The story goes something like this: During the Iran-Iraq War, faced with an invading Iraqi army, the outgunned and overwhelmed Islamic Republic of Iran eventually resorted to "human wave" attacks in order to sweep for land mines and absorb Iraqi heavy artillery. The ruling mullahs embarked on a variety of indoctrination campaigns both in public and on the pulpit to mobilize Iran's faithful out to the front lines. In order to entice Iranians to volunteer -- or, in some cases, to volunteer their children -- promises of eternal peace and pleasure in the afterlife were guaranteed.
"Plastic keys, ostensibly good for opening the door to heaven, and to erotic and culinary delights, were ... given to these young men, who walked to their deaths," wrote Stanford University's Abbas Milani in a 2007 essay for Boston Review. The Iranian government was "so certain" that these martyrs would be sacrificed, explained Iran watcher Michael Ledeen back in 2008, "that these little children were provided with plastic keys that were said to open the gates to paradise."
Thus we have the legend of the paradise keys. Many Mideast analysts and observers -- yours truly included -- have referenced these keys throughout the years. In some tellings these keys are said to have been made of plastic -- in others, brass or gold -- and imported from either China or Taiwan. So pervasive is the keys story, that they have even made appearances in relatively obscure (and somewhat disturbing, NSFW) punk and folk songs.
Just one problem: There is virtually no photographic or video evidence that these keys ever existed. I contacted several trusted Iran experts and analysts, and while none were willing to outright reject the validity of the paradise keys story, none had ever seen one, nor could they say with certainty that they ever truly existed.
Upon first appraisal, this might strike someone as rather odd. For a country believed by many to be bent on martyrdom and sacrifice, you would think, said Mideast analyst Meir Javedanfar, that the ruling mullahs would have gone out of their way to preserve and promote these artifacts. "While it is possible that such keys existed," said Javendanfar, "the fact that there is no visual verification of them gives credibility to those who question their existence."
Or does it? After all, one obvious answer as to why these keys are so hard to come by is that so few of their original owners -- often young boys and older men -- survived long enough to boast about their war souvenirs. As Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies put it, "many of these folks lived to die." Indeed -- though concrete casualty numbers are difficult to come by -- we know that thousands of Iranian volunteer soldiers (Basijis) marched to their deaths in that long, bloody war of attrition with Iraq. The last thing these martyrs were likely concerned about was the preservation of the one-way ticket around their necks.
And that, to analysts like Gerecht, is the more salient point. While the gruesome nature of the Iran-Iraq War would ultimately turn many would-be martyrs away from the cause, it's the ones who didn't walk away from Iran's revolutionary ideology after the war, according to Gerecht, who should worry us.
"A fraternity of death developed. One of the reasons that some of the senior IRGC [Revolutionary Guardsmen] are so scary," explained Gerecht, the former CIA case manager, "is that they survived the war and walked away still white hot. As if their survival had been vouchsafed by God."
It's with that in mind that many Iran experts say this regime cannot and should not be contained. If, after all, the upper echelons of today's Islamic Republic were forged in the blood and sacrifice of the war against Iraq, then who's to say those same true believers wouldn't use a nuclear weapon against Israel, or threaten America and its global assets? What's to prevent that "death cult" from martyring the entire state of Iran?