Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri: Ayatollah Khomeini's designated successor who fell out of favour with Iran's revolutionary leader

The most important turning point in the life of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri came in the late 1980s, when the authorities in Iran brusquely ordered his picture taken down from mosques and government offices.

At that moment he ceased being the designated successor to the Iranian ruler Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and instead became persona non grata with the revolutionary regime.

The relationship between the two had been particularly close: Montazeri had been the pupil of Khomeini, who had fondly described him as "the fruit of my life." But after Khomeini took charge of the new Islamic republic he found to his dismay and displeasure that Montazeri was not in the business of offering automatic obedience, and indeed criticised aspects of his rule.

As a result Montazeri incurred Khomeini's wrath, and was abruptly demoted from hero to zero. That in effect opened the most interesting period of Montazeri's life, since he became one of the regime's most outspoken internal critics.

He remained an insistently dissident voice until his death, at the age of 82, denying the legitimacy of this year's re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. He bluntly declared that "no one in their right mind" would believe the election results.

Montazeri's attack on the regime could hardly have been fiercer: he condemned it as "a political system based on force, oppression, changing people's votes, killing, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture."

The authorities in Teheran must surely have been relieved at the departure of such a trenchant critic who had for two decades been a thorn in their flesh. He was born in 1922 into a peasant family which farmed in Najafabad in Isfahan in what was then Persia. He received theological training both in Isfahan and at the religious centre of Qom.

In Qom he studied under Khomeini, coming to admire both his religious erudition and his politics. He went on to become a teacher at a theological school, but in 1974 his opposition to the Shah of Persia earned him a four-year prison term.

He emerged from jail in 1978 to play an active role in the revolution which the following year saw the Shah flee into exile. Khomeini, who had been in exile, returned in triumph to take power with Montazeri as a valued lieutenant. In 1985 he was formally nominated as Khomeini's successor, being given prestigious offices and positions. Khomeini's photograph in government offices was generally accompanied by a smaller image of Montazeri.

Khomeini wrote to him: "All of the people know that you are the harvest of what I have sown during my life. The people must follow you."

But it all went wrong between the two men when Montazeri began to exhibit what Khomeini viewed as an excess of independence. The two had their philosophical differences about how an Islamic state should be run, but it was Khomeini's actions which Montazeri found objectionable.

Montazeri called for more open policies, endorsing human rights, the legalisation of political parties and better treatment for those in prison. it is said that the torture he himself experienced in the Shah's prisons left him with strong feelings about the welfare of inmates.

But the Iran of the ayatollahs could hardly have meted out worse treatment to prisoners, for Khomeini hanged thousands of them, often without proof or fair trials. Montazeri protested against Khomeini's onslaught in which up to 20,000 may have died, on gallows which could despatch up to 20 people at a time.

Montazeri pulled no rhetorical punches. Criticising the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, for example, he declared that "people around the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is murdering people."

Khomeini, furious, announced that Montazeri had resigned and suddenly there were no more photographs of him and no more respectful references to him, or articles by him, in the state media. His title of Grand Ayatollah was withdrawn; his sayings disappeared from school textbooks; streets named after him quickly acquired new names. One moment he was revered as a particularly scholarly cleric and the nation's next leader: next he was lampooned him as a simpleton.

When Khomeini died in 1989, to be replaced by Ali Khamenei, Montazeri made it clear that he continued to disapprove of the regime. In 1997 Khamenei had him placed under house arrest in Qom, which lasted for five years, for criticising his authority. Khamenei, uneasily aware that this own religious credentials were no match for those of Montazeri, who had the status of "source of emulation", regarded him as a menace. When a prosecuted dissident praised Montazeri from the dock the court had him gagged.

Montazeri, interviewed by The Independent's Robert Fisk while under house arrest, complained: "I was one of the mouthpieces of the revolution. But when they treat me like this, how must they be treating the others?"

He accused conservative clergy of creating groups "who used violence and attacked people when they wanted to speak publicly. And they attacked me too. These kinds of action make people hate religion. But you can never serve the interests of religion through violence."

Fisk concluded after the interview: "He might turn out, in retrospect, to be the greatest hero of the Iranian revolution, the man who stood by his word, the man who protested in the greatest tradition of all humanitarians against the ferocious executions of Khomeini's opponents and who refused, always, to bow to his oppressors."

This year's disputed elections resulted in a stream of strident condemnations from Montazeri, who warned that the handling of mass protests by a government which he took to calling a dictatorship "could lead to the fall of the regime." Only a few weeks ago he declared that the militia used to put down opposition rallies was forsaking the "path of God" for the "path of Satan".

Many thousands attended his funeral. In a statement after his death Khamenei said coolly: "In the later part of his life there was an ordeal that I wish Almighty God will forgive and conceal, and that his worldly suffering will be atonement for that."

He is survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters.

Hussein Ali Montazeri, theologian and politician: born Najafabad, Iran 1922: married (two sons, four daughters); died Qom, Iran 19 December 2009.

Suggested Topics
News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits