Hundreds of thousands of opposition protesters openly challenged the authority of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Monday by mourning the death of a dissident cleric who had questioned Khamenei’s fitness to rule.
The mass turnout in Qom for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who died on Sunday at aged 87, came just a day after Khamenei had dismissed him as someone who had failed “a big test” and ordered a security clampdown to deter mourners from paying their respects.
Instead, the event turned into the opposition Green Movement’s biggest show of strength in months.
The sheer numbers — including many wearing the opposition’s signature color of green — seemed to confirm the Islamic regime’s fears that Montazeri’s death could provide a fresh spark for the simmering discontent over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last June.
The authorities were powerless to stop a gathering officially meant to mourn the passing of one of the pillars of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
But its overtly political nature was displayed by the presence of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two defeated reformists from the June election.
Montazeri had emerged as a spiritual leader to the pair after denouncing the election as fraudulent and declaring that the current ruling regime was neither Islamic nor a republic.
Those political overtones prompted clashes between mourners and security forces, with witnesses reporting that members of the pro-government basij militia rode into the crowds on motorcycles. Tear gas was said to have been fired on at least two occasions.
Hardline pro-government forces ripped up a condolence banner outside Montazeri’s house while mourners were reported to have thrown stones at police who tried to stop them chanting pro-Montazeri slogans.
Mourners responded defiantly when ordered by loudspeaker not to chant, breaking into shouts of “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein” in support of Mousavi.
When pro-government supporters chanted back: “I will give my life for the supreme leader,” they were booed by mourners, a witness said.
The clashes occurred despite the deployment of riot police throughout Qom, about 145km from Tehran. Political activists had been warned not to attend amid extraordinary measures aimed at stopping them from traveling.
The reformist Web site, Rah-e Sabs, reported that a busload of 42 activists traveling from Tabriz had been stopped and turned back by police.
Demonstrations in favor of Montazeri — and implicitly against Khamenei — also took place in the former’s birthplace of Najafabad in Isfahan Province.
Montazeri was once heir apparent to the Islamic revolution’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But he was defrocked and banished from the leadership after the pair fell out when Montazeri criticized the mass killings of political prisoners in 1988. He spent six years under house arrest after questioning Khamenei’s religious credentials and ability to be supreme leader in 1997.
Khamenei responded to Montazeri’s death by saying that he hoped he would be subject to “God’s lenience” after failing a “test” by disagreeing with Khomeini.
Hossein Bastani, an Iranian political analyst, said the protests were now aimed directly at Khamenei.
“Khamenei’s comments about Montazeri met with a very negative reflection in Iranian opposition Web sites and media,” he said. “Today we had a very great demonstration in Qom, a small provincial city and the ideological center of the Islamic regime.”