Iran cleric Mohtashamipour, founder of Hezbollah, dies
Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, a Shia cleric who as Iran's ambassador to Syria helped found the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and lost his right hand to a book bombing reportedly carried out by Israel, died on Monday of the coronavirus. He was 74.
A close ally of Iran's late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mohtashamipour in the 1970s formed alliances with Muslim militant groups across the Middle East. After the Islamic Revolution, he helped found the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in Iran and as ambassador to Syria brought the force into the region to help form Hezbollah.
In his later years, he slowly joined the cause of reformists in Iran, hoping to change the Islamic Republic's theocracy from the inside. He backed the opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi in Iran's Green Movement protests that followed the disputed 2009 re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"If the whole people become aware, avoid violent measures and continue their civil confrontation with that, they will win," Mohtashamipour said at the time, though Ahmadinejad ultimately would remain in office. "No power can stand up to people's will."
Mohtashamipour died at a hospital in northern Tehran after contracting the virus, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. The cleric, who wore a black turban that identified him in Shia tradition as a direct descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, had been living in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq, over the last 10 years after the disputed election in Iran.
Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organisation
Hezbollah, or Party of God, was conceived by Muslim clerics in the 1980s in response to the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982. The Shia group has a political and military wing.
National support against Israel: Hezbollah emerged in the 1980s as an amalgamation of Shia militias and played a major role in the Lebanese civil war. It used guerrilla warfare to drive Israeli forces out of South Lebanon – Israel withdrew in 2000. Israel and Hezbollah fought another war in 2006. Its defence of Lebanon against Israel won it cross-sectarian support and acceptance in Lebanese society
Backed by Iran: since its creation, Hezbollah has received military, financial and political support from Iran and Syria. Today, Hezbollah's military wing is more powerful than Lebanon's own army and has become a major regional paramilitary force
Political apparatus: Hezbollah turned its focus to politics following the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. It represents a large section of the Lebanese Shia population and is allied with other sectarian groups, including Christians. Their political development has mostly come under Hassan Nasrallah (pictured), who became the group's leader in 1992
Armed wing: unlike other parties in Lebanon's multi-sided 1975-1990 civil war, Hezbollah did not disband its armed wing. Some Lebanese political groups, such as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement, want Hezbollah to put down its arms. Hezbollah argues its militant wing is necessary to defend against Israel and other external threats
Terror group? A number of countries and bodies, including the United States, Israel, Canada, the Arab League and, most recently, Germany, consider Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. However, Australia and many European Union countries differentiate between its legitimate political activities and its militant wing
Hezbollah enters Syria's civil war: Hezbollah has been one of the main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country's civil war. Its entrance into the war helped save Assad, one of its chief patrons; secured weapons supply routes from Syria and formed a buffer zone around Lebanon against Sunni militant groups it feared would take over Syria. As a result it has won considerable support from Shia communities in Lebanon
Sectarianism: Lebanon has long been at the centre of regional power struggles, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, Hezbollah's military and political ascendancy, as well as its intervention in Syria, have also helped stoke Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions in Lebanon and across the region
Renewed conflict with Israel? Iran and Hezbollah have increased their political and military strength through the war in Syria. Israel views this as a threat and has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Iran/Hezbollah targets in Syria. Israel has vowed to not let Iran and Hezbollah create a permanent presence in Syria. There is growing concern of another war between Hezbollah and Israel that could draw in Iran. (Author: Chase Winter)
Iran's current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised Mohtashamipour for his "revolutionary services", while President Hassan Rouhani said the cleric "devoted his life to promote Islamic movement and realization of the revolution's ideals."
Hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, now considered the leading candidate in Iran's presidential election next week, also offered condolences to Mohtashamipour's family.
"The deceased was one of the holy warriors on the way to the liberation of Jerusalem and one of the pioneers in the fight against the usurping Zionist regime," Raisi said, according to IRNA.
Born in Tehran in 1947, Mohtashamipour met Khomeini as the cleric remained in exile in Najaf after being expelled from Iran by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the 1970s, he crisscrossed the Middle East speaking to militants groups at the time, helping form an alliance between the future Islamic Republic and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as it battled Israel.
Once arrested by Iraq, Mohtashamipour found his way to Khomeini's residence in exile outside of Paris. They returned triumphant to Iran amid the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In 1982, Khomeini deployed Mohtashamipour to Syria, then under the rule of dictator Hafez Assad. While ostensibly a diplomat, Mohtashamipour oversaw the millions that poured in to fund the Guard's operations in the region.
Lebanon, then dominated by Syria, which deployed tens of thousands of troops there, found itself invaded by Israel in 1982 as Israel pursued the PLO in Lebanon. Iranian support flowed into the Shia communities occupied by Israel. That helped create a new militant group called Hezbollah, or "the Party of God."
The U.S. blames Hezbollah for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, as well as the later bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in the Lebanese capital that killed 241 U.S. troops and another attack that killed 58 French paratroopers. Hezbollah and Iran have denied being involved.
"The court finds that it is beyond question that Hezbollah and its agents received massive material and technical support from the Iranian government," wrote U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in 2003.
Lamberth's opinion, quoting a U.S. Navy intelligence official, directly named Mohtashamipour as being told by Tehran to reach out to the nascent Hezbollah to "instigate attacks against the multinational coalition in Lebanon, and 'to take a spectacular action against the United States Marines.'"
An IRNA obituary of Mohtashamipour only described him as "one of the founders of Hezbollah in Lebanon" and blamed Israel for the bombing that wounded him. It did not discuss the U.S. allegations about his involvement in the suicide bombings targeting Americans.
Hezbollah, in a statement issued in Beirut, extended its condolences, praising Mohtashamipour for his role "in the service of the revolution" and in providing all forms of support toward the launching of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and the Palestinian cause.
"The bloody wounds on his hands, face and chest as a result of the assassination attempt are evidence of his great jihadi position, particularly at that stage of the conflict with the Zionist enemy", the statement said
At the time of the assassination attempt on him, Israel's Mossad intelligence agency had received approval from then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to pursue Mohtashamipour, according to "Rise and Kill First", a book on Israeli assassinations by journalist Ronen Bergman. They chose to send a bomb hidden inside a book described as a "magnificent volume in English about Shia holy places in Iran and Iraq" on Valentine's Day in 1984, Bergman wrote.
The bomb exploded when Mohtashamipour opened the book, tearing away his right hand and two fingers on his left hand. But he survived, later becoming Iran's interior minister and serving as a hard-line lawmaker in parliament before joining reformists in 2009. (AP)