After Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was deputy to the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. But in March 1989, after a series of disagreements between the two over the increasingly repressive policies and practices of the revolutionary government, Khomeini announced that he no longer had confidence him. In a strongly-worded letter, Khomeini wrote to Montazeri. “Since it has become clear that after me you are going to hand over this country, our dear Islamic revolution, and the Muslim people of Iran to the liberals, and through that channel to the hypocrites [the People’s Mojahedin Organization or MEK], you have lost your legitimacy and qualification to be the future leader.” In response, Montazeri offered his resignation.
One of the key events that led to the pair falling out was the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. On August 10, 2016, the office representing the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri released an audio file from Montazeri’s August 15, 1988 meeting with members of Iran’s revolutionary “death panel.” The panel was comprised of religious legal expert Hossein Ali Nayri; Morteza Ashrafi, Tehran’s prosecuting attorney at the time; deputy prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi; and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the Ministry of Intelligence's representative to Evin Prison. During the meeting, Montazeri told the panel, which carried out Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s orders with regard to political prisoners, that if the executions took place, Khomeini would go down in history as a “bloodthirsty murderer.”
The release of the audio clip revived media interest in the 1988 massacre, an event that the Islamic Republic has consistently tried to push out of Iran’s collective memory. As punishment for releasing the file, authorities defrocked the late ayatollah’s son, Ahmad Montazeri, and sentenced him to 21 years in prison. He was charged with acting against national security, propaganda against the regime and publishing state secrets. However, the court ruled that he had to serve only six years of this sentence. On March 4, Ahmad Montazeri presented himself at the court to start his sentence, but he was released after only two days and told that it had been suspended.
IranWire talked to Ahmad Montazeri about the fallout between the two ayatollahs, Montazeri’s worldview, and the audio clip that brought 1988 back into the media spotlight.
What did your family think about Khomeini’s dismissal of your father? Were they expecting it?
It was somehow predictable, and members of my family were ready for it. Ayatollah Montazeri himself was expecting it. [Through] messages and the tone of newspaper [coverage] he was aware that such an intention existed. That was why in March 24  he wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khomeini, telling him: “I believe that your Excellency’s opinion takes precedence over mine.”
But what remains unclear is why, on March 26, Ayatollah Khomeini responded to such a deferential letter with such a harshly-worded one. Ayatollah Montazeri’s removal could have been achieved without commotion after his March 24 letter. But there were those who wanted to make mischief. In a recently released audio file, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani [who died in January 2017] said, “at the time, some people had poisoned the mind of Imam Khomeini more than necessary.”
You said that the tone newspapers used had alerted you. When did the newspapers start criticizing Ayatollah Montazeri?
On February 11, 1989 Ayatollah Montazeri was asked during an interview: “If you have criticisms about the past please tell us. And tell us what we must do.” Without mincing words, he replied: “In the war [with Iraq], and outside the war, we made mistakes and we must repent.”
This answer did not please the grandees. From that time, the newspapers started criticizing and insulting him, asking him what he meant by “repenting.” What he meant by repenting was returning to the correct path and reforms. After that, three people wrote a letter containing harsh words about Ayatollah Montazeri. [Ahmad Montazeri names them as Mehdi Emam Jamarani, Seyed Hamid Rouhani and Karroubi, though it is not thought to be Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi]. These three were close to Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini], so it became clear that things would happen. At the same time, mutual friends who had connections to Imam’s circle were telling us that decisions were being made.
You mentioned the Ayatollah Rafsanjani audio file. Do you think he played a role in the dismissal of Ayatollah Montazeri?
As Ayatollah Amini clearly writes in his memoirs, Mr. Rafsanjani was against the dismissal of Ayatollah Montazeri. He cried and begged that the March 26 letter not be read out on radio. He also told the Assembly of Experts that, considering the necessary qualifications set by the constitution, “we have nobody except Ayatollah Montazeri to be Deputy Supreme Leader.”
Did Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani ever visit Ayatollah Montazeri or send him any messages?
No. Many others who admired him did not dare visit him because the regime would have punished them. For example, the Friday Prayers leaders who did visit him were dismissed after a while. It was announced publicly that going [to visit] meant turning your back on the regime. Ayatollah Rafsanjani never visited. But judiciary authorities summoned a group of parliamentarian representatives who did. Mr. Hadi Khamenei [the brother of Ayatollah Khamenei] and Mr. Mohtashamipour were among them. Many, through me or other people in [Montazeri’s] office, sent messages of friendship.
