BEIRUT, Lebanon: Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the plain-spoken senior Shiite cleric who helped forge Iran's system of religious government and went on to become a fierce critic of its hard-line rulers, died Sunday morning at the age of 87. He died of heart failure while sleeping in his home in Qum, his son Ahmad told Iran's official IRNA news agency.
The ayatollah, who was once designated to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's supreme leader, stepped away from the country's hard-line path in the 1980s. He later embraced the reform movement, which has come to view him as the spiritual father of its cause.
In the months since Iran's disputed June presidential elections, he has issued stinging denunciations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, saying the Islamic Republic is neither Islamic nor a republic, and that its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has lost his legitimacy. Only two weeks ago, he warned that the Basij militia-which has brutally suppressed opposition street rallies - was forsaking the "path of God" for the "path of Satan."
Students gathered on Sunday at universities in Tehran to mourn the ayatollah, reformist Web sites reported, and riot police forces were reported to be gathering in Qum, the center of Iran's clerical establishment.
Ayatollah Montazeri's death comes amid an intensifying standoff between the opposition and the government, with big protests already expected on the religious holiday of Ashura, on Dec. 27. That will coincide with the seventh day after his death, an important marker in Shiite mourning ritual, and the authorities were clearly bracing for the possibility of huge crowds of opposition supporters there.
Ayatollah Montazeri is widely regarded as the most knowledgeable religious scholar in Iran, and that gave his criticisms special potency, analysts say. His religious credentials also prevented the authorities from silencing or jailing him, even as they imprisoned scores of others for less inflammatory remarks.
Last month Ayatollah Montazeri stunned many in Iran and abroad by apologizing for his role in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which he called a mistake. Iran's current rulers celebrate that takeover every year as a foundational event of the Islamic revolution.
Ayatollah Montazeri, who has long advocated greater civil liberties and women's rights in Iran, was clearly angered by the bloody crackdown that followed the June elections, and issued a series of remarkable broadsides against the authorities.
"A political system based on force, oppression, changing people's votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate," he wrote.
Ayatollah Montazeri was born in 1922 in the city of Najafabad, in Isfahan province, to a peasant family. He studied under Ayatollah Khomeini in Qom, and became involved in networks opposed to the Shah, earning a four-year prison sentence in 1974. After the revolution in 1979, he played a central role in creating Iran's new constitution, in part because of his authorship on the doctrine of velayat-e-faqih, or rule by clerics. But he argued that the clerics should play an advisory role in a democratic system, and should not rule directly.
In the years after the revolution Ayatollah Montazeri served as Friday prayers leader in Qom, and a deputy to Ayatollah Khomeini, who designated him as his successor in 1985. Although he lacked charisma and a popular following, the senior ayatollah viewed him as a loyal supporter of the concept of clerical rule.
But Ayatollah Montazeri gradually began to move away from his mentor's policies. In early 1989, after a mass execution of political prisoners, he published an article strongly condemning the decision and calling for a "political and ideological reconstruction." He also mocked Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa calling for the murder of the novelist Salman Rushdie, saying "people in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people."
Ayatollah Khomeini quickly denounced his subordinate, who was soon stripped of his post and even his title as Grand Ayatollah. State media began to refer to him dismissively as a "simple-minded" cleric.
In 1997, Ayatollah Montazeri was placed under house arrest after openly criticizing Ayatollah Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The condition ended in 2003 after Iranian legislators called on Iran's then-president, the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, to release him.
Ayatollah Montazeri continued to teach and to write prolifically, championing the reformist cause and issuing edicts calling for greater openness and democracy.
"Independence is being free of foreign intervention, and freedom is giving people the freedom to express their opinions," he wrote recently, "Not being put in prison for every protest one utters."