(Foreign Policy) | March 26, 2010
Why my former cellmate’s legacy will live on.
BY ABBAS MILANI
If 2010 turns out to be the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it may well be because of the death of one of the regime’s founders, a man I met three decades ago in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison.
In 1977, I was a 27-year-old rebel arrested for being “detrimental to the security of the nation.” In those days nearly all critics of the shah’s regime were incarcerated under this category. Evin’s L-shaped brick prison blocks were packed with regime opponents, mostly Marxists, leftists, and university students. The facility was also home to a handful of the most famous future leaders of the Islamic Revolution, including future president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and future grand ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.
It was a relatively good time to be in Evin, as the shah nervously attempted to placate his most fervent enemies by following Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies. Instead of being allowed only an hour of fresh air per day in a small outdoor area, we had free access to the grounds. We could play volleyball around the shaky poles and raggedy string that we had woven into a net. (Rafsanjani, I remember, was an enthusiastic but clumsy volleyballer.)
But despite these changes, we were surprised when the guards permitted the clerics to hold a public prayer to mark the end of Ramadan that November — the first time in years the prisoners had been allowed to do so. To prepare themselves for the ritual, the jailed clerics organized themselves in rows in the prison yard, with Rafsanjani and Montazeri in the front. And then the unassuming, thoughtful Montazeri, dressed in his usual white robe and white pants (always tucked oddly into his socks), was gently nudged forward to lead the prayer — my first real understanding of the central role he played, even among the august clerics of the revolution there with us in prison.
More than 30 years later, after Montazeri’s ascent to the heights of the Islamic Republic and his final crash downward, the ayatollah’s death at the end of December 2009 inspired hundreds of thousands of protesters, many clad in the green of today’s Iranian opposition movement, to swarm the streets, shouting slogans such as, “Oh, Montazeri, your path will be followed even if the dictator shoots us all!” The demonstrations on the holy day of Ashura a week later revived the protest movement, mobilizing the largest number of demonstrators — many of whom weren’t even alive when the ayatollah was serving time in Evin — since the unrest over Iran’s stolen presidential election last June.