Even promoting his books on religious laws was banned. There was a seminar in Borujerd to commemorate [Grand Ayatollah Hossein] Broujerdi. Ayatollah Taheri Khoramabadi had brought the book Traveler’s Prayers — lectures by Ayatollah Broujerdi that had been transcribed by Ayatollah Montazeri — to read from. Since Ayatollah Montazeri’s name was on the cover of the book he had covered it with a newspaper. Somebody asked him why he had covered it. “It is as though you do not live in this country,” he answered.
In your opinion, what were the major disagreements between Ayatollah Montazeri and Ayatollah Khomeini?
Ayatollah Montazeri was adamant that the laws of the holy sharia must be followed. But the Leader of the Revolution’s emphasis was on the interests of the regime. This was a hot topic from the first day of the revolution, right from the time that they started executing the top officials of the previous [Shah’s] regime. Montazeri told Khomeini that General Moghadam, the head of Savak [the Shah’s secret police], was a moderate in Savak and could be used as an advisor.
Mr. Montazeri also reminded him that the pagans drove the Prophet Mohammad out of Mecca and when he returned to Mecca in victory, everybody gathered and said that blood must flow, that it was the “Day of Blood.” But the Great Prophet said it was the “Day of Mercy,” [a time for] mercy, compassion and forgiveness. Mr. Montazeri said the same was true about “our revolution. We must forgive everybody.”
There were other actions that could not be justified. For example, Ms. Farokhru Parsa, the Minister of Education, and the Foreign Minister, Dr. Khalatbary, were executed for no reason at all. They had neither killed anybody or issued orders to kill anybody. Ayatollah Montazeri said that these executions violated Islamic laws and were incompatible with the conduct of the Prophet.
When Ayatollah Montazeri’s dismissal was announced publicly, many newspapers referred to him as the “Simpleton Sheikh” and even made jokes about him. How did he and your family take this?
As someone who lived with him I can testify that he was a simple man who lacked the cunning to tell some truths and hide others. He did not play politics and did not try to have his own way at any cost. He said what he had to say honestly but at the same time he had good foresight.
For example, Montazeri wrote in his memoirs that when there was talk of Iraq invading Iran, he went to Ayatollah Khomeini and told him: “when the revolutions are victorious and there is a regime change, it is customary to send goodwill representatives to other countries, especially to neighboring ones, to tell them ‘we want to live side by side. We have no quarrels with you and have no intention of attacking your country.’” But Mr. Khomeini was very much against it and did not accept his recommendation. Had he accepted the advice it could have prevented the war.
Such was Montazeri’s worldview. With my understanding of him, I am upset when I hear these slanders.
In his March 26 letter, Ayatollah Khomeini accused Montazeri of supporting the People’s Mojahedin. They accused you of the same thing when you published the audio file.
This is an insult and a slander. In 1977 [under the Shah], when I was a student at Amir Kabir University and used to visit my father at Evin Prison, he told me several times that the [opposition group] the People’s Mojahedin were deviants and “because you go to university they might try to make you one of them. Be careful and never let them get close to you.”
At that time I was a member of the [students’] Islamic Society, which had six members. The society worked underground but we did get together to decide about advancing the students’ fight. When I told the members what Ayatollah Montazeri had told me, only Mr. Mohsen Mirdamadi supported me. The others were very much surprised and said, “What, Mojahedin? Deviants?” Only Mr. Mirdamadi said, “Look, Ayatollah Montazeri has lived with them in prison and he must know them.” Later the others came to the same conclusion, but at the beginning it was very difficult for them to accept this. Since that time, Ayatollah Montazeri used to warn [people about the group].
In meetings after the revolution, Ayatollah Montazeri never met with the leaders of People’s Mojahedin, whereas when [Mojahedin leaders] Masoud Rajavi and Musa Khiabani travelled to Qom they spent the night at the home of [Ayatollah Khomeini’s son] Ahmad Khomeini and met with Ayatollah Khomeini in the morning. The newspaper Ettela’at published a photograph of them together at the time. Ayatollah Khomeini is sitting with Masoud Rajavi on one side and Musa Khiabani on his other side. But Ayatollah Montazeri never had such a meeting.
These are just slanders. People’s Mojahedin were not genies who arrived, had a meeting and then disappeared into thin air. Members of Ayatollah Montazeri’s office are known and respectable people. If one of them had a weak point it would have been examined under a magnifying glass. It would have been announced to the world loudly. Some people just say things. Baseless accusation is a crime in itself.
