London, Asharq Al-Awsat – With the victory of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran wanted to gain the admiration and backing of the Arab states and realized that it was possible. Since the first day of the revolution, Iran was keen to extend its relations with Islamic states and when this proved to be difficult in most cases for a number of complicated reasons, it began to search for organizations, as opposed to states and regimes.
Through these organizations it was able to resume its role in Islamic issues, which it was cautious to present as one of the fundamentals of the revolution and its ideology. Thus, in the early years of the revolution, the internal transformations taking place in Iran were awarded the same attention as the Palestinian and Lebanese issues and the ‘global Zionism’ and the ‘arrogant powers’.
The Iranian revolution sought to win the admiration of the Arab states and believed that this admiration would exonerate it from the Persian racism accusation that it had been branded with. After the Iran-Iraq war broke out, Iran sought to form alliances with the Arab world but was only able to secure the support of Syria, Libya, Algeria and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
These times coincided with the disappearance of the founder of Amal movement, Musa al Sadr during his visit to Libya. Despite the fact that the leadership of Amal sent direct messages to Tehran appealing to it to release or save al Sadr in Libya; the revolutionary Iran did not respond.
Lebanese intellectual Hani Fahs arrived in Tehran on the first plane to land in the capital following the success of the revolution; he arrived with Yasser Arafat and was a frequent traveler between Lebanon and Iran. Fahs also lived in Tehran from 1982-1985.
He told to Asharq Al-Awsat that the relationship between Iran and the Arab states, and later Amal, was complicated. According to Fahs: “At one point the Iranian revolution was admired by some Arab states, some supported it while others were negative towards it. Those who admired it were cautious, some Gulf States for example, and those who supported it were few. While Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and others were against the revolution, Syria, Libya and the PLO supported it and the PLO acted as a communication channel between these states and the revolution. Iran sensed its inadequacy on this level and was searching for an Arab position that could liberate it from the accusation of Persian racism after the Shah publicly declared his support for the Israeli aggression and the state of Israel. This was one of the declared reasons behind the revolution since 1963 and the massacre that was committed by the regime and the imprisonment and later exile of [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini. Iran was reassured by the positions of Libya, Syria, and the PLO. After Musa al Sadr vanished, Amal movement could not withstand this hardship; however, it did not sever its relations with Iran and the revolution. An Amal delegation met with a delegation of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council [in Lebanon] headed by Sheikh Mohammed Mahdi Shams al Din and the Imam [Khomeini] and the state [Iran]. It was a celebratory occasion but Shams al Din vocalized his objection to Iran’s relations with Libya, since some Shia and others were inclined to believe that Iran was satisfied by or implicated in what happened to Musa al Sadr but had no proof. Evidence of innocence is that Sadiq Tabatabai, al Sadr’s nephew, and Sayyed Ahmad Khomeini, Musa al Sadr’s son-in-law were fully informed on everything and were aware of al Sadr’s status in the hearts and minds of the Iranian people. The same applies to Mostafa Chamran, who had just been appointed as deputy prime minister to Mehdi Bazargan then later became Minister of Defense – and Chamran would not have tolerated any negativity towards al Sadr. The core of the matter is that Chamran lived the crisis and attempted to alleviate it whilst taking into account Iranian necessities that he did not fully approve of. Moreover, Chamran found it difficult to fight it or prevent its full impact and the controversy raged. Amal movement and its supporters in Iran began to denounce the Libyan presence and the Iranian group that had developed relations with the Libyan regime before the revolution by a few days. Furthermore, some Iranians were invited to Tripoli (Libya) and the relations become stronger with time.
“But this did not prevent Tehran from being exceedingly wary and balanced. It turned the blind eye to the demonstration that Amal had stirred up against Jalloud’s* visit to Tehran without disrupting its relationship with the Libyan regime. The Iraqi-Iranian war necessitated that Iran resort to money and arms, and thus the Iranian tripartite was formed (a senior figure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and number veteran cadres from Syria and Libya) and the ties were strengthened. The relationship with Amal became calmer and there was serious communication and the problems diminished based on an understanding that arose out of the needs of each party. Tehran’s relations with Amal improved a little following the slump in communications and understanding between the PLO and Iran, Amal had objections over the deep understanding [they had] since it viewed that it was at its expense. Iran’s interest in Amal reached the extent that it considered, according to records, cooperating with Fatah movement to boost the chances of Nabih Berri leading the movement and the two parties conspired to remove Imam al Sadr,” said Fahs.
