Asharq Al-Awsat – Special relations between Iran and Syria did not begin with the rise of the Islamic revolution in Iran; in fact, they started years before that. And they did not start in Damascus but rather in Lebanon and at the hands of a Lebanese-Iranian man – Musa al Sadr.
Years before the Iranian revolution, many of Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters used to move between Lebanon and Iraq after their presence in Iran posed a hazard on their lives. Musa al Sadr is credited with laying the foundations for the special relations between Damascus, Tehran, and the Amal movement.
Of Lebanese descent, Musa al Sadr was born, raised and schooled in Qom, Iran, for many years before returning to Lebanon, which is his family’s birthplace. Moreover, Musa al Sadr and Ayatollah Khomeini were related by marriage; Ahmad Khomeini [Imam Ruhollah Khomeini’s son] was married to Musa al Sadr’s niece, and al Sadr’s son was married to Khomeini’s granddaughter.
Musa al Sadr relocated to Lebanon in 1958 and obtained citizenship following a decision issued by then-Lebanese president Fouad Shehab after having been there for a short period of time. During his years in Lebanon, al Sadr built strong ties with Khomeini’s supporters who had fled to Lebanon during the final years of the Shah’s regime to resume preparations for the Iranian revolution.
In 1969, al Sadr was elected as the first president of the official Shia Higher Council, which the Lebanese government had formed in response to the demands of the Shia. The founding of this council marked the first division between the Sunnis and Shia and the latter became an independent sect like the Sunnis and Maronites. Moreover, al Sadr established Shia schools and clubs and in 1974 he founded the Mahroomeen movement (Movement of the Disinherited) so that it may be the embodiment of the Shia political entity in Lebanon.
A year later, al Sadr formed Islamic resistance battalions that came to be known as Amal, which was the military wing of the Mahroomeen movement. However the movement and armed wing were not strictly Lebanese, many Iranians joined the movement, including Mustafa Chamran who was an Iranian activist that moved to Lebanon prior to the Islamic revolution; he was also Musa al Sadr’s right-hand man. Chamran was in charge of monitoring Amal’s military branches before the revolution broke out.
Through Amal movement, Musa al Sadr, his Iranian comrades, and the late Syrian president Hafez al Assad’s regime became acquainted with Khomeini and his ideas before the Iranian revolution. In fact; a number of Iranian activists in Amal had Syrian diplomatic passports, which they used to use to deter and conceal their identities.
One of the key decision-makers in Syria at the time and a direct eyewitness was Abdel Halim Khaddam, former Syrian vice president under Hafez al Assad. Whilst occupying the aforesaid post, Khaddam told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, Syria had relations with elements that were affiliated to Khomeini via Musa al Sadr and who were preparing for the revolution. Musa al Sadr was a friend and he is from Khomeini’s group. The Freedom Movement of Iran (FMI) group used to operate under Musa al Sadr. Chamran who was appointed as the Iranian government’s first minister of defense after the revolution [and became Ayatollah Khomeini’s personal military aide] was also a member of the group. Chamran was affiliated to the Lebanese Amal movement. The relationship between the Syrian regime and the Iranian revolution and Khomeini was through Musa al Sadr and his group. The entire Iranian group that was affiliated to Musa al Sadr’s had Syrian diplomatic passports,” he said.
But al Sadr’s relationship with leadership figures from the Iranian revolution at the time proved that the activists that were preparing for the revolution were not limited to clerical figures. The truth is that the clerics comprised a segment amongst many other segments, including the intellectual elite of the nationalist, liberal, and Islamic nationalist trends, in addition to students and university academics.
In other words, there was no purely religious denominator that brought together all the activists against the Shah’s regime at the time which led the US to believe that the liberalist trend, led by Shahpour Bakhtiar (National Front leader, one of the main groups during the Iranian revolution), Ebrahim Yazdi (Iran’s first foreign minister following the revolution) and Mehdi Bazargan (head of the FMI) would triumph over Khomeini and his supporters. The US believed that Khomeini’s group acted as a catalyst for the revolution and that it would soon disappear and lose influence after its success.