Perhaps these comments are retaliation for Montazeri’s criticism of the 1988 executions.
Ayatollah Montazeri supported individuals who had not committed serious crimes and had only been sentenced to prison. If the arrested Mojahedin had committed serious crimes, they would have been executed already. Let me give you an example. Mr. Hasan Jahanara, brother of [war] martyr Mohammad Jahanara, was arrested when he was 15, merely for selling the newspaper Mojahed. He was sentenced to five years in prison. They kept him in prison for six years and then executed him in 1988.
Many of those executed in 1988 were so trusted that they were allowed to go home at night and return to prison in the morning — meaning that prison officials were convinced they were not dangerous. But they were executed anyway. In the March 26 letter [to Montazeri] attributed to Ayatollah Khomeini, it says that very few of the Mojahedin were executed and “you made it into thousands and thousands.” “Very few” means something like 10 or 12. But is this the number of people that were executed in 1988? All these denials and fanfare just for 12 individuals? In the audio file we hear the gentleman say “we have separated 200 individuals, but allow us to execute them as well.” How did the number drop to 12 when all was said and done? If the March 26 letter is really from Ayatollah Khomeini then who reported to him that “very few” were executed?
These questions must be answered. If Messrs. Pourmohammadi, Raisi, Nayri and Eshraghi, who were in that meeting, do not come forward and tell the truth, then in the future people will believe whatever the People’s Mojahedin group or others tell them. They must come forward and say what happened, and how many were executed.
During my interrogations after the audio file was published, I said, “This information vacuum benefits the enemies. You don’t tell the truth, and they say whatever they want to say. The People’s Mojahedin stated that 12,000 were killed. Then they said 30,000, and it is quite possible that later they will say 50,000. You don’t tell the truth so people believe what they say.”
Why was your sentence suspended?
Ayatollah Ostadi, who was once an Islamic jurist member of the Guardian Council, is now a member of Ayatollah Shabiri Zanjani’s Fatwa Inquiry Council [a body that assesses questions about sharia law]. Ayatollah Shabiri had told him to write a letter to the Supreme Leader and say that, in his opinion, carrying out the sentence against Ahmad Montazeri was not prudent. Ayatollah Khamenei replied in writing that Ayatollah Zanjani’s opinion should be acted on. Based on this letter, the Special Clergy Court suspended the sentence for now.
Previously they had asked you to hand over any other files that you might have in your possession. Did you turn over anything before you were released?
No. When I was released after two days in prison, the prosecutor for Qom’s Special Clergy Court said the same thing. I told him that the files were not only family heirlooms and not my personal property, but that they were also historical documents. He said, “turn them over and we will keep them with all other documents.” I said that in the early days of the revolution when our friends took over Qom’s Savak we sent all the documents to Tehran. Later when Ayatollah Montazeri was writing his memoirs we requested copies of those documents that were related to him to add to the book. It was customary for people who were in the struggle and had written memoirs to publish Savak documents along with their memoirs. No matter how much we insisted they did not give us even a single copy. We even appealed to Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was the speaker of the parliament at the time, but got nowhere. “Now you want us to give you these documents so that you can pick and choose, hide them and keep whatever you want?” I told him frankly. I told him, “the documents are in a safe place and I will keep my promise to Ayatollah Shabiri Zanjani not to publish the files for now.”
Did you make such a promise?
When Ayatollah Shabiri received Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter he summoned me and said, “your prison sentence will not be carried out but you should not publish any new files.” I thanked him in reply and said “since you say so, I will not.”
You mean they trusted your promise?
Yes, they either had to trust me or use force. Early in the revolution the authorities behaved differently, and if somebody had, for example, a file, they used force to make him turn it over. Recently I was reading about Seyed Mehdi Hashemi [brother of Ayatollah Montazeri’s son-in-law, who was executed by the Islamic Republic in 1987 for sedition and murder] in Mr. Reyshahri’s book. It says that during the interrogations the judge sentenced Mehdi Hashemi to 70 lashes. This is on page 178 of Mr. Reyshahri’s book. What would Mr. Reyshahri had done if he had received 70 lashes himself? Nowadays you can solve it through negotiations. I believe that the spread of communication and cyberspace — where you cannot hide anything — has played a role in reforming these gentlemen’s methods.