In the Arena

Hossein Ali Montazeri

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Word comes that Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri has died at the age of 87. He was Iran’s road not taken, a leading cleric–Ayatullah Khomeini’s designated successor for a time–who came to understand that the Islamic Republic’s religious dictatorship was taking a fundamentally irreligious path. He was a revolutionary who came to believe that the mullahs could provide guidance for the government, but shouldn’t run it. He was a religious figure far senior to Ayatullah Khamenei and the assorted thugs who took power after Khomenei died (in fact, the only other Shi’ite who approached Montazeri’s authority is Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, also a quietist).

His death removes a thorn from the side of the military dictatorship that runs Iran. In recent months, he had spoken vehemently against the theft of the June 12 election and subsequent brutality. It will be interesting to see if anyone emerges to take his place as the signal moral religious voice in opposition to the regime. But his career stands as a monument to the notion that not all leaders become more brutal and power-hungry over time–some can grow wiser and more humane.