Iran: Mass opposition protest at funeral for dissident cleric

By Keith Jones
22 December 2009

Web sites associated with Iran’s bourgeois opposition claim hundreds of thousands of people descended on the holy city of Qom Monday to participate in the funeral procession of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

Montazeri, who died in his sleep Sunday at the age of 87, had long been a political opponent of Iran’s Islamic guardian or supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and a patron of the “reform” wing of Iran’s clerical-political establishment. He issued several statements following last June’s presidential election strongly supporting the claims of the proponents of the “Green Revolution” that the elections had been stolen by the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Khamenei’s blessing.

Within hours of the announcement of Montazeri’s death, defeated presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were urging their supporters to turn out en masse for Montazeri’s funeral.

Their calculation was that it would be politically difficult, if not impossible, for the government to suppress the funeral procession, given Montazeri’s place at the apex of the Shia religious hierarchy and his decades’ long close collaboration with Ayatollah Khomeini, who is officially venerated as the founder of the Islamic Republic.

Under the impact of escalating threats from the US, which is already effectively waging war in three countries bordering Iran, and deepening economic crisis, the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite has fractured. And despite warnings from Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a former president, billionaire capitalist and chairman of two of the Islamic Republic’s key oversight institutions who is firmly in the Green camp—that the conflict is threatening the regime’s very existence, the divide is widening.

Earlier this month, after tens of thousands of students joined anti-government demonstrations on the occasion of national student day, prominent government representatives vowed further opposition protests would not be tolerated.

Much was made by the government of video footage that purportedly showed some protesters tearing up of photographs of Khomeini.

But on Saturday, the government was forced to make a damning admission about the treatment of oppositionists arrested following last June’s protests. A military court announced that three oppositionists had been beaten to death; they had not died of meningitis as authorities had previously claimed. A court statement said that three unnamed officials at the Kahrizak prison are being charged with murder. Nine others face various charges including abuse, negligence and denying prisoners their legal rights.

Iranian authorities have been instructing Western reporters not to cover opposition actions, and they issued similar orders in regards to Monday’s funeral. Last June the western media, spearheaded by the New York Times, immediately trumpeted the opposition’s unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud and celebrated the protests, which were dominated by better-off sections of the middle class, as a “democratic awakening.”

Reports from web sites associated with the opposition indicate that security forces did not prevent people from converging on Qom, which lies some 80 miles southwest of Tehran, for Monday’s funeral.

There was reportedly a smattering of clashes between Basij militia and government opponents.

The BBC says video footage of the funeral procession shows green much in evidence, with mourners carrying green banners or wearing green. Various media are reporting that large sections of the mourners took up slogans such as “Death to the Dictator” and

“Our shame, our shame, our idiot leader!” The latter slogan was a reference to the fact that official Iranian sources often referred to Montazeri, who was known for his simple language, as an “idiot” after Ayatollah Khomeini repudiated him as his political heir in 1988-89.

A statement from Khamenei was read out at the funeral. It praised Montazeri for his Islamic scholarship but also criticized him for his break with Khomeini. The criticism reportedly was met with boos and shouts from many mourners.

The opposition has indicated that, in keeping with Shia ritual, it will organize a further procession on the seventh day of mourning for Montazeri next Sunday. This happens to fall on Ashura, an important day in the Shia calendar; one moreover that has had a definite association with political protest since the 1978-79 revolution.

Western media reports have invariably depicted Montazeri as the proponent of a tolerant and democratic Islam. In fact he was one of the principal architects of the Islamic Republic, working hand-in-glove with Khomeini as the mullahs hijacked the anti-imperialist revolution that overthrew the Shah’s brutal US-sponsored dictatorship and consolidated a bourgeois nationalist regime through the bloody suppression of the working class and left. Montazeri oversaw the drafting of the Islamic Republic’s constitution and, next to Khomeini himself, was the principal promoter of the concept of vilayet-e faqih (rule of the Islamic guardian) which underpins the privileged political position of the clergy within Iran.

In 1985 he was designated by Khomeini as his successor as supreme leader. But in 1988-89, under conditions where the US’ open support for Baghdad compelled Iran to end its ruinous war with Iraq and the regime organized yet another round of mass executions of its political opponents, they had a falling out.

The Mousavi-Rafsanjani-led Green Revolution represents no progressive alternative to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. They speak for the faction of the Iranian bourgeoisie that has been most eager to arrive at a rapprochement with US imperialism and has spearheaded the drive for further neo-liberal reforms, including privatization and the elimination of food, energy, transport, water and other subsidies.

Last month, in one of his last public pronouncements, Montazeri decried the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran as a mistake. In fact, the takeover was a response to the Carter administration’s provocative decision to admit the Shah to the US and to the efforts of Iran’s first post-revolutionary government, led by the consummate moderate bourgeois politician Mahdi Bazargan, to make a settlement with Washington behind the backs of the Iranian people.

The Obama White House, which is seeking to exploit the cleavages in Iran in order to bully Tehran into bowing to Washington’s predatory interests in the Middle East and Central Asia, issued a statement praising Montazeri for “his unwavering commitment to universal rights” and “freedoms.”

The same day, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen warned that a further round of punishing US sanctions on Iran is all but inevitable, and that this could well be only a stepping stone to war. “I think,” said Mullen, “signals are very clearly in the air that another set of sanctions … that’s coming.” While saying he favored military action only as a last resort, Mullen made clear that the Pentagon is preparing for war: “I grow increasingly concerned that the Iranians have been non-responsive. I’ve said for a long time we don’t need another conflict in that part of the world … but I think they’ve got to get to a position where they are a constructive force and not a destabilizing force.”

Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod, meanwhile, claimed that the US would have the international support to impose crippling sanctions on Iran, most likely including a ban on gasoline imports. Speaking on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Axelrod said: “When we [the Obama administration] came to office, Iran was united and the world was divided in an approach to deal with Iran. Today Iran is bitterly divided, and the world community has come together. And the president has been a big force in bringing them together.”

The reality is that Obama’s offer of engagement to Iran was a ruse, aimed at exploiting the mounting divisions with the Iranian elite and rallying support from the other great powers for the US drive to isolate and effect regime change in Tehran.

Just as with Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is pursuing in respect to Iran the same basic policy and same imperialist objectives as the Bush administration.