Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been ill for quite some time, and over the years there have been speculations on his possible successor. The developments over the past year indicate that a possible successor is emerging. Though it may be hard for some to believe, the possible successor is someone who was a prime figure in a grave crime that occurred in 1988 at the end of Iran-Iraq war.
During summer of 1988 close to 3800 political prisoners were executed on the order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His then deputy, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri was fiercely opposed to the executions. Ayatollah Montazeri's protests in defense of human rights activists and the political opposition led to Khomeini firing him on 27 March 1989.
In his order for firing Montazeri, Khomeini wrote, "If you succeed me, you will give power to the liberals and, thus, you have lost your qualifications and legitimacy for leading the Islamic Republic." Montazeri's resistance against and protests to the execution of the political prisoners was a very important factor in his sacking. In his order to fire Montazeri, Khomeini alluded to this when he wrote, "By revealing [to the public] this [the executions], you have served the United States very well," adding, "Given that you are [politically] very naïve, and can be provoked [by the opposition] very easily, you must stop involvement in politics."
Less than three months later Khomeini passed away, and the Assembly of Experts, the Constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader, selected Khamenei as Khomeini's successor. This was against the Constitution at that time that had stipulated that the Supreme Leader must be a Marja - a source of emulation for the Shiite masses, who is usually a grand ayatollah - which Khamenei was not.
But, Montazeri, who was very shrewd and a strong defender of the opposition's rights, continued his scathing criticisms of the system by critiquing Khamenei. His criticisms were at their height on 14 November 1997 when he fiercely criticized Iran's theocracy and Khamenei's "royal" rule. He also criticized the security and military establishment that had pressured the clerics to declare Khamenei a Marja, for which he was not qualified.
On Khamenei's directions, the IRGC, the Basij militia and intelligence agents attacked Montazeri's home and offices, destroyed everything, and were on the verge of murdering him, when Grand Ayatollahs Yousef Sanei and Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili intervened and saved his life. Montazeri was put under house arrest for five years, his home was surrounded by security forces, and his contacts with people were cut off. Due to his illness and societal pressure for his freedom, his house arrest was ended in 2002.
Montazeri's memoirs were published on the internet in 2000. He had revealed many secrets of the Islamic Republic, one of which was Khomeini's order for executing the political prisoners in 1988, and the meetings that Montazeri had held with the officials, protesting the executions. At the height of the Green Movement in 2009 its leaders were strongly supported by Montazeri, who was considered the spiritual leader of the movement. Unfortunately, just when the nation and the movement needed him the most, he passed away on 19 December 2009. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in his funeral, "congratulating" him for his "eternal freedom," and shouting slogans in support of the Green Movement's leaders.
In February 2011, the Green Movement's leaders - former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of the Majles [parliament] Mehdi Karroubi - were put under house arrest that has been far more severe than Montazeri's, and has lasted to today.
Releasing the Audio Tape of Montazeri's Discussions with the Executioners
Last August, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's oldest son, Ahmad Montazeri, who is a cleric himself, put on his website an old audio tape of a meeting between his father and a committee that was in charge of the 1988 execution of the political prisoners. The committee is known in Iran as the "death committee." The tape quickly spread and became a most discussed subject in Iran, so much so that almost every senior official had to take a position regarding its contents.
The death committee had four members: Mostafa Pourmohammadi (current Minister of Justice in the administration of President Hassan Rouhani), Morteza Eshraghi, Hossein-Ali Nayyeri (current deputy chief justice), and Ebrahim Raeisi who until recently was a deputy to the judiciary chief and also a member of the Assembly of Experts. In his meeting with the death committee, Montazeri fiercely protested the executions and declared that executing political prisoners who have already been given prison terms of 10 to 15 years by the courts implies nothing other than discrediting the judiciary. He added that he was protesting this because he was concerned for Islam's credibility, the Revolution, the country's future, and history's verdict on Ayatollah Khomeini. Half a century later people would say that "Mr. Khomeini was a blood-thirsty and irreverent figure," Montazeri told the death committee, adding, "We greatly hurt Islam by this repression." Montazeri declared that the executions were"the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic," which will be condemned by history. He told the death committee that they had committed the grave crimes. History will condemn us, Montazeri said, and "will recognize you [the death committee} as criminals."Montazeri told the committee angrily that ever since the executions began, he had not been able to sleep and asked them to compare the executions with those committed by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He asked them, "Who has executed more? The Shah did not kill even 10 percent of what we have."
