Iran cleric who founded Hezbollah, survived book bomb, dies of Covid-19

Published June 7, 2021
In this December 11, 2006, photo, Mohtashamipour speaks, as Rabbi Moishe Arye Friedman, left, from Austria, and Rabbi Ahron Cohen from England, at a conference on the Holocaust, in Tehran. — AP/File
In this December 11, 2006, photo, Mohtashamipour speaks, as Rabbi Moishe Arye Friedman, left, from Austria, and Rabbi Ahron Cohen from England, at a conference on the Holocaust, in Tehran. — AP/File

Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, a Shia cleric who as Iran's ambassador to Syria helped found 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 formed alliances with Muslim militant groups across the Mideast in the 1970s. 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 would ultimately remain in office. "No power can stand up to peoples 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 Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), had been living in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq, over the last 10 years after the disputed election in Iran.

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 realisation of the revolutions 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.

The foundation of Hezbollah

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 Mideast speaking to militants groups at the time, helping form an alliance between the future Islamic Republic and the Palestinian Liberation Organization 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 US blames Hezbollah for the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, as well as the later bombing of the US Marine barracks in the Lebanese capital that killed 241 US 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 US District Judge Royce Lamberth in 2003.

Lamberth's opinion, quoting a US 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 US allegations about his involvement in the suicide bombings targeting Americans.

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 hardline lawmaker in parliament before joining reformists in 2009.

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