He Stood up to the Ayatollah

You may not fully understand the constant news you've been hearing on Iran over the past few months.

You may not have the capacity to be able to understand it in a personal context, but explaining the life, and now death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, can fill in the gaps of a popular revolution that culminated in a religious takeover and thirty years later, a disputed election that prompted a new kind of revolution.

He was, you will find, the most powerful individual possessing the bravery and decency to stand up to Khomeini. And at the cost of his own power, he was the one who fell farthest when he did.

Of all the voices of power you hear coming out of Iran today -- the turncoats who not so long ago were the hands of pain and the faces of fear under Khomeini's Islamic Republic, the easily identifiable ones and the ones who've cloaked themselves in populism of late -- of all of those voices, only one has consistently, and with complete disregard for his own well-being, done the right thing.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was 87 years old when he died this week. For most Iranians, he was always an old man -- a curious and emotive voice whose echoes of protest lingered in the background of Khomeini's political powerhouse -- even long after Khomeini died in 1989.

This summer, you heard his voice quoted time and again in the international media -- because, as always, he supported the Iranian people as they died in the streets to demand a better, more inclusive government.

For years, he was Khomeini's handpicked successor.

It was, in fact, Montazeri, who originated the system of government that has plagued Iran for over 30 years now: the velayat-e faqih, the rulership of the religious jurist. Khomeini took it over as his own theory and interpreted it as a religious dictatorship.

The cracks in their relationship deepened as Montazeri, the learned religious jurist himself, argued, even publicly, that the rulership is meant to be a cooperation amongst religious jurists, not a hierarchy where one jurist's voice rules all.

For those who cared little for religion, there was a sincerity to Montazeri's attempts to encourage participant governance within the Islamic clergy itself, and an unforgettable decency in a man who spoke in defense of the tortured and executed -- things that could not be overlooked.

For those who were religious but not blinded by power, Montazeri's guidance was valuable and honorable.

For the power-mad elements whose reach and wealth grew in these last 30 years -- Montazeri was a menace who needed to be silenced, a thorn in the side of their pious facade.

In 1989, just months before Khomeini's last farewell to the ravaged nation he would leave behind, Montazeri fell completely from grace. Their primary disagreement had for years rested on the topic of human life: Khomeini justified taking human life as a means to an end, with no exceptions.

But in those last months, Montazeri's focus on Khomeini's failure to prevent a recent rush of mass summary executions and prison torture were just too much to handle for the self-proclaimed Leader of the Revolution.

Overnight, the successor to the supreme throne of Iran's Islamic Republic was demoted to years of house arrest and silence.

But the old man never backed down.

This summer, it was his voice of support for the people that gave a few other power players the courage to step forward and speak up too.

Visitors to Montazeri's hometown and the place of his house arrest, Najafabad, just outside the city of Esfahan, have always sensed how Montazeri's presence pervaded the town and its residents. There, he was always the hometown lad and few Najafabadis hesitated to wonder aloud what kind of Iran it had become where a man like Montazeri was publicly disrespected.

Now, as Iranians mourn his passing, the world can see that in the end, Montazeri became Iran's hometown lad and in every street demonstration to come, and in every courageous act to follow, his legacy will endure.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Montazeri's death coincides with the most important date on the Shiite calendar: Ashura. His haftom (literally: seventh day of passing -- a significant date of mourning for Shiites) will fall exactly on the holy day of Ashura when Iranians are encouraged by the government to parade into the streets to recognize their fallen martyrs.

Even in death, he will be by their side, as the Iranian people struggle to recapture their nation.