QOM, Iran -- Ayatollah Ali Meshkini stood erect in the pulpit of this holy city's central mosque, delivering the political portion of his Friday sermon by engaging the 3,000 worshippers in a familiar volley of call and response.
"The first issue and only issue is Palestine," said Meshkini, a lean figure who wore a white turban. "The Great Satan is supporting Israel unconditionally. That's why they are repressing the Palestinians."
Iran's dissident Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was freed from house arrest in January.
"Down with the U.S.A.," chanted the faithful.
A few blocks down Riverbank Street, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri sat in the house where Iran's government kept him locked away for five years. His audience numbered six, including the man holding a cassette recorder to capture Montazeri's words for posting on his Web site -- provided the Iranian government had not hacked it again.
"I feel irritated whenever I hear this slogan, 'Death to America' or 'Down with America,' " said Montazeri, key architect of the theocracy that he now fights with all the energy an 82-year-old with a heart condition can muster.
"I believe," he said, "that the 300 million people of North America are mostly religious people, hardworking people."
In the pallid, dusty city where politics and theology were knotted 24 years ago and the Islamic Republic of Iran was born, the debate over the wisdom of this country's clerical government remains as lively as the rhetoric ricocheting down Riverbank Street.
As Montazeri received visitors behind a desk stacked with 17 volumes, he looked like an owl in a creamery: He wore a white knit skullcap, a cream-colored sweater opened over a belly upholstered in yet more white. Black-framed glasses with oversized lenses highlighted a searching, occasionally querulous gaze. And when he spoke, his hands danced in front of him, teasing a point, picking a nit.
"People are asking for the promises that were not fulfilled," Montazeri said. "They are asking for freedom, independence and a natural republic. They want freedom of speech, freedom of expression. Now anybody who criticizes the leader, they jail."
The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the coal-eyed imam who was the Islamic republic's first supreme religious leader, often said Montazeri would succeed him. He called the younger man "the fruit of my life's work."
When Iran was ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Khomeini was in exile in Paris, Montazeri was Khomeini's chief representative in Iran. He played a central role in fashioning the clerical government that took power after the 1979 revolution that toppled the shah and in tailoring it to fit Khomeini's outsized presence and broad appeal.
In the 1980s, however, as Iran's theocratic government executed political opponents by the thousands and sent much of a generation to perish in human-wave attacks in the Iran-Iraq war, Montazeri spoke out. "This is wrong," he said at the time.
Khomeini replied by stripping Montazeri of his titles and naming a political aide, Ali Khamenei, as his successor, after a hasty promotion to ayatollah. Khamanei's 1989 accession to supreme religious leader was made official by a clerical council chaired by Meshkini, whose Friday sermon in Qom flashed with the harsh rhetoric that still defines Iran's government to the outside world.
Montazeri said he grew troubled as the clerical class assumed greater and greater authority while Iran became more isolated internationally. "I have condemned occupying the U.S. Embassy. I felt that was a mistake and should not have happened in the first place," Montazeri said of the 444-day hostage drama that cost Iran its diplomatic ties with Washington and bestowed a pariah status in the West upon the theocratic government.