ceremony yesterday, and especially the Clerics, wanted to show that they are against Khamnei &co because they have supported somedody known as a "anti-revolutionary "; therefore they have to assume what they have done and follow this path untill the end by joining the green movement; I am so disappointed in Rafsanjani; he deserves to be humiliated all time by the regime's tugs.

December 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterange paris

RE: "the sharpening of the conflict between the Supreme Leader and a “radicalised” opposition."

I think it may be even muddier than you describe. The SL I believe gave orders or publicly expressed his wish that the funeral be calm and the mourners respected (can't find the news report now), however the attacks by Basij and plainclothes security agents, their military take-over of the area around Montazeri's house preventing the memorial ceremony from taking place, and their attack on Mousavi's convoy all show that the SL's wishes are now irrelevant. On the other hand, not only have we seen a marked radicalising of students' stances within the greater opposition, but now perhaps we can expect some fallout among the clergy, students and residents of Qom who have thus far been sheltered from direct contact with large protesting masses. Monday's protests in Qom provided the clergy in particular with a close-up view and earful of the opposition's feelings toward the SL and the other security and power-brokers of the regime (perhaps for the first time for some of them). We'll have to see what effect this may have in the near future. So it's looking like a sharpening of the conflict between an ever more radicalised opposition perhaps joined by some newly disgruntled clergy and the regime's security forces, with both AN and the SL increasingly out of the picture.

December 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

I'm regularly asked to give my opinion about what is going on in Iran these days. As someone who mostly thinks about the human rights issues--the arrests, releases, torture and deaths--I keep up with the political situation, but rarely try to form an opinion on it. However, I am currently racking my brain to figure out how the regime can stop the opposition. I can't see it just fizzling out anymore. Arrests of the lieutenants of the opposition, shutdown of newspapers, and violence in the streets doesn't seem to be working, and arrest of the "leaders" seems like an extremely dangerous gambit for the regime. What options do they have? How do they intent to overcome this challenge?

December 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersiavash

Insightful article, thanks.
I think the space for a settlement within the system has long disappeared. The actual chance for the system's survival was with Mousavi, not Ahmadinejad. Now it's too late. Iran's young generation (50% of Iranians are below 25, a quarter are below 15) offered a hand to the system by enthusiastically participating in elections, but was subsequently cheated, insulted and repressed. It has been excluded by the system, and that spells the end of the system. The writing has been on the wall for months.
Montazeri's death may be a trigger, and the emotional, massive reaction from the crowds seems to indicate the possibility of that kind of dynamics, which was seen elsewhere before. Yesterday I wrote a brief piece precisely about this:

December 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpelin

I do not believe that it is possible for this to finish peacefully. After 30 years, there is much deep entrenchment, many vested interests - and for many there is nowhere for them to go (escape to). They are not going to simply hand over the keys - regardless of the size of peaceful protests. Besides, who would they hand the keys to? This regime was born in violence and it will only end in violence. There is plenty of world history to support that.


December 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarry

Thank you, Scott, for these cautious reflections. Any predictions seem impossible at the moment, but I agree with Pelin that it is much too late for a settlement within the system. In fact, Khamenei's derogatory remarks on Montazeri have further angered the protesters. I mention them, because they reflect his state of mind, negating even the highest religious authorities of the IRI, and Montazeri had certainly a higher ranking in the clerical sphere. Obviously such remarks are also a green light to the Bassiji to attack funeral services.
For more than 25 years a certain "balance of powers" between different political currents on one hand, and between the ruling class and the people on the other hand guaranteed the survival of this mockup "republic". This balance was broken, when AN took over the presidency five years ago, pushing forward his ideal of a completely unified state with no dissidents left over, i.e. a genuine Islamic dictatorship with the SL at the top.
As to Montazeri's funeral, it is important to notice that it has taken the protests into the heart of the IRI, to Qom, the most important religious center, which is infamous for its "import of bodies (buried there) and export of mullah novices" among Iranians.
As to the muddling, the situation is even worse. Even before the downfall of the IRI Iranian commentators are already claiming a "civilised" Islamic state (Sazegara et al.) versus a secular democracy, as the discussions on VOA show.
Unfortunately no agenda or manifesto exists, except for the fundamental demand for civil rights. To sum up, I would agree with Barry that no peaceful end is visible at the moment.

Shorter notices:
Ardeshir Fathi-Nejad, former chief of staff of the Petroleum ministry, was arrested last week:
Moussavi has been removed as head of the "Farhangestan-e Honar", the Academy of Fine Arts:
Who is talking of reconciliation???

