Ever since the start of the war in Afghanistan, Iran--a country shunned by the U.S. since diplomatic relations were severed in 1980--has been widely portrayed as a beacon of moderation in the Islamic world. The political reforms introduced by President Mohammed Khatami and the quiet cooperation Iran has offered the U.S. since Sept. 11 have made the country seem a potential friend, even a model for how an Islamic republic can function as a democracy.
The shocking circumstances surrounding the death of Ayatullah Mohammed Hosseini Shirazi, however, make it clear that Iran's hard-liners still have the upper hand--and are as repressive as ever. Shirazi, 75, had been under house arrest for years for such crimes as questioning the dogma that one cleric should hold supreme power--and for doubting Ayatullah Ali Khamenei's qualifications for that job. Shirazi's followers have fared even worse, frequently being tossed into prison.
But things really got ugly when Shirazi suffered a stroke two weeks ago in the holy city of Qom. Despite his stature as one of fewer than 20 Grand Ayatullahs, the highest rank in Shi'a Islam, local authorities refused to let him be taken to Tehran for medical treatment, according to family members. After he succumbed, special police in camouflage gear stormed the funeral procession, beat pallbearers and stole the corpse, which fell from its coffin twice during the scuffle. Reformists privately told TIME that this outrage proves the ruling clerics have zero tolerance for opposition. Power is still in their hands, and anyone who speaks out against them is finding that even a liberalized Iran can be a dangerous place for dissent.
--By Azadeh Moaveni