- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

Today, the Islamic regime in Iran faces what could be a perfect storm. A respected opposition leader is being mourned, it is the most holy day of the year for Shiites, and the pro-democracy Green Movement is more energized and radicalized than ever. The spirit of liberation is alive and well.

A week ago, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri passed away at age 87. Montazeri was a senior regime critic who at one time had been the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, but he broke with the revolution when he saw the destructive path it was taking and was sent into internal exile in the holy city of Qom. In November, when the Islamic regime celebrated the 30th anniversary of the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Montazeri said, “At the time, I supported it, but not today. It was a mistake.”

Montazeri became the spiritual godfather of the reform movement and was a strong supporter of the June 2009 street protests that broke out in the wake of Iran’s presidential election, which was widely believed to have been rigged. At Montazeri’s funeral on Monday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators turned out, chanting anti-regime slogans and skirmishing with pro-regime Basij militia. It was the largest single civil protest since the street marches last June that made worldwide headlines.

Shiites traditionally observe another day of mourning on the seventh day after death, and by coincidence this falls on Ashura, the Shiite religious holiday that commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in the year 680. To Shiites, the purported martyrdom of Hussein is the defining moment of their faith, and masses of people turn out on Ashura for public expressions of devotion. Since political demonstrations have been banned in Iran, the opposition uses events like this as opportunities to manifest its discontent. The day of mourning could turn into a day of fury.

There are increasing signs that the reform movement is turning more radical. There were widespread demonstrations at Iranian universities on Student Day, Dec. 7. As Ilan Berman observes on the facing page, the Student Day demonstrations had a harder edge than the protests in June. Last summer, the main focus was the disputed outcome of the presidential election. Now Iran’s young voices are calling for fundamental change. Student marchers in Tehran burned portraits of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and carried Iranian flags from which they had cut the emblem representing Allah. The protests in June were reformist; Student Day verged on the revolutionary.

In one of his last statements, Montazeri warned against the radicalizing trend, but with his passing, the movement has lost his steadying hand. He was a living link to the spirit and ideals of the original revolution, and above all a survivor. There is no obvious replacement for him. Defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is the most recognized reform leader, is also trying to prevent the movement from turning to violence.

In the wake of Student Day protests, Mr. Mousavi called for protests to remain peaceful, arguing that “none of us should give an excuse to those who oppose the people.” Clearly, the regime needs no excuse; when Mr. Mousavi appeared at Montazeri’s funeral, a group of regime thugs disguised as mourners attacked him and smashed the back window of his car.

One of our New Year’s wishes is that peaceful change comes to Iran, but the regime will do everything in its power to prevent that from happening. Hopefully the reform movement will reach critical mass before the Islamic regime’s nuclear program does.