In 1988, nearly a decade after Iran's Islamic revolution, the country's leader-in-waiting faced a decision.
He could stay silent as Iran stepped up a campaign of mass executions, torture and gulag-style imprisonment against perceived internal opponents. Or he could follow his conscience and speak out.
Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri chose to take a stand.
It came at a high cost. Montazeri was dumped as the hand-picked successor to the revolution's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He would be declared a foe of the state and placed under house arrest for six years.
The executions and purges of the late 1980s in Iran are well known and have been examined in books and reports by rights groups such as Amnesty International. Less clear, however, is what transpired at the highest reaches of power during a pivotal period for Iran and, by extension, for the wider region and Tehran’s relations with the West.
An audio file that surfaced this week — posted on a website maintained by supporters of Montazeri, who died in 2009 — purports to offer a new glimpse into his last, desperate attempt to limit the killings and roundups.
Its importance derives mostly from historical conjecture. Had Montazeri been elevated to power, Iran could have taken a very different course.
Montazeri was an unwavering critic of the ambitious reach of Iran’s theocratic state. In broad terms, he felt the spirit of the revolution was betrayed as Khomeini and other clerics consolidated control after the Western-backed shah was ousted in 1979. The clerics, Montazeri believed, should stay on the sidelines as advisers and guides to the nation, while elected officials and hired-on-merit technocrats took the helm.
The break with Khomeini was sealed by Montazeri’s opposition to secret political trials and summary executions carried out in the name of protecting the revolution.
It came to a head in the final months of the country's 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Worn down by conflict and nearly bankrupt, Iran lashed back hard at those it deemed domestic enemies. They included Western-leaning students, ethnic minorities and opposition factions including the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK, which had launched a failed guerrilla offensive.
A full accounting of what's called the "death commission” created by Khomeini has yet to be carried out. But thousands died — by hanging or firing squad or in places such as Tehran’s Evin prison. According to an Amnesty report in 1990, “Thousands of people were executed between 1987 and 1990 including more than 2,000 political prisoners between July 1988 and January 1989.” The MEK and other groups place the overall death toll much higher.
“In my opinion, the greatest crime committed during the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you,” Montazeri is recorded as saying on the July 1988 tape to a group of senior judicial and intelligence figures, including a domestic spymaster, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who now serves as justice minister in the government of President Hassan Rouhani.
“Beware of 50 years from now, when people will pass judgment on the leader [Khomeini] and will say he was a bloodthirsty, brutal and murderous leader. ... I do not want history to remember him like that,” added Montazeri, who was one of Khomeini’s most trusted allies for decades before they parted ways.
A translation of the 40-minute recording was provided by an opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has offices in Washington and other cities. Similar translations were made by various outlets, including the BBC’s Persian Service.
The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified. Montazeri’s son, Ahmad, a moderate cleric, said Iranian intelligence officials ordered him Wednesday to remove the audio from the website, news reports said.
Maryam Rajavi, head of the National Council of Resistance of Iran opposition group, urged international prosecutors to use the tape as further evidence that can be used to press charges for the political slayings of the late 1980s. She noted that some of the officials who helped carry out the purges — such as Pourmohammadi and the others who met with Montazeri -- “have, from the beginning of this regime to the present day, held posts at the highest levels of the judicial, political and intelligence apparatuses."
Khomeini died in June 1989, less than a year after the claimed date of the recording, and was succeeded by a lower-ranking cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some detractors say Khamenei was selected as a low-risk leader who would not challenge the powers of the theocracy or its powerful backers such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Killing is the wrong way to resist against a thought, an idea,” Montazeri said in the 1988 meeting, referring to those opposing the Iranian leadership at the time. “They have one thought, one idea. Responding to a process, a logic — even a faulty logic — with killing will solve nothing. It will make it worse.”
“We will not be in power forever,” he continued. “In the future, history will judge us.”
Montazeri was placed under house arrest from 1997 until early 2003, leaving him effectively silenced during most of the term of reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami. But Montazeri had one more run left.
He lived long enough to witness — and encourage — the Green Movement protests after the disputed reelection to the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. Later that year, Montazeri issued a public apology for his participation in the 444-day hostage standoff at the U.S. Embassy that ended in 1981.
Montazeri died in December 2009 as Iranian authorities gained the upper hand in the post-election chaos. At his funeral in Qom, the center of Shiite religious study in Iran, tens of thousands of mourners streamed through the streets. Some pumped their fists in defiant chants against Khamenei and his security forces.
Iran’s state-controlled media also got in one last shot. Reports of Montazeri's death ignored his central role in the Islamic revolution, referring to him dismissively as the "rioters' cleric."