Montazeri also told the death committee that he had written two letters of protest to Ayatollah Khomeini, as he considered it his duty to do so because, otherwise, he will not have anything to defend himself on the Judgment Day. Calling the executions butchering the people for the past 20 days [ever since they had begun], Montazeri told the death committee that it was the month of Moharram [a holy month in Shiism], the month of God and the Prophet [Muhammad], and told them angrily to have some shame because of Imam Hussein [a most revered figure in Shiite Islam who was murdered on the 10th of Moharram in 680 A.D.] and end the executions. Montazeri gave the committee an ultimatum, and told them that he had written to Ayatollah Khomeini that one cannot eliminate a school of thought, even a false one, by murdering its adherents; that those who commit suicide bombing believe in what they do [a reference to members of the MEK who had committed such crimes] and, thus, one must confront them by rational and wise thinking. He reminded the committee that the Prophet was called "mercy for the people of the world" because he forgave his enemies, and that if the Prophet were violent and cruel, people would quit believing in him. The ayatollah also reminded the death committee that people's lives are very important to Islam, and one must be utmost cautious in judging them [in courts]. He declared that "people have begun despising Velaayat-e Faghih [Supremacy of the Islamic Jurist, the backbone of Iran's theocracy]."Montazeri expressed his opposition to executing women and told the committee that only if women have committed murder, capital punishment for them may be considered. He angrily told them that no one can be killed before committing a murder, nor can they consider anybody as fighting God based only on his/her beliefs. "A government can last through blasphemy, but not by cruelty," Montazeri said.
A member of the death committee told Montazeri that they had to carry out Khomeini's order. Another member asked Montazeri to give them permission to execute another 200 political prisoners, and then they would stop the executions during Moharram. Montazeri responded that he had always said that he was opposed to executing even one person, let alone 200. The committee insisted that the 200 could not be returned to the general ward, as it would create problems, and thus asked once again for permission for executing them, which Montazeri did not grant. The Grand Ayatollah was so angry, concerned, and restless that he even used profanities against himself and the entire government.
The Severe Punishment for Ahmad Montazeri
Although the essence of the audio tape was already in chapter 10 of Montazeri's memoirs, but the tape revealed blunt conversations that were very revealing. They questioned the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and the credibility of Khomeini, his son Ahmad Khomeini [who is believed to have played a leading role in the sacking of Ayatollah Montazeri and passed away in 1995], many grand ayatollahs, Pourmohammadi, Raeisi, and others.
When asked by Ali Motahhari, the Deputy Majles Speaker to explain what had happened in 1988, Pourmohammadi responded that, "We are honored that we carried out God's order to get rid of the enemies of the country."
Ahmad Montazeri was prosecuted and his trial demonstrated that the 1988 crimes were so embarrassing that calling them "God's order" does solve the perpetrators' problems. On October 29 it was announced that the younger Montazeri had been given a 21 years jail sentence, of which 6 years will be mandatory. He will also be defrocked. If the genocide was God's order, why should anyone be imprisoned for publicizing it? How should God's despise of criminals be announced?
Ebrahim Raeisi, a Probable Successor to Khamenei
As already mentioned, there have been widespread rumors regarding Khamenei's health. Many believe that the current Assembly of Experts that was elected last February will have to appoint the next Supreme Leader. Undoubtedly, Khamenei himself would play a leading role in choosing his successor. While former and current judiciary chiefs, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and Sadegh Larijani, as well as Khamenei's son, Mojtaba, have been mentioned as possible successors, Raeisi, a member of the death committee, has emerged not only as one of the possible candidates, but also as a more likely one.
On 10 March 2016 Khamenei appointed Raeisi as the head of Astan Qods Razavi, the shrine of Imam Reza (Shiites' 8th Imam) in Mashhad (a large city in northeast Iran), and all of its vast assets and holdings throughout Iran that are worth tens of billions of dollars. Raeisi's father-in-law, Ahmad Alam-Olhoda is Khamenei's representative to Khorasan Razavi province (whose provincial capital is Mashhad). Both Raeisi and Alam-Olhoda are also members of the Assembly of Experts.
