Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, a Shiite cleric who served as Iran’s ambassador to Syria and helped form the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah before losing his right hand to an alleged Israeli book bombing, died of the coronavirus on Monday at the age of 74 years old.
Mohtashamipour, a loyal supporter of Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, made connections with Muslim militant groups across the Middle East in the 1970s. He helped build the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, and as ambassador to Syria, he brought the force into the region to assist form Hezbollah.
He gradually adopted the cause of reformists in Iran in his later years, intending to transform the Islamic Republic’s theocracy from within. In the aftermath of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contentious 2009 re-election, he endorsed opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi in Iran’s Green Movement protests.
“They will win if the entire people become aware, avoid violent measures, and continue their civil confrontation with that,” Mohtashamipour remarked at the time, despite Ahmadinejad’s eventual re-election. “No power can withstand the will of the people.”
According to the state-run IRNA news agency, Mohtashamipour died in a hospital in northern Tehran after contracting the Covid-19 virus. After the disputed election in Iran, the cleric, who wore a black turban that designated him as a direct descendent of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in Shiite tradition, had been staying in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, for the past ten years.
Khomeini dispatched Mohtashamipour to Syria in 1982, while the country was ruled by dictator Hafez Assad. While purportedly a diplomat, Mohtashamipour supervised the millions of dollars that flowed into the region to pay the Guard’s operations.
Lebanon, which was ruled by Syria at the time and had tens of thousands of troops stationed there, was invaded by Israel in 1982 as Israel pursued the PLO in Lebanon. Iranian supplies surged into the Israeli-occupied Shiite communities. This assisted the formation of Hezbollah, or “the Party of God,” a new militant force.
Hezbollah is blamed by the United States for the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983, which killed 63 individuals, as well as the later bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 US servicemen, and another strike that killed 58 French paratroopers. Iran and Hezbollah have both denied any involvement.
“The court finds that it is beyond question that Hezbollah and its agents received massive material and technical support from the Iranian government,” in 2003, US District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote an opinion.
Lamberth’s report cited a US Navy intelligence official as saying that Tehran urged Mohtashamipour to contact the nascent Hezbollah to “instigate attacks against the multinational coalition in Lebanon” and “to take a spectacular action against the US Marines.”
According to journalist Ronen Bergman’s book “Rise and Kill First,” Israel’s Mossad spy service had gained authorization from then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to follow Mohtashamipour at the time of the assassination attempt. On Valentine’s Day in 1984, they chose to send a bomb packed within a book labeled as a “magnificent volume in English about Shiite holy places in Iran and Iraq,” according to Bergman.
When Mohtashamipour opened the book, the bomb went off, ripping his right hand and two fingers from his left hand. Yet he survived, rising to become Iran’s interior minister and serving in parliament as a hard-line legislator before joining the reformists in 2009.