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Iran: Foremost Dissident Cleric In Worsening Health

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Iran's most influential dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, is reported to be in fragile health as he remains under house arrest for calling for limits to supreme clerical rule. Montazeri's family says he was visited by doctors this week, who determined that his health is deteriorating as a result of his confinement. That raises the question of whether Iran's supreme leader will now release Montazeri on the recommendation of the medical team or condemn him to perish from further confinement.

Prague, 9 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, the man who almost became Iran's supreme leader a little over a decade ago, is in worsening health as he remains under house arrest in the holy city of Qom.

The ayatollah's son, Ahmad, told the U.S. Persian-language service Radio Farda that doctors who visited him yesterday have diagnosed him as suffering from a sleeping disorder that so far has not responded to medication and directly results from his five years of confinement. "The necessary medication has been prescribed for his sleeping disorder. The reason that he has not recuperated is his living environment and not his physical condition. He has been living in this house [under house arrest] behind closed doors for more than five years," Ahmad Montazeri said.

Ahmad Montazeri said that his father's sleeping disorder has worsened noticeably in recent days. The cleric, who is 81, sleeps up to 16 hours a day and suffers from a number of other debilitating medical problems. "What is worrisome is that he sleeps 16 hours a day, he has a heart problem, high blood pressure, and is diabetic. He has been suffering from the sleeping disorder for the past three months, and the situation has worsened in the past 10 days," Ahmad Montazeri said.

The visit by doctors to Montazeri's home yesterday comes after a first medical visit was turned back on 5 January by security guards. The guards, from Iran's military elite, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), refused entry to the medical team despite the fact that a deputy health minister accompanied them at the suggestion of Iran's moderate president Mohammad Khatami to give official approval for the visit.

Montazeri's family says the security guards told them they had received instructions from the hard-line-dominated Special Court for the Clergy not to admit visitors. The special court, which has responsibility for all judicial matters involving clerics, today called that report false and said the doctors were not admitted because they had not coordinated their visit beforehand with authorities.

Yesterday's successful entry by the medical team comes after more than 70 reformist members of parliament wrote a letter demanding the Defense Ministry explain why the IRGC was barring doctors from the Montazeri home.

The news of Montazeri's deteriorating health is the latest episode in a long-running conflict between the dissident cleric and hard-liners supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If the supreme leader does not release Montazeri following the recommendation of the medical team, the decision is sure to raise the question of whether he has chosen to condemn Montazeri to death by way of continued confinement.

The case has great political significance in Iran because Montazeri -- thanks to his eminent religious and revolutionary credentials -- is one of the few men within Iran's clerical elite with the stature to publicly oppose and criticize Khamenei on a number of highly sensitive issues.

Montazeri was initially tapped to be the successor to Iran's first supreme leader and founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who sometimes referred to Montazeri as "the fruit of my life." But Montazeri's open criticism of some of the revolution's harshest treatment of its opponents, as well as his criticism of the conduct of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, antagonized other key members of Khomeini's inner circle. When Khomeini fell gravely ill before his death in 1989, Montazeri's rivals persuaded the revolutionary leader to renounce his protege and relieve him of official duties.

With Montazeri forced aside, Ali Khamenei, a man with lesser religious qualifications, was speedily promoted to the necessary rank of ayatollah and became Iran's next supreme leader after Khomeini. The substitution of Khamenei for Montazeri continues to cause disputes within Iran's clerical establishment, which sees clear ideological differences between the two men.

RFE/RL regional specialist William Samii said that one of the most important differences is over the extent to which the clergy should exercise absolute political as well as religious power in Iran through the office of the supreme leader. "Montazeri was a creator of the current system and he continues to favor an Islamic theocracy. But many of the objections to the current state of affairs that he raised in a November 1997 lecture have since been repeated by activists. For example, he objected to the role of the Guardians Council in vetting candidates for elected office. He spoke out against the use of violence in the political process. And he criticized using the cleric's mantle to hide personal pursuits, or corruption, in other words," Samii said.

Montazeri has frequently called for placing limits upon the absolute authority wielded today by Supreme Leader Khamenei. He has said that while Khomeini had the necessary stature for the post, Khamenei does not.

"Montazeri has been a fierce critic of Khamenei, who has pretensions to the religious learning and status of his predecessor. Montazeri said in 1997 that Khamenei is not a religious source of emulation. And in 1994, he urged Khamenei to excuse himself from answering a religious question by saying that he is too busy. Montazeri said that the country's religious guardian, if one is really qualified to be one, should only have a supervisory role," Samii said.

The dissident cleric has also said that he and other framers of the 1979 constitution never intended to accord the institution with absolute powers that could be abused by lesser men. The post of supreme leader was created by the 1979 revolution to ensure the Islamic nature of the new society by subjecting all key matters to review by the country's preeminent religious figure.

Specifically, Montazeri has written that the supreme leader "can never be beyond the law, and he cannot interfere in all affairs, particularly affairs that fall outside his area of expertise, such as complex economic issues or issues of foreign policy and international relations."

He has also said that, "the most important point to be highlighted is that Islam is for the separation of powers and does not recognize the concentration of power in the hand of a fallible human being."

These opinions, which resulted in Montazeri's being put under house arrest in 1997, go right to the heart of the debate in Iran today over to what extent the Islamic Republic should be an Islamic state run by appointed clerics and to what extent a republic ruled by popularly elected representatives. They have also made Montazeri a leading light for many reformist political figures, leading progressive clerics, and those young seminary students who feel Iran's Shiia Muslim leaders should remain outside of politics or risk losing credibility with the faithful.

In one sign of Montazeri's continuing political importance, a former member of parliament wrote an open letter in November calling for Khamenei to release Montazeri, a man he described as worthy -- unlike Khamenei -- of the rank of ayatollah. Former parliamentarian Qasem Sholeh-Sadi wrote, "it has been several years that [Montazeri] has been under house arrest with no legitimate court verdict against him, and everyone is deprived of his guidance."

Sadi added: "You [Khamenei] lack legitimacy for religious leadership because you remain [despite Khamenei's rapid promotion] a 'Hojjat ol-eslam' [a religious rank], which is miles away from the rank of an ayatollah. One needs years of research, writing, and teaching to be considered one."

Montazeri remains influential in Iran despite his house arrest and the fact that he is barred from teaching, that his financial resources are frozen, and that he can receive no guests except close relatives. The dissident cleric periodically issues public statements through his family and has conducted very rare interviews with the press by fax.