December 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

"a genuine Islamic dictatorship with the SL at the top."

This is something I can't quite understand. I can understand how a person would go along with a Dictatorship - ride along on it's coat tails for a personal benefit. I can understand how some people became committed Nazis pre and during WW2 - because they had the same racial hatreds as Hitler. But why would AN support an Islamic dictatorship with SL at the top?. What is it about the concept of an Islamic dictatorship that he (and others) admire? If he was aiming at becoming SL himself, I could understand it.


December 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarry


This was casually speaking or a shortened version. In fact AN needs the SL to legitimate his gradual elimination of opposing factions and replacing all key positions with his beloved IRGC cronies. Hence the SL is a false front for the seizure of power by the paramilitary, leading to a religious paramilitary dictatorship.
And then, when he and his IRGC have caused enough disasters throughout the world, we can happily expect the arrival of the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, i.e. doomsday.
By the way, from today the SL is an "Imam" as well. All Persian newspapers are forced to quote him as such:
One commentator writes that Iranians now have 13.5 Imams, and another welcomes this order, causing hatred against this religious title.

December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

a lot of the comments expressed here are by 'fantasists'. The Islamic Republic is not going anywhere, it will like all states undergo reforms, but will remain an Islamic Republic if only in name like Pakistan. It would be wiser to study the messy history of the US 'democracy' causing the death and wrecking of millions of lives in the process, through slavery and the forceful and barbaric import of black slaves from Africa, the almost complete annihilation of the Indian peoples and the wild buffaloes to boot, the civil war, the McCarthy witch hunts, and the suppression of the civil rights movement, the only country that has actually used an atomic bomb, a country that has committed aggressive wars throughout the world and in the words of Chomsky remains together with Israel the greatest threat to world peace and security. Compared to that the Islamic Republic in its comparatively short history and with all its shortcomings actually looks quite benevolent.

December 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterrezvan

Rezvan is wrong.

I spoke with an fellow Iranian today who has family in the IRI government her family members employed in high levels of government are moving their personal assets to Dubai and getting ready to flee. The writing is on the wall REZVAN the only fantasy is yours.

December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPB

Not only is Rezvan himself guilty of fantasizing - he used the words "Islamic Republic" and " benevolent" in the same sentence.


December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarry


Faraj Sarkuhi's analysis of the 13.5th Imam's obituary on Montazeri is revealing: unprecedented insults against the highest ranking ayatollah in Iran, condemning him for his sins (i.e. defending prisoners), asking God to forgive him, and declaring that his punishment (at his lifetime) was of divine nature:
Sarkuhi rightly notices that the SL's remarks imply his God-like nature and points to other speeches, in which he tries to adjust himself with the first Imam, Ali.
My benevolent suggestion: assoodeh bekhab zira ke ma bidarim...

December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArshama


Now that your done spouting your revisionist nosense why don't you go see your basiji masters and collect your sack of potatoes!!!! I'm part American Indian, and it was a tragic history, but the fact remains the Indian genocide was not genocide. 70-90% of the deaths were caused disease. Follow this link and learn something about American Indians: slavery it most be noted that the Islamic world never abolished slavery on the books until 1960 under pressure from the infidel west. The fact the Arabic slave trade was far more deadly. Follow this link to learn more: To boot slavery is still widespread in some Islamic states not to mention under sharia it is still legal. Why don't focus on the brutality of your regime instead of trying to deflect.



December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBill

SCOTT: Great analysis but you may want to consider yet another dimension that's now gaining momentum: because of the way the government is handling Montazeri's burial and memorials, they are offending conservatively religious people and causing to join the opposition. Ayatollah Taheri is no liberal but essentially forbidding him and other clerics in Ispahan and Najafabad to honor the death of Montazeri is bound to make a large part of the Ispahan province squarely anti-government. The uprising against the Shah had started in the provinces (Tabriz & Ispahan) and that might be repeated now again. The provinces are normally easier to control because of smaller, tighter knitt, communities, but if/when they tilt, they'll become much more virulent and active because of their cohesion and unity glue. That would be key to start a more substantial split within the bassij and the security forces that are mostly from provincial origin. We're approaching the tipping point.



December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHamid


Thank you --- I had picked up on this sentiment since Monday amongst conservative clerics. I wonder how much this will converge with earlier signs of dissatisfaction and attempts to manoeuvre for a settlement amongst the Ayatollahs, for example, Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi.