Sayyid Ali al Amin, the Mufti of Tyre and Mount Amel, who was one of the key eyewitnesses during the transformation of the relationship between Amal movement and Iran told Asharq Al-Awsat that in these definitive years two essential factors shaped the relationship between Amal and post-revolutionary Iran in 1979; first was the frustration within Amal over the way in which Iran dealt with the disappearance of Musa al Sadr. Amal had expected Iran to exert efforts to save al Sadr and bring him back to Lebanon from Libya – but this did not happen. The second source of frustration was Iran’s support of Palestinian groups in Lebanon at Amal’s expense, which had been calling for extending sovereignty over the entire Lebanese territory through armed confrontations between the Palestinian factions and Amal movement.
Al Amin pointed out that although Amal was a Shia movement; it was of an Arab Shia affiliation and with time political and cultural differences started to emerge between it and the new Islamic regime in Tehran after some signs of the regime’s desire to export its revolution to Lebanon began to manifest. This is also when Iran realized that Amal was not the instrument required for the success of its project.
He continued: “After Khomeini’s rise to power in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran, a relationship was established between the Lebanese Amal movement and the new regime in Iran. The main factor in this relationship was the emotive bond that was the outcome of religious and doctrinal ties shared by both parties, upon the consideration that Amal movement was founded by Imam Musa al Sadr based on principles of the general religious culture in areas that were predominantly inhabited by Shia. These Shia respected and followed the scholars and marja’ (religious references) of their religious heritage. Since Iran’s revolution was led by religious clerics, spearheaded by Imam Khomeini; it had supporters among the Shia sect in general, and in Amal movement specifically, all of whom believed that the revolution would be a stepping stone that could help them consolidate their position in the Lebanese regime and end the deprivation they were subjected to. They had high hopes that the new leadership in Iran would strive to save Musa al Sadr and bring him back to Lebanon, especially since the issue surrounding his abduction and disappearance was strongly present in the Lebanese arena. It had only been a few months since his disappearance and Amal had expected the new Iranian regime to support it in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinian factions and the left-wing Lebanese parties that were dominating over the south and various other Lebanese areas. At the time, Amal movement was bearing the slogan of defending Lebanese legitimacy and was calling for exercising state sovereignty over the entire Lebanese nation.”
However, the new Iranian leadership did not meet these hopes and expectations that Amal and its popular supporter base had anticipated and thus, the emotive bond between the two began to transform. According to al Amin “revolutionary Iran did not take any actions with regards to the Musa al Sadr issue and it stood by the Palestinian groups in Lebanon and thus the political and cultural differences between Amal and the Shia Lebanese sect began to emerge. Theirs was a culture that was based on ties with the Arab world and devotion to their Arab origin and solidarity over the project of a united Lebanese state and coexistence. Meanwhile, the new Iranian culture was based on the rejection of regimes and states that are not founded upon a religious basis, especially the Lebanese regime which Imam Khomeini had described as a “criminal and corrupt” regime. Individuals and groups that were affiliated to Iran began to raise the slogan of the Islamic revolution in Lebanon and the Levant and the Shia sect and its political and religious leaders were vehemently against it, as were the jurisprudential marja’a and religious scholars in Jebel Amel and Iraq. This is why Amal and the Shia sect stood against the Iranian project, which had begun to manifest in the Shia circles in Lebanon. This marked the beginning of Iran’s awareness that Amal was not the appropriate tool for exporting the revolution out of Iran.”
These complicated circumstances were what led many in Iran and Lebanon to believe that Amal was incapable or unwilling to bear the Iranian project. And following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Lebanese elements that were trained by the IRGC; other developments of the alleged resistance project began to appear on the ground. These developments did not only reveal Iran’s role but also the role played by Amal, “which did not crystallize into a political, religious, partisan project because of all the attention Imam Musa al Sadr was receiving”.
After Musa al Sadr vanished and the sentiment among many that creating a political, religious party within Amal would be very difficult, they considered an alternative under the name “Hezbollah”. This was backed by leadership figures in Amal, such as Abbas al Musawi and Sobhi al Tufeili and various clerics and activists that were linked to Iraq’s Dawa party, which had been established under Iran’s tutelage. They all saw the necessity of founding a political-religious party – and even an armed one.
Fahs explained, “After the revolution and until the Israeli invasion and occupation in 1982, Amal was the Shia Iranian project in Lebanon. However, it was an elaborate project that required patience and polemics due to its close resemblance to the liberalist approach nurtured by Musa Sadr, which he had also stressed in Amal movement but which did not hinder the development of a strictly religious trend out of a political-religious one. However; this trend, with the rise of the revolution and the disappearance of Imam al Sadr became more convinced with the idea of a religious-political project and it did not find in Amal a legitimate opportunity to consolidate the relationship with Iran and have a deep understanding with it. This became evident through the frequent travels between Beirut and Tehran and Iran sought to embrace the religious seminaries that were established in Lebanon after the disruption in Najaf. Moreover, distinguished Iranian clerical figures supported this, such as Sayyed [al Uzma] al Calebyakni and Sayyed [Abul-Qassim] al Khoei while the late Abbas al Musawi and Sheikh Sobhi al Tufeili and their contemporaries from Amal movement and independent figures, especially those who were affiliated with the Dawa party, became incorporated into a more Iranian framework following immense efforts from Iran. Some are known for their ongoing activism in Amal, such as Sheikh Naim Qassem.”
