How Hezbollah Founder Fell Foul of Iranian Regime

At home, exporter of Islamic revolution was dedicated reformer – and that was his undoing.
  • Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, a revolutionary abroad but a reformer at home. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)

As Iran’s top man sponsoring Islamic groups abroad like Hezbollah and Hamas, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour looks like a man who should be close to the current regime’s heart.

Not a bit of it. Although a staunch supporter of exporting the Islamic revolution, Mohtashamipour’s political sympathies at home have for years lain with the opposition. In the June 2009 presidential ballot, he ran an election monitoring body to try to ensure opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi was not cheated of votes.

This seemed to be the last straw for the regime, which paid him back in April 2010 by dismissing him from his post as secretary-general of Iran’s Committee for the Support of the Intifada, which operates under parliamentary supervision.

Although the motive may have been political, Mohtashamipour's dismissal also reflected the growing divergence between those like him who support Hezbollah and Hamas out of ideological principle, and other establishment figures who see such groups merely as pawns in the bigger game of advancing Iran’s interests abroad.

PATRON OF FRIENDLY FOREIGN MILITIAS

Mohtashampour’s role in shaping the Iranian position on Israel and the Palestinians goes back to the early days of the 1979 revolution.

A trusted confident of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mohtashamipour worked with him in exile in Iraq and later France, and remained close to him when he returned to Iran and became Supreme Leader.

Mohtashamipour’s future career direction was already in evidence, with trips to deliver sermons in Syria and Lebanon, among other Arab states. Together with Mohammad Montazeri, son of Ayatollah Montazeri, he founded an armed group in the 1970s that was based in Lebanon and Syria and aimed to assist liberation movements in Muslim countries.

Appointed Iranian ambassador in Damascus in 1981, shortly after the start of the eight-year war with Iraq, he is credited with helping persuade the Syrians – unlike other Arab states – to take Iran’s side. Syria became Tehran’s key partner in the Middle East.

During his time in Syria, Mohtashamipour played a central role in forging the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and securing its loyalty to Khomeini.

In 1983, Mohtashamipour survived an attempt on his life, when he opened a package addressed to him and sustained injuries including the loss of several fingers in the ensuing explosion. He accused the Israelis of sending the bomb, and many believe he is still on Mossad’s hit list.

As the main point of contact with Hezbollah and Palestinian, Mohtashamipour was central to Iranian government support for these groups and more generally, for anti-Israeli activity.

The other side of this equation is that quite independently of his formal status in Iran, he continues to wield considerable influence among political and paramilitary groups in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

GROWING RIFT WITH IRANIAN CONSERVATIVES

On completing his term as ambassador 1985, Mohtashamipour returned to Iran and entered a second career track in domestic politics. At that point, Mir-Hossein Mousavi was prime minister and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was president. Khamenei and Mousavi belonged to different political factions and disagreed on many issues, but at the time it was the prime minister that counted, with the presidential role largely ceremonial.

When Mousavi named a new cabinet in 1985, he made Mohtashamipour interior minister, a decision that was to have major political consequences. The new minister saw no need to consult with President Khamenei when he appointed regional governors, and this naturally caused disputes.

He went on to play a significant role in the 1988 parliamentary elections, in which the leftists – today’s reformers – won a majority. The Guardian Council, which was close to Khamenei and favoured the right wing, tried to disqualify a number of leftist candidates – the first time anyone had done this in Islamic regime. But it failed to do so, because Mohtashamipour put up stiff resistance.

After the vote, the Guardian Council claimed there had been electoral fraud and sought to annul the results for Tehran. But as interior minister and the official overseeing the election, Mohtashamipour stood up to the council, and – with the backing of Ayatollah Khomeini – eventually won the argument.

With Khomeini’s death a year later and the elevation of Ali Khamenei to the post of Supreme Leader, the tide turned against Mohtashamipour and his allies on the left. They were sidelined from mainstream politics, at first quietly but later by not-so-subtle means.

Mohtashamipour, however, remained relatively immune from persecution because of his standing among Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian politicians and militia fighters.

He used his unassailable position to launch a monthly newspaper called Bayan, which appeared a year after Khamenei took office. The paper was discontinued after 18 editions as publishers were reluctant to print it because the government was unhappy with it. The Clerical Court, which is independent of the normal judiciary and works under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader, summoned Mohtashamipour to appear before it to answer for certain articles. Such was his power, though, that he never came before the court.

Mohtashamipour was a strong supporter of Mohammad Khatami’s presidential bid in 1997, and was appointed as his adviser on social affairs after the reformist leader was elected president.

He resumed publication of Bayan, now as a daily, in 2000. The paper was banned after a few months, and once again he was summoned by the Clerical Court. He refused to appear before it, and suffered no repercussions.

After the reformers swept to power in the 2000 parliamentary election, Mohtashamipour was elected head of the reform faction in parliament, where he led the battle against the conservatives.

He led the coalition of eight reformist groups which contested the next Majlis election, in 2004, but this time many of their candidates were disqualified, and the conservatives won the ballot. In the presidential election the following year, he was campaign manager for Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament from the reform camp, who was beaten by Ahmadinejad.

Even at that point, Mohtashamipour was not wholeheartedly accepted by all reformist politicians. Despite his unswerving political allegiance to the reform wing, he did not share their readiness to take a stand against basic establishment values. For their part, his conservative opponents regarded him as a moderate who still believed in the ideals behind the founding of the Islamic republic.

2009 ELECTION SPELLS DOWNFALL

Mohtashamipour remained untouchable up until last year, but the June 12 presidential election brought an end to that.

He played a key role in Mousavi’s campaign against the incumbent Ahmadinejad, heading the Vote Protection Committee, set up out of concern that the authorities were going to rig the vote.