December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

Thanks so much for this, Scott. Sorry I'm almost 2 days late on expressing this sentiment - we got 54 cm of snow here early this week, if you can believe it! I wanted, however, to say how wonderful and inspiring this analysis is. This is definitely one of your best pieces, and I found myself re-reading it 3 times and sending it to several friends who are not obsessed with Iran like us (LOL!)

December 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Scott


Much appreciated --- good luck with all that snow....


December 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

Let me tell you a secret: if you want to understand the coup regime's actions, you have to be willing to view things thru their lens.

Ahmadinejad and the top IRG leaders have been very clear in their insane beliefs about the hidden imam. They have been clear that: 1) the hidden imam's return is imminent (a heresy according to most Shia clerics), 2) the US's goal is to stop his imminent return, 3) they are working hard to prepare Iran as the hidden imam's army (a nuclear weapon would come in handy).

When you accept these as the common thread that runs thru all their actions, then you can easily analyze and even predict the regime's next moves.

They will not give up their nuclear plans (it has nothing to do with their NPT right to possess peaceful nuclear energy), they will commit any necessary atrocities to maintain their power, and they will continue to diverge from the main Shia theocracy.

Sometimes if something walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is actually a duck.

The regime that talks like an apocalyptic and acts like an apocalyptic is indeed apocalyptic.

December 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHamid
an interesting interview of a Chador clad young Iranian woman. Very interesting for me at least, as a western outsider.


December 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarry

I think that the reason that the government is generally reluctant to give in reformists demand is probably the power struggle between the ministries in the government is causing a stalemate in policy reform, both foreign and domestic.

The IRGC is becoming more influential as an entity. So is the president and his office. And I dont think the Supreme Leader is yielding the absolute authority as many might think, he has to maintain his share of the power with pro conservative rhetoric and support. Failing to do so or coming to a compromise with the refomists would make him less competent among his peers (the council of experts).

To think that the president or the supreme leader as being apocalyptic and crazy is ignorant. The officials know very well that their ideologies are fading among the population but they just cant find the justification to give in reform plans and its too late (or at least not convenient ) to come up with any.

This movement will certainly change the balance of power in the government...I just hope that its not in favor of the hardliner conservatives.

December 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdanial


"To think that the president or the supreme leader as being apocalyptic and crazy is ignorant. The officials know very well that their ideologies are fading among the population but they just cant find the justification to give in reform plans..."

1. Watch your language. This is not Iran to use name-calling to bully your point.

2. "they just cant find the justification to give in reform plans"... can you explain what that means? Sounds like you are claiming that the coup leaders want to give up their powers but can't find a good reason to do it...what????

3. Have you listened to Ahmadinejad, Yazdi, the IRG leaders? Have you not heard them repeatedly talking about all their focus being on expediting and preparing for the return of the hidden imam? What else do they have to do to convince you?

To see this as a simple power struggle is like calling the fight between Al Qaede and the rest of the world a simple philosophical difference.

December 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHamid

danial & Hamid,

First off I don't think danial was using foul words. His point of view centered around the word "ignorant." From an english standpoing Hamid, the word he used was a statement nothing more.

Having said that Hamid has a very good point. Here is some history:

1) The regime just constructed a new road to the well the Hidden Imam is supposed to be in. This included a number of other infrastructure improvements. No crediable reason other than a religious one was ever given for the work.

2) Ahmadinejad said he felt a light surrond him at the UN that caused all to focus on him without blinking.

3) Ahmandinejad numerous times has said he communicates with the Hidden Imam by dropping notes in the well.

4) Numerous times the regime and Ahmadinejad have called the world to Islam stating it is the only answer to the world's issues. Please note during early Islamic times this call to Islam was always used before battle wth the foe. In fact many of the fundamentalist fanatics of today make this call for others to embrace Islam or else.

5) Ahmandinejad's spiritual advisor is none other than Mesbah Yazdi otherwise knows as Prof Crocodile. This guys has stated "the people are sheep", does not believe is voting, and does hold apocalyptic views. Yazdi has even spoken about the regimes efforts to hasten the arrival of the Hidden Imam.

6) Ahmadinejad just recently said the sole goal of the US in the Middle East is to block the return of the Hidden Imam. Personally I get a chuckle out of this because no one in the West even knows who this guy is let alone the US administration.

While the point of a violent apocalypse is debatable one must not discount it knowing what the regime has done. After all these nutters in the regime are willing to kill and rape their own people after all. To them the system is more important to the people. That focus clearly shows the regime is capable of all kinds of things even incuding apocalyptic visions if they think it best serves the goals of the system.


December 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBill

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