As such, it relied on this and upon the possibility of holding dialogue with the revolution’s liberalists – if they succeeded in overthrowing the Shah. This is what America did not want but was prepared for. Perhaps the clerics that had participated in the revolution felt that their role would diminish in the state if the liberalists and intellectual figures did not play a larger role. There were various figures and leaderships that raised concerns among the clerics in the revolution’s leadership, headed by Musa al Sadr and his group Amal.
First and foremost, al Sadr was a religious cleric but he was also a modern and progressive man who was Iranian-Arab, and Lebanese specifically, and was the connection between the universities and students, and the Hawza al Ilmiya (religious seminary). Moreover, al Sadr had very strong ties with the FMI, which brought together technocrats, intellectuals, nationalists and liberals.
In the few months prior to the revolution, perhaps the clerics that were part of it felt concern for the outcome of the revolution and its direction if people like al Sadr, Yazdi, Bakhtiar and Bazargan played principle roles in governance. Amidst these fears and other fears held by Israel and other Arab and foreign states that were uneasy about the role that al Sadr was playing in the Lebanese, Arab and Iranian arena, Musa al Sadr suddenly disappeared in February 1979 during his tour of Arab states. He visited several countries and was calling for an Arab summit to end the Lebanese crisis.
Musa al Sadr disappeared whilst on a trip to Libya amidst Libyan silence about his disappearance. His disappearance put a cog in the works between the management of Amal and in the relationship between the group and Khomeini and the Iranian revolution – and thus opened the door to the birth of Hezbollah.
Lebanese thinker Hani Fahs who was the mediator between the Palestinian revolution, Fatah and late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat on one side, and Khomeini on the other, used to deliver messages and coordinate between the two parties.
In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, he revealed previously undisclosed secrets when he said, “There is no harm done in discriminating, partially, for clarification, between Amal movement and Sayyed Musa al Sadr who lived during the stages that preceded the breakout of the Iranian revolution. He was removed for a number of reasons and perhaps one of them was his anticipated position within the context of the revolution, in the case of its success, since that success did not seem farfetched to international parties that were friends with the Shah and his regime, especially the US. It is common knowledge in some circles that the United States was almost sure that the Shah’s end was near due to his physical illness and that of his regime, which had lost its momentum and strength. It had also become clear that his successors (brother Reza and sister Ashraf) were severely clashing as a result of the deep sensitivities between Farah Diba (the Shah’s wife) and her sister-in-law over power and wealth and that they were unlikely to take over. And thus, the US officials’ repeated visits to Tehran and the advice that they passed down, in some form or another, to the Shah was to collaborate with Shahpour Bakhtiar and the Iran National Front (Jebhe Melli) led by Karim Sanjabi and the Liberation Movement of Iran led by Bazargan, considering them to be the key players in the oppositional movement in Iran. The US believed that there could be various understandings between them on a number of levels. They also believed that Khomeini and the clerics were simply fuel for the revolution and that they would retreat or disappear after the formation of the new state on a liberal basis and an understanding and relations with Washington. This became apparent after Ebrahim Yazdi’s meeting with Zbigniew Brzezinski in Algeria; the latter served as United States National Security Advisor to former US president Jimmy Carter. The meeting led to the eruption of conflict with Khomeini and the seizure of the American embassy was a preclude to the toppling of Bazargan’s government after what was once an alliance turned into conflict between and the Iran Freedom Movement and the Iran National Front.”
Yazdi had formerly stated that the first contact between the Iranian leadership and the US took place through former French president Valery Giscard D’Estaing who conveyed a message from Washington to Khomeini. This was followed by a succession of messages between Washington and Tehran, which disturbed the conservative circles in the revolution. Yazdi’s meeting with Brzezinski in Algeria is what triggered the spark that ignited the conflict between liberal and conservative trends in the revolution.