Conflicting political interests affected the relationship between Iran and Amal and it is what paved the way for the creation of Hezbollah. The same miscommunication happened between revolutionary Iran and Fatah movement and these changes began to gradually manifest between the Palestinian revolution and revolutionary Iran, which had viewed Fatah and the Palestinian revolution as a playing card in its resistance project against the West. As for the Palestinian revolution; it saw in Iran an opportunity to consolidate the strength of its national resistance to regain its occupied territories.
But the aforementioned differences between Amal and Iran also had another consequence: The birth of Hezbollah, while the differences between Iran and Fatah would later lead to the birth of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine.
In his position as mediation and communication officer between Fatah movement and Khomeini’s group, Hani Fahs shed lights on these differences; he told Asharq Al-Awsat that these differences did not prevent Iran and Fatah from communicating during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon since Iran was a key participant in countering the Israeli aggression through the IRGC and the volunteer movement in Iran, which in one week recorded over 100,000 volunteers.
He said: “During the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982, we were in Tehran along with Amal movement’s first group and its supporters, all of whom later became the nucleus that formed Hezbollah. We were attending a conference on Islamic unity that was held in the early days of the invasion… Iran, with its desire to resolve its Persian complex, wanted to fully adopt the primary Arab cause after communication and relations had soured with Fatah – despite having previously had a historical understanding. The Iranians wanted the entire Palestinian support and cause on their side in their resistance project, and Abu Ammar (late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat) wanted Iran’s full support in his pursuit of peace as a position of strength and so that it may replace Egypt in the equation since Egypt was no longer part of it after the Camp David [Accords]. This marked the distinction that became grounds for division at one point in time. However, this did not prevent communication during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon due to Iran’s direct involvement in countering the Israeli aggression and there was also daily contact with Abu Jihad (Khalil al Wazir) who was expecting the [Iranian] volunteers. Meanwhile, a delegation of leadership figures from the IRGC was expected to arrive at Lebanon via Damascus to coordinate the matter; however it was detained and disappeared after crossing the Lebanese forces’ checkpoint between Tripoli and Beirut. It remains to be an open case to this day.”
Since Khomeini was disinclined to send more IRGC troops to Lebanon and felt that the cost for doing so would be high, especially since Iran was embroiled in a war with Iraq, it gave rise to what Fahs calls “the search for an alternative formula for participation.
According to Fahs: “At this point, Imam Khomeini curbed his advancing [in that direction] and gave priority to the Iranian fighting against the Iraqi aggressor. He believed that focusing on Lebanon would be neglecting Iranian affairs and appearing to lenient with the Iraqi regime after its defeat in the Battle of Khorramshahr. And thus the project was temporarily suspended as the Iranians began to search for an alternative formula for participation. This coincided with activities undertaken by some Lebanese figures in Tehran who wanted to set up a resistance against the Zionist enemy, aided by the Iranians. I was one of the people who were consulted on the matter and we agreed that it was simply a resistance project, nothing more. But we were not invited to the secret meetings because of my known relationship with Fatah and the group did not want a headache; it was not part of their program to absorb experiences that were part of a different context or that hinted at debate. This is when I was prompted to come up with a different formula, which was to bring together Muslim clerics, Sunni and Shia, and I drafted a declaration but had to stop my activities and for reasons had to remain in Iran. Although I still maintained contact, my participation was external and I did not get involved for reasons both related to myself and to it [the project]. Later it transpired that the idea had been transformed into a composite one, which was cooperation for resistance via a civil, military and logistical organization whilst relying upon trained elements from Amal and elements from the south [of Lebanon] who had experience in battle with Fatah so that gradually the matter would evolve into becoming ‘Hezbollah’ after gaining credibility and legitimacy.”
“It is worth noting,” he continued, “that the martyr Sheikh Ragheb Harb was part of this movement but that he steered clear of consultations and deep discussions into the nature of the resistance project that was desired by Iran and Lebanon. This was by reason of his adherence to Sheikh Mohammed Mahdi Shams al Din’s approach, however this does not mean that Rageb Harb was not active in the resistance. On his way to Tehran in 1983 after his meeting with Sheikh Sobhi al Tufeili in Bekaa [valley], Harb discovered that a party called Hezbollah had been formed. Harb did not express his approval or disapproval of the party and his objections remained to be the same: the necessity to prioritize the resistance.
* Abdel Salam Jalloud was the second man in the Libyan regime who after the Lockerbie incident was no longer part of the official circle in the regime. By 1993, he was no longer a part of the official process.