Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- Former Iranian envoy to Syria and Hezbollah architect, Mohammad Hassan Akhtari highlights to Asharq Al-Awsat Tehran’s historical and present ties to the controversial Lebanese militia and the Palestinian Hamas movement, as well as Iran’s future plans to connect Iran, Iraq, and Syria with oil and gas pipelines in addition to major railroads.
The Following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding Iran’s help for Hezbollah, did you give advice and intervene to help. For example, it was said that Iran intervened to help Hezbollah to establish Al-Manar Television. How did you help to build Hezbollah’s institutions? Did you make proposals or also extend financial assistance?
[Akhtari] As I said before, we provided financial assistance. We also gave them moral encouragement. We did this not only in Lebanon but also in other countries. During our meetings with representatives of other countries, whenever they spoke about Lebanon, we gave them advice because the way many of these countries dealt with Hezbollah was not right. Sometimes countries asked us to mediate to arrange meetings between their officials and Hezbollah officials. We helped them to do that. We also gave advice to some countries, for example France and many other European countries with which we had good relations. We constantly told them that the way they looked on Hezbollah was not right and that Hezbollah represented a large segment of the people in Lebanon. Ten years ago many of them did not understand this point. Because they used to hear fictitious and illusory things from the Americans, they imagined that Hezbollah represented only a small group of the Lebanese people. Later on they came to understand that Hezbollah represented a large percentage of the Lebanese population. Indeed we can say that Hezbollah is all of Lebanon because the Christians, the Sunnis, and the Shiites all support Hezbollah. Regarding Al-Manar Television, there were difficulties to open this channel because of Lebanese laws. We intervened at that time along with Syria. Actually Syria played the larger role. Then the late Rafik al-Hariri supported the idea and helped to open the channel. We all assisted them and the television channel was opened, thank God.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How exactly did you help Hezbollah to establish this television channel?
[Akhtari] We helped them financially and encouraged them. We helped them politically, regionally, and internationally in various ways.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam said that a dispute erupted between Syria on one side and Iran and Hezbollah on the other when the TWA airliner was hijacked. He said that the Syrian regime did not favor hijacking a plane or taking hostages. Is this true?
[Akhtari] It is certainly not true because Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah had nothing to do with this incident. This incident happened before Hezbollah was founded and developed into a specific organization. There was no specific and strong group called Hezbollah at that time. Even I was not thereat that point. The brothers in the IRGC were not there either. Additionally the Islamic Republic was consistently and publicly objecting to terrorist ideas such as hijacking planes and taking hostages. Hezbollah had nothing to do with the issue. The same applies to the Islamic Republic and Syria. They had nothing to do with the issue. The incident was carried out by certain persons or unknown groups at the time that had a motive. The newspapers and magazines published a lot of reports about this subject and it transpired that there very small unknown groups in Lebanon. Some groups were supported by anti-peace and anti-Hezbollah circles, which were trying to distort the reputation of Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic. They carried out some terrorist acts in order to accuse Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. As a matter of principle and conviction, it never occurred to the Islamic Republic to carry out terrorist acts or support them. There were circles at that time that liked to make accusations against Syria and Iran. This man