Fahs continued, “A witness, one of the Shah’s men who used to attend meetings where American advice and decrees were relayed to the Shah said that the Shah discovered that he was confronted by the catastrophe of Washington abandoning him. This, in turn, prompted the officials into sensing that the Shah was an ineffectual ruler and their national pride was wounded and thus many abandoned their positions in rapid succession, while others procrastinated in carrying out their tasks or conspired with the revolutionaries in varying degrees. At this point in time, Imam [Musa] al Sadr was removed for Lebanese, Arab and Israeli reasons. As for the alleged Iranian reasons, they include that Musa al Sadr was a progressive Arab-Iranian to whom many Arab and international horizons had opened up, which resulted in enriching his experience and qualifying him to participate in Iran’s future after the revolution whilst relying on his history and the fact that he was the son of a marja’a (religious reference. His father was Ayatollah Sadr al-Din Sadr) as well as being the primary link between the universities and the Hawza. Imam al Sadr was an active member of an early reformist group that had grouped around the marja’a Sayyed Hossein Borujerdi, and which included activists Mohammad Hussein Beheshti, [Abdolkarim] Musavi-Ardebili and other prominent figures in the Iranian state and revolution. At this point, Musa al Sadr came in contact with Imam Khomeini’s group and there was broad understanding and cooperation between this unorganized group and the Freedom Movement of Iran and the National Front. There was collective collaboration headed by Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani with Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK) before it split and became strictly religious while merging between Iranian nationalism and Islamic Marxism. On that basis, the party confronted the revolution and the state that had been formed as a result of the intersection between liberal Islamists, the religious trends and the clerics from an early stage.”
However, Fahs also pointed out that the relations between al Sadr and the revolutionary trends were temporarily strained after al Sadr paid a visit to the Shah in the early seventies to ask for the amnesty of 11 clerics and revolutionaries who had been sentenced to death. The clerics of the revolution were divided over this visit, however tensions had surfaced before that over Musa al Sadr’s expected role in the case of the revolution’s success, including the fact that he would be the mediator between the liberalists and clerics.
Fahs added, “Imam al Sadr’s relationship with the Freedom Movement of Iran was a close and deep one that was almost spontaneous, which made him a leader and mentor for many – even those who were older than he was, such as Yadollah Sahabi who was appointed as the first minister of science following the revolution. This was what the martyr Mustafa Chamran, whose scientific and cultural experience from Iran to the US and Lebanon and his partnership with Musa al Sadr had made him a shining example for everyone, had told me during the first week of the revolution. Even the Iranian university professors looked up to him, in addition to Dr. Sadiq Tabatabai, the first deputy vice prime minster following the revolution and Sayyed Qutb Zada, Ebrahim Yazdi to Ezzatullah Sohabi, among other distinguished Iranian revolutionary figures. As such, if the revolution were to succeed and if a state were formed in its aftermath, with the participation of all parties, as per Washington’s expectations, then Musa al Sadr would have played an active and influential role since he would be the channel between the Arabs and Iran. Moreover, al Sadr would also be the mediator between the liberal Islamists, Imam al Khomeini’s movement, and the clerics, which would put him in a position to reconcile and prevent an explosion from taking place in the leadership, which was expected in Tehran. This did not mean that he had a weak or negative relationship with Khomeini’s group; in fact, his presence in Beirut was a point of intersection for all parties. We were introduced to a number of liberal Islamist leadership figures in Lebanon during our frequent visits to Imam al Sadr where we also sought his guidance and counsel. This is also how we met Sayyed Mustafa, Imam Khomeini’s son, who was a close friend of Sayyed al Sadr and Sayyed Ahmad Khomeini who was related by marriage to Musa al Sadr. However, Imam al Sadr’s relationship with this trend, or part of it, became thorny at one point in time then it reverted back to what it was. Imam al Sadr visited Iran in the early seventies and met with the Shah, which as previously mentioned, was received by a mixed reception. Imam al Sadr justified his visit as one in which he was seeking the amnesty of 11 clerics who were on death row. But the Shah did not want to grant this favour to Imam al Sadr since he was aware of his position so he carried out the executions as planned. Imam al Sadr had previously exerted immense efforts to prevent the arrest of Teymur Bakhtiar who was the head of SVAK (National Intelligence and Security Organization) at the time. Bakhtiar had been accused of conspiring against the Shah. Bakhtiar was not detained in Beirut and was not handed over to the Shah as a result of al Sadr’s efforts and headed for Iraq instead where his security was infiltrated by Iranian security that had fled Tehran and conspired with Iraqi security to assassinate him. An article in the Lebanese ‘al Muharir’ newspaper in 1974 stated that Sayyed al Sadr’s relationship with the Shah of Iran was not a hostile one but that it had been sabotaged by the intelligence, especially following the rise of his movement in Lebanon (al Mahroomeen movement) and by virtue of the disturbance he caused among some of the Shah’s Lebanese friends (such as Camille Chamoun, Pierre Gemayel and a number of Shia politicians). As such, he was stripped of his Iranian nationality and his passport was confiscated by the Iranian ambassador Mansur Qadr (former SVAK VP) who began a smear campaign against him after conspiring with various Maronite and Shia politicians and a number of Shia clerics.”
