Hezbollah's Man in Iran

By Meir Javedanfar

Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour is a careful man.

Ever since his right arm was blown off in Iran's Damascus embassy in the early 1980's, he has become more careful about where he goes, and whom with. Some Iranians believe that the beautiful book on Shiite Islam which contained the bomb was sent by the Israelis to Iran's embassy in Damascus, where he had been working. According to Mohtashamipour, he is lucky that he placed the book on the table first, and opened it sideways. Had he opened it in front of his face, his head would have been ripped off from the explosion.

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Although it cannot be confirmed, there is reason to believe the accusations suggesting Israel's involvement. Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour is, after all, the Iranian who established Hezbollah in Lebanon. The first man who tried and failed was Mostafa Chamran. The U.S.-educated Chamran had a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He was then hired as a senior research staff scientist at Bell Laboratories and NASA. However, once the Islamic opposition against the Shah grew, the religious Chamran found his calling back in Iran amongst his fellow revolutionaries. A fervent Islamist who later became Iran's Defense Minister, he tried at the beginning of 1980 to establish a pro-Iranian group amongst Lebanon's Shiites. His main target was the Amal movement, which back then was the main representative of the Shiites in Lebanon's political arena. However, he found that he was unable to convince them to accept Iran's Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurists) system, whereby Iran's Supreme Leader would be accepted by them as God's representative on earth to all the Shiites. Chamran was killed on the battlefront during the war against Iraq in 1981.

In 1982, Mohtashamipour succeeded where Chamran had failed by convincing the new Hezbollah movement to accept Ayatollah Khomeini's religious authority. The rest, as they say, is history.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Mohtashamipour is treated like a hero in Iran, but the reality is quite different. Many conservatives hate him; despite the fact that he created what many believe is Islamic Iran's most successful political and military ally in the Middle East. The reason is simple: he is a reformist.

On many occasions, security guards have had to ward off physical attacks against him by neo-conservative students and Basijis who have no problem declaring their undying love and appreciation for Hezbollah. Yet they can't stand Mohtashamipour, because he wants reform within the system. On one occasion in the mid-90's, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the governor of the Ardebil province, Mohtashamipour had to be pulled away from a mob of ultra-religious students by the the future Iranian president. Mohtashamipour took refuge at Ahmadinejad's house until the next day, when he was able to return to Tehran.

The recent unrest in Iran has made life more difficult for Mohtashamipour. During a recent visit to Damascus, he was shadowed and harassed. Not by the Mossad or the CIA, but by allies of Ahmadinejad. He was not left alone, even when he visited the Sayyida Zeinab shrine. At one point he was even told "you wouldn't dare return to Iran" by the operatives shadowing him around the city.

The treatment of Mohtashamipour provides the West with a strong indication of the roots of Iran's current erratic behavior. When the Iranian founder of Hezbollah is treated this way because he disagrees with Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, others who stand in their way have much more to worry about.

One factor that helped Khamenei deal with the West throughout the years was the presence of well educated, pragmatic reformists in key positions. Even after Ahmadinejad won his first term, people like former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and moderate conservatives such as Ali Larijani had a say in the formulation of policy presented to the Supreme Leader.

But Larijani resigned as Iran's top nuclear negotiator because he could no longer stomach working with Ahmadinejad. And after Ahmadinejad's controversial reelection, people like Velayati and Rowhani were sidelined. Those who surround Khamenei these days are almost exclusively all neo-conservatives. Despite their lack of experience, they have another important quality: loyalty. Iran's Supreme Leader has one goal in mind, and that's to build a bomb--be it a physical device or the "breakout capacity" to build one on demand. Until then, he has no time, patience or sympathy for those who may question him, no matter how knowledgeable or skilled they may be. This is why he is allowing President Ahmadinejad, his loyalist soldier, and his foreign policy-ignorant allies to spearhead important policy bodies such as the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).

And for those who want to see a pragmatic Iran, this will likely be the case for the foreseeable future.

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and a regular contributor to RealClearWorld. He is co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.

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