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Intrigue surrounds arrest, release of Iranian dissident cleric’s son

The arrest and release of Ahmad Montazeri, the son of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, sheds light on behind-the-scenes maneuvering by clerics in Iran.

Hojat al-Islam Ahmad Montazeri, the son of late Iranian dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, was released March 4 from prison, reportedly after the intervention of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The story of Montazeri’s sentencing by the Special Court of Clergy and subsequent suspension of it days later is full of intrigue allegedly involving a rising and powerful conservative candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

In August 2016, Montazeri released an audio file of his late father imploring judicial officials not to execute some prisoners, most of whom belonged to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). The recording was made in the late 1980s at a time when Ayatollah Montazeri was deputy supreme leader. His opposition to the executions, which eventually took place, resulted in his losing that position.

For releasing the audio file, the Special Court of Clergy charged Ahmad Montazeri with acting against the national security of Iran, attacking the Islamic Republic, insulting and spreading lies about the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and supporting the MEK, which had carried out terrorist attacks in Iran.

Montazeri was sentenced to six years in prison and taken into custody Feb. 22. He was reportedly released on furlough for a few days, and then on March 4, Montazeri’s family said that his sentence had been suspended and that he had returned home.

An official from the Special Court of Clergy told Iranian media that after Montazeri’s sentencing and detention, senior high-ranking clerics (so-called Sources of Emulation) in Qom asked Khamenei to suspend the sentence. According to the official, Khamenei agreed, and Montazeri’s sentence will remain suspended as long as he refrains from committing acts eliciting charges like those for which he was accused.

Gholam Hosseini Mohseni Ejei, the spokesman for Iran’s judiciary, also told reporters that high-ranking clerics from Qom had intervened, advocating for Montazeri’s release. He added, however, that he did not know the details of the case, and he did not mention Khamenei’s position on the matter. The Special Court of Clergy is independent of the state judiciary and answers directly to Khamenei. It was established after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to oversee alleged transgressions among the clerical establishment.

One of the individuals heard in the audio file with Montazeri is Ebrahim Raisi, a prosecutor in the late 1980s and currently attorney general for the Special Court of Clergy. Zahra Rabbani, Ahmad Montazeri’s wife, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that Raisi had insisted on Montazeri’s sentence being carried out despite Khamenei's objection. Rabbani also said that the Intelligence Ministry, which answers to President Hassan Rouhani, was opposed to Montazeri’s sentence being carried out.

Mojtaba Lotfi, who had been head of communications for Ayatollah Montazeri's office, gave credence to there having been behind-the-scenes jockeying among influential individuals in Montazeri’s case. Lotfi said that Ayatollah Mousa Shabiri Zanjani wrote a letter to Khamenei requesting Montazeri’s release, and Khamenei reportedly responded by agreeing with Zanjani. Describing events prior to Montazeri's release, however, Lotfi also said, “Suddenly, for reasons behind the scenes that we do not know, Montazeri was summoned and put in isolation for 24 hours.”

Raisi’s involvement in Montazeri’s sentence certainly makes the case more interesting. Not only was Raisi recently appointed to the powerful and influential Astan Quds Razavi charitable organization, linked to the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, but he also recently announced his candidacy for the presidency. Some Western media have even speculated that he is one of a few clerics who may seek to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader.

Raisi was not a well-known and public figure before being appointed by Khamenei to head Astan Quds Razavi in March 2016. Rather, he was influential behind the scenes. Now, however, conservatives may decide to rally behind him to challenge Rouhan’s re-election. The late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a strong Rouhani supporter, had reportedly welcomed the prospect of Raisi’s candidacy to ratchet up interest in the election, but did not see him as a threat to Rouhani’s re-election.