Musa al Sadr’s lack of animosity towards the Shah and his statements indicating that the SVAK had ruined it made a number of figures in Khomeini’s circles skeptical about al Sadr’s views and opinions, and thus they relayed inaccurate information to Khomeini about al Sadr, which was detrimental to the relationship at the time.
“In my coordination meetings at the beginning of the revolution in 1976 until the autumn of 1978,” Fahs said, “I was dealing with a heated debate between two sides within Imam Khomeini’s group; one that was suspicious of Imam Musa al Sadr and the other passionately defended him. In the winter of 1978, Sayyed Musa al Sadr requested a meeting with me and he complained about the media activity against him considering me to be a partner in the Palestinian Centre for Planning and with Iranian leadership figures that were affiliated with the Islamic trend. I explained to him that I disagreed [with that allegation] and that the centre was innocent and I also took it upon myself to exert pressure on the Iranian figures who were maligning his reputation to stop. They responded after I told them that I had consulted with Imam Khomeini’s group in Najaf and that he had encouraged me to do so… I don’t know what happened, Imam al Sadr summoned me to his office and told me that he was pleased with my role in mediating between the Iranian leadership and cadres in Najaf and Beirut and the rest of the states of exile. He said, ‘I want you to always keep me in the picture and I am willing to meet any request.’ He asked me to inform the cadres of Amal movement about the reality of the situation in Iran and to tell them about the political process and prospects. Imam al Sadr disappeared following the martyrdom of Sayyed Mustafa al Khomeini, Imam Khomeini’s son, under mysterious circumstances and the protest movement against the Shah begun.”
Musa al Sadr’s sudden disappearance left the Amal movement confused and unsure of how to best deal with Khomeini and his regime after the success of the Iranian revolution. Amal leadership figures were angry with the relationship between the Iranian revolutionary leadership and the Libyan regime, which Amal movement felt was responsible, in one way or another, for Musa al Sadr’s disappearance.
Fahs reveals, “Imam al Sadr’s disappearance left behind a confused Shia Higher Council that did not quite know how to deal with the revolution; it did not want to embark on an adventure and it did not have close relations with Khomeini. This was the reason behind the council’s insistence on seeking Sayyed [Abul-Qassim] al Khoei’s opinion with regards to the Iranian revolution (this was natural since he was a Shia marja’a), especially after al Khoei was subjected to harassment by the Iraqi regime which also forced him to receive Farah Diba. This made it seem as though al Khoei was opposed to the revolution and to Imam Khomeini and he was compelled to issue a statement in which he said that he had been against and was still opposed to the Shah’s regime… We recall how Sayyed al Khoei had welcomed Sayyed Khomeini upon his arrival to Najaf after the Shah’s regime complained that the Turkish state was unable to prevent Khomeini from resuming his activities against the Iranian regime. He also demanded Khomeini’s exile to Najaf so that he may be part of the Hawza and its academic activities, away from politics. Moreover, al Sadr left behind the Amal movement, which was supposed to be driven towards the revolution… and it was launched – except it was met with an obstruction that impeded its progress and complicated its relationship with Iran.