Shortly after his appointment, the pro-Khamenei press began referring to Raeisi as "ayatollah," hence trying to elevate him in the Shiite hierarchy in Iran. Then, last May, the IRGC Chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari and other senior IRGC commanders met with Raeisi in Mashhad, the photos of which were widely circulated by the hardline press. And even though according to the Constitution the President is the second highest official of the state, when President Rouhani met with Raeisi in Mashhad, the hardline press only mentioned it as the "meeting between the President and head of AstanQods Razavi," a less respectful tone for the President.
On December 10 a committee was appointed to monitor the next presidential elections on 19 May 2017. Six members of the committee belong to the Guardian Council, the Constitutional body the vets the candidates for almost all elections in Iran, while the 7th member was Raeisi, hence putting him in another powerful position.
Article 108 of the Islamic Republic Constitution stipulates that the Supreme Leader must have "adequate management skills at the highest levels." In his letter in which Raeisi was appointed as the head of AstanQods Razavi, Khamenei praised him for his "management skills at the highest levels," hence confirming that he has what the Constitution has stipulated on.
Whois Ebrahim Raeisi?
Born in 1960, Raeisi played a leading role in the violent crackdown on the opposition in the 1980s. He was Tehran Prosecutor from 1989-1994, and headed the National Organization for Inspection (that monitors all governmental organs) from 1994-2004. He was chief deputy to the judiciary chief from 2004-2014, and was appointed as Iran's chief prosecutor in 2014. From 2012 he was also the prosecutor for the Special Court for the Clergy that is a tool for controlling dissident clerics.
Raeisi is a hardliner. After Congress and the Senate renewed U.S. unilateral sanctions against Iran for another decade, Raeisi said that
"everyone is concerned about the results of the nuclear agreement [with P5+1]." He also said that to solve the country's problems, intellectuals look to the West, but Western government "do not allow free flow of facts about the world affairs to the people of the United States and Europe. Moreover, they have repressed their [people's] religious life, and are trying to take away from them their God-searching nature. Thus, Islamic societies must wage offensive jihad."
The term "offensive jihad" has not been mentioned in the Qur'an. The concept is invented by Islamic jurists. Unlike the usual jihad that is of defensive nature, fundamentalist clerics have falsely interpreted offensive jihad as meaning an aggressive jihad in which Muslims attack non-Islamic nations to convert them to Islam.
So, while the hardline press was trying to create an image of Raeisi as a popular cleric who is living a simple and revolutionary life, the audio tape of the conversation between Grand Ayatollah Montazeri and the death committee hurt Raeisi very badly. In fact, many believe that the harsh punishment that Ahmad Montazeri received was precisely due to the damage to Raeisi's credibility and image. When the younger Montazeri protested his jail sentence, he said that Raeisi, the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for the Clergy that had put him on trial, had been present in the conversation between his late father and the death committee, and that he had played a leading role in issuing the severe punishment for him. Ahmad Montazeri added that the judge of the court had accepted his argument that he had not revealed any state secrets, as they had already been publicized through his father's memoirs, but that "the sentence had been dictated to the judge by another place [center of power]."
Khamenei and the hardliners are trying to prevent any criticism of Raeisi. When the judiciary was treating the Green Movement's supporters harshly, Raeisi was its chief deputy and the courts under him issued harsh sentences against the opposition to satisfy Khamenei. The executions of 1988 were also horrible crimes. But, by publicizing the 1988 audio tape, Ahmad Montazeri tried to warn the Iranian people, political factions and the world at large that Iran's hardliners are trying to elevate a criminal to be Khamenei's successor. The majority of the Assembly of Experts' members are supporters of Khamenei, but in the crisis in the aftermath of his death, they may not go along with appointing Raeisi as the next Supreme Leader. Currently, Rouhani is the only candidate of the moderates and reformists in the Assembly.
In the aftermath of renewal of the U.S. unilateral sanctions against Iran, the hardliners have intensified their attacks on Rouhani, claiming that he compromised with the "world's chief" - the United States - and has committed treason against Islam, the Revolution, and Iran. Some hardliners have even called for putting Rouhani on trial. Their goal is to eliminate Rouhani from the next presidential election in May 2017.
Theocracy is incompatible with democracy, liberty and respect for human rights. Those who seek a peaceful transition to democracy in Iran cannot, however, ignore the power struggle in Iran and act in a way that benefits only the most radical elements of the regime.
This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei