Monday, December 21, 2009

In Memory of Ayatollah Montazeri

By Nader Uskowi

I was travelling and unable to post on the blog. Hence this belated tribute in memory of the late Ayatollah Montazeri, who died in Qum on Sunday.

I first met the Ayatollah in 1978 in Tehran. He had been freed from SAVAK’s prison earlier that year. I was introduced to Montazeri by Ayatollah Shahroudi, who was my cellmate at the notorious Komiteh prison. It was few days before the shah would leave Iran. Sharoudi and I were among the very last SAVAK prisoners at Komiteh. Although there was an air of excitement in the city, but Montazaeri, nor Shahroudi, expected that the religious hierarchy would soon take over the government. (Shahroudi was later assassinated along with 71 other high-ranking officials of a young revolutionary government in a powerful bomb explosion at the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party in Tehran).

The next time I met Montazeri, he was a powerful leader of the Islamic Republic and I was a young journalist covering the constitutional assembly that was drafting the country’s new constitution. The first draft was written by Habbibi and other close confidants of Ayatollah Khomeini from his Neauphle-le-Chateau days and it did resemble the Belgian constitution, with no mention of Velayat-e Faghih, the ultimate authority given to a cleric to rule over the country. Montazeri was pushing for it hard and I was there (at the old Senate building) to interview him, actually more to sit down and discuss the subject with him. He gladly agreed to give me the interview.

This was not the few days prior to shah’s departure; we were on the opposite of political spectrum now. But he was as friendly and warm as ever. He obviously could not satisfy me why the draft constitution should be so radically changed. In his later years he came to regret the way his reading of Velayat-e Faghih had been altered to justify the creation of an autocracy in the country. On that day, however, he was a strong defender.

Notwithstanding my questions and the intense discussion that pursued on that hot summer day, I left the room thinking that the man had a good heart and was as a gentleman and a scholar. This in spite of his reputation those days as a lightweight, the subject of many popular jokes thrown at him for his simple rural manners. There were probably this rural upbringing and his simplicity that endeared him to me on that day despite our deep differences. He would remain a simple man until his last day during a period that other ayatollahs lived princely lives.

Our third meeting was when the prosecutor under the authority given to him by that same constitution closed our paper, Neda-ye Azadi (“Voice of Freedom”) which by then had become arguably the most popular daily in Tehran, mainly because the government had closed down Ayandegan and other popular press. I was the editor-in-chief and the prosecutor had also signed my arrest warrant. I was there to see Montazeri to get his help. As powerful as he was then, it was clear that the closure of Neda was part of a larger push to silence the opposition papers and Montazeri could not do anything about it, even if he wanted to. One of the first real signs of how politically fragmented a government the Islamic Republic would become. I had to go into hiding. A few days later the Students of Imam’s Line occupied the US Embassy, took Americans hostage, and overthrew the centrist government of Mehdi Bazargan, an old friend of Montazeri.

The ayatollah later broke from the establishment on matters of principle, including his opposition to the mass killing of nearly 4,000 political prisoners during the last months of Khomeini, to whom Montazeri was the heir apparent at the time. He paid dearly for his courageous stand, was stripped of his powers and later was put under house arrest. He left the world not a broken man, however. But a powerful symbol of opposition to dictatorship. We will all miss him. He was a gentleman and a scholar. May his memory stay alive forever!


Paul Iddon said...

Nader you're a very interesting person and this is a great memoir and tribute!

Mark Pyruz said...

Your best post ever, my friend. Thanks for sharing that very personal take on Iranian history.

Unknown said...

I loved Reading it.....

Nader Uskowi said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, They mean a lot coming from you three!