Dissident Ayatollah Demands Iran's Rulers Be Elected

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In his first public speech in six years, Iran's leading dissident cleric criticized the country's hard-line Islamic leaders Wednesday, saying they should submit to elections and allow the country's young people to choose their future.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (search) addressed his followers after five years of house arrest and several months of illness.

About 300 students crowed into a small building in central Qom, a holy city 80 miles southwest of Tehran, to listen to the 81-year-old cleric, who was once the designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (search), the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Montazeri recalled the late Khomeini's saying that the people should make their own decisions.

"The same applies now," Montazeri said, "the majority of our population is now dissatisfied with the ruling establishment. The matter should be put to popular vote."

In Iran's Islamic government, unelected bodies controlled by hard-liners hold the levers of power, including the judiciary, military and police — and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search) has the final word in all matters. Hard-liners have used that power to prevent social and political changes pushed by the elected president and the reformer-dominated parliament.

Speaking to The Associated Press after his speech, Montazeri said the path to reform in Iran is "to allow the people to choose their rulers. If people are not satisfied, the establishment is not legitimate."

Montazeri was placed under house arrest in 1997 after telling students that Khamenei was incompetent to rule. He accused the ruling clerics of monopolizing power and ignoring the democratic ideals of the revolution. The clerics denounced him as a traitor.

In January, Iran's Supreme National Security Council lifted the house arrest. By then Montazeri's health had deteriorated and the move was believed to have been prompted by fears of an uprising if Montazeri were to die while under restrictions.

Montazeri is one of a few grand ayatollahs, the most senior theologians of the Shiite Muslim faith. He enjoys huge followings in Qom and Isfahan, his birthplace. He fell out with Khomeini, and lost his position as successor, shortly before the leader's death in 1989.

In an interview with the AP, Montazeri said: "The authorities should increase their tolerance ... and allow the new generation to choose their future."

In his speech, Montazeri criticized the conservatives' crackdown on intellectuals and writers, dozens of whom have been detained and had their publications banned.

"It is a disgrace that university teachers are humiliated and detained," he said. "This is against Islamic teachings."