Iranian state media say Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has died. The dissident cleric helped found the Islamic Republic, but later became one of the government's most vocal critics. His grandson is quoted Sunday as saying the 87-year old died peacefully during the night.
Long sidelined by Iran's ruling elite, Ayatollah Montazeri continued to find an audience among those eager for views questioning the current leadership.
In comments widely circulated on the Internet after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, the ayatollah questioned the validity of the vote and criticized the crackdown on those protesting the outcome.
Montazeri's role as a spiritual guide to Iran's opposition mirrored the outsider position he played in helping overthrow the Shah in 1979 and ushering in the Islamic Republic he would come to criticize.
A favorite of Iran's first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Montazeri was expected to succeed him. But the two had a falling out over what Montazeri saw as the government's brutal treatment of Iranian opposition forces and an increasing authoritarianism.
His continued criticism of the government, its human rights record and the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, led to his being put under house arrest in 1997 for five years. State media began to refer to him dismissively - if at all.
But from his base in the holy city of Qom, the cleric, a top arbiter of Islamic law, continued to express his views on the republic, and his own role in its history.
Ali Nourizadeh, of the London-based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies, argues that Montazeri showed bravery in reassessing his earlier views, for never considering his personal position in calling out what he felt was wrong, and for being an advocate of modernization.
"He was the one who came out with ideas which Shi'ite clergymen would have never have thought about or even felt that it is necessary to say it," Nourizadeh sa said. "He was brave as far as the participation of women in social life and political life, as about the equality and other issues."
Several opposition Web sites report that mourners have been gathering outside Montezeri's home in Qom ahead of a funeral planned for Monday.
Ali Nourizadeh says people he has spoken with in Iran have encountered roadblocks as they try to reach the house. He says he doubts that will deter them.
"I am sure the people are going to pay their last respects to the man who stood by them and, although it cost him a lot, he never abandoned his position, he never turned his back to people," Nourizadeh sa said.
Authorities have a standing order against any large gatherings without permits and are already reported on alert as Shi'ites begin to observe an annual period of mourning.