If the Iranian authorities had hoped that they had finally got opposition protesters under control after this summer's disputed election, the demonstrations yesterday at the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri in Qom should have disabused them. Despite every effort to control the crowds by stopping buses and trains to the city and arresting dissidents, despite interfering with the internet and trying to close down mobile phone messaging, tens of thousands took part in the funeral procession, many of them shouting anti-government slogans.
It is a sign of the continuing fracture of Iran's political society that a funeral should arouse such passions and repression. But it is also a demonstration of the terms in which political debate in Iran is still carried out that the occasion should be the death of a senior cleric in a holy city. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was more than a revered religious authority in the wider Shia community. Once regarded as the successor to the Islamic Revolution's founding father, Ayatollah Khomeini (junior to him in religious seniority), Montazeri had proved a consistent critic of the regime, arguing against the untramelled authority of the Supreme Ruler and in October condemning the disputed election as a fraud on the people and a betrayal of the principles of the revolution.
It is tempting for the outside world to regard what is going in Iran as a repeat of the Velvet, revolution in Czechoslovakia, a simple battle for democracy against autocracy. In reality, the Iranian revolt is more complex, if no less threatening, encompassing not just the young and the educated of the cities but also factions within the ruling theocratic system itself. The death of Montazeri is significant because, although long marginalised from power, his views chimed in with those of a sizable number of conservative clerics, as well as more secular radicals, worried about about the development of the revolution towards autocracy.
That doesn't make the task of the West in reacting to what is going on in Iran any easier. On the one hand, there is the natural desire to support the voices of dissent within Iran. The suppression of opposition within Iran is real, it is extremely nasty and it is getting worse.
On the other hand, there is the danger that, by taking up their cause, the authorities will find it the easier to paint them as anti-Iranian stooges of the West. The dilemma is made all the more difficult by the growing confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions. It is a delicate path that the West needs to tread, but it is one where we must keep emphasising our own belief in the virtues of free speech and democracy and our faith that Iran's future, even by its own Islamic ideals, lies down that path.Reuse content