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Tehran--Iran's top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a fierce critic of the Islamic Republic's hardline leadership, has died, Iranian media reported on Sunday. He was 87.
Montazeri, who had branded Iran's disputed June election fraudulent and denounced the clerical establishment as a dictatorship, was named in the 1980s to succeed revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader, but fell out with him over the mass execution of prisoners.
One of Iran's most senior clerics, he spent five years under house arrest until 2002 but remained a leading opposition voice until his death, even though he rarely left his home in the holy Shia Muslim city of Qom.
"He will be remembered as a man who sacrificed his political position for the sake of his principles," said London-based Iran analyst Baqer Moin, describing him as an inspiration for other pro-reform clerics.
Moin said the death of Montazeri, an architect of the 1979 Islamic revolution, was a blow to the reform movement. But his funeral could become a rallying point for the moderate opposition and this may worry the authorities, he added.
The semi-official Fars News Agency said Montazeri supporters gathered at his office on Sunday morning after hearing the news, which was not given prominence by state media. He will be buried on Monday, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Montazeri's death, announced by official media a day after it happened, comes at a time when tension is rising once again in Iran, six months after the presidential election that plunged the Islamic state into political crisis.
He was among the government's harshest critics in a clerical establishment whose splits have widened during the turmoil triggered by vote on the June 12.
In August, the ayatollah said on his web site that authorities' handling of street unrest following the election "could lead to the fall of the regime."
The pro-reform opposition says the poll was rigged to secure hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.
The authorities have denied the charge and portrayed the huge opposition protests after the election as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the clerical leadership.
Tension increased earlier this month when pro-opposition students clashed with the security forces armed with batons and tear gas in the biggest anti-government protest in months.
IRNA said Montazeri, a close ally of Khomeini since the 1960s who was jailed several times by the police of the US-backed Shah, died on Saturday evening.
"Hossein Ali Montazeri passed away in his home last night," IRNA said in a report that did not mention his title. He suffered from asthma, coronary problems and frequent fits, state broadcaster IRIB said.
Official media generally gave little coverage to his death, with state television not carrying it as among its top stories.
IRNA said "problem elements" in Montazeri's household and his statements "appreciated by enemies of the Islamic Republic" were to blame for his estrangement with Khomeini two decades ago.
Instead of Montazeri succeeding Khomeini upon the death of the Islamic Republic's founder in 1989, current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became the country's top authority.
Fars News Agency said another senior pro-reform cleric, Grand Ayatollah Yusof Saanei, visited Montazeri's home on Sunday to express his condolences.
"We express our condolences on the demise of the pious theologian, the tireless Islamic struggler and the sublime jurisprudent," Saanei said on his web site.