, TEHRAN, Dec 20 – Top Iranian dissident Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a fierce critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was once tapped to become Iran\’s undisputed number one, has died, reports said Sunday.
"Montazeri, 87, died of an illness last night (Saturday)," the ISNA news agency said.
Montazeri, once designated as the successor to the founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, came out in strong support of the Iranian opposition when it rejected the re-election of Ahmadinejad in June.
The cleric had long been critical of the concentration of power in the hands of the supreme leader and called for changes to the constitution which he helped draw up after the Islamic revolution, to limit the leader\’s authority.
The grand ayatollah became an inspiration to rights advocates and pro-reform groups and was considered by his followers as the highest living authority of Shiite Islam in Iran.
Montazeri had often criticised hardliner Ahmadinejad over his domestic and foreign policy, including Tehran\’s nuclear standoff with the West.
He had also called on other leading clerics to break their silence over incidents and rights abuses during the government\’s crackdown on opposition supporters protesting the June presidential election, which they claimed was massively rigged in Ahmadinejad\’s favour.
Controversially, he had called for direct talks between Tehran and Washington to avert a war over Iran\’s controversial programme of uranium enrichment.
Montazeri, one of the main architects of the Islamic republic, was a student and close ally of Khomeini, whom he was set to succeed.
But the cleric fell from grace in the late 1980s after he became too openly critical of political and cultural restrictions, most notably Iran\’s treatment of political prisoners and opposition groups.
Montazeri resigned months before Khomeini\’s death in 1989, and was told by Khomeini to stay out of politics and focus instead on teaching in the religious city of Qom where he was based.
Unfazed by such warnings, he continued to speak out.
The grand ayatollah has also questioned the theological credentials of current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This was branded as treason, and in 1997 Montazeri was placed under house arrest.
Freed after five years on health grounds during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the grand ayatollah vowed that he would continue to speak out in defence of freedom and justice.