‘Thank God, the house arrest of Mr Montazeri was lifted and this decision should be applied today,’ President Khatami said on 29 January after a cabinet meeting. The decision to free the 80-year-old cleric was taken by the conservative-dominated Supreme National Security Council, which is chaired by President Khatami and made up of judicial and parliamentary leaders, senior army officials and the ministers of intelligence, foreign affairs, interior and defence.

Relatives of Montazeri had repeatedly expressed concerns about the cleric’s health in recent months. Analysts say the council’s decision came out of fear that, should Montazeri die under confinement at his home in the city of Qom, it would trigger protests and violence.

Dismissing claims by some conservative newspapers that Montazeri had agreed to refrain from any political activity in the future, the cleric said that ‘nobody has asked for anything and I have never asked anybody for anything, except God’.

Despite the house arrest, Montazeri has remained an influential figure in the Islamic republic, frequently commenting on the state of the nation and calling for tolerance, democracy and limits to the power of the supreme leader.