It was a canny appointment – Mohtashamipour had been less subject to attempts to undermine him than most of his reformist peers, but was a stubborn and decisive figure. It was he, for example, who accused the government of planning to cut off internet access and SMS phone networks on election day.

The government was, naturally enough, fiercely opposed to the Vote Protection Committee, whose very existence called into question the authorities’ commitment to fair elections. The Guardian Council said it was illegal, and Ayatollah Khamenei implied that the committee’s founders were echoing the views of Iran’s foes. The then interior minister, Sadeq Mahsuli, whose job included overseeing the electoral process, said the committee shared the same objectives as these enemies.

Insider sources say a senior military official asked Mohtashamipour to dissolve the committee.

His response to the criticism was robust – three days before the vote, he gave a press conference urging the interior ministry and the Guardian Council to “stop their illegal intervention in the electoral process.”

After the election, the Vote Protection Committee played a leading part in bringing to light evidence of widespread ballot-rigging. The stream of thorough reports it issued posed difficult questions about the legitimacy both of the election and of the leadership it produced.

As the Supreme Leader ruled that the vote was valid and urged people not to cast aspersions on the outcome, Mohtashamipour wrote to him detailing how exactly the committee believed the results had been fixed.

This was a highly unusual step, and Khamenei was less than pleased. Mohtashamipour reportedly received a call from Khamenei’s office conveying the harsh message that the Iranian establishment was “strong enough not do be harmed by the actions of Mohtashamipour and his friends”. The Supreme Leader “does not need the likes of Mohtashamipour”, the message said.

From that point on, it was open season against the previously unassailable Mohtashamipour.

After he went on a private visit to Syria in September, pro-government papers claimed that he had fled the country. During the trip, he was followed, harassed and threatened by individuals claiming to be reporters but who may have been agents of the Iranian regime.

When Khatami delivered a sermon last December at Dar az-Zahra, a religious institute in northern Tehran founded by Mohtashamipour, the venue was attacked by a pro-government mob. Dar az-Zahra has been used as a meeting-place by reformist politicians and the families of political prisoners, under the guise of attending weekly religious ceremonies.

Strong hints were made that Mohtashamipour ought to resign from his only remaining official position, as head of the Intifada support committee.

He replied, “I won’t resign, fire me.” That duly happened on April 4 this year.

A month after his dismissal, he took the unusual step of criticising the Supreme Leader personally. He announced publicly that he had told Khamenei he was allowing himself to be used by followers of hardline cleric Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazd , who would ultimately “uproot” the institution of Supreme Leader. He said he had been warning of the creeping danger posed by the “cult” around Mesbah Yazd for years. As Ayatollah Mesbah Yazd is close to the president, Mohtashamipour’s remarks can be seen as implied criticism of Ahmadinejad, too.

SELF-INTEREST AND IDEALISM CLASH IN FOREIGN POLICY

Mohtashamipour’s dismissal can be seen as a direct consequence of his confrontation with the Supreme Leader over the 2009 election. But it also represents the outcome of long-running differences over foreign policy, specifically Israel and the Palestinians.

As the leftists of the 1980s became the reformers of today, they distanced themselves from the original position of hard-line, inflexible hostility to Israel, and became much more pragmatic.

For example, reformist president Mohammad Khatami, in office from 1997 to 2005, urged Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to shift the party towards engagement in mainstream politics. And at a time when Khamenei was denouncing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a traitor for engaging in peace talks with Israel in 1998, Khatami insisted that Iran must accept decisions taken by the Palestinian people.

Mohtashamipour’s hand was clearly evident in the Khatami administration’s shift towards more nuanced diplomacy on the Palestinians and Lebanon. He signed off on the appointment of ambassadors to those Arab countries that were in some way party to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It was no coincidence that the deputy foreign minister in charge of Arab affairs, Mohammad Sadr, had previously served as his own deputy when he was interior minister.

On Quds Day last September, a date that embodies Iranian support for the Palestinians, opposition supporters gave vent to something that had previously been unsayable – that domestic concerns outweighed support for Islamic causes abroad.

“No to Gaza, No to Lebanon – I give my life for Iran,” they chanted.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad and his conservative allies have been going the other way, espousing ever more uncompromising approaches to the Middle East. But they are doing so for very different reasons. For idealists like Mohtashamipour, support for the Palestinian cause and is a matter of Islamic principle and duty.

For Iran’s current conservative establishment, it is merely an instrument for putting pressure on the United States and Israel.

This view has been expressed in clear terms by Iran’s armed forces chief of staff, Major-General Hassan Firouzabadi, who said the high political and financial cost of backing the Palestinian cause should be seen not as a burden, but “rather a form of investment, to gain more regional and international leverage”.

What that means is that Iran’s current rulers have little interest in ending disputes in the Middle East, as this would deprive them of their geopolitical leverage in the region. It also suggests that if Iran felt it was in its own interests to do so, it would stir up enough trouble in Lebanon or among the Palestinians to prompt explosive conflict. That is a long way from the revolutionary ideals of people like Mohtashamipour, who talk about self-determination and justice for the people whose struggles they back.

Paradoxically, the conservatives are now effectively accusing the Hezbollah founder and patron of being too soft on Israel.

When Hamid Resaei, one of Ahmedinejad’s most outspoken supporters in parliament, began gathering signatures to get Mohtashamipour removed from the Intifada committee, he cited the shocking “No to Gaza” slogan chanted by the opposition on Quds Day. Mohtashamipouri, he said, had “shown no reaction” to this.

Thus, the man who was original embodiment of Iranian enmity towards Israel was now deemed an opponent of the prevailing hard-line orthodoxy.

Shahryar Sadr is a journalist and political analyst based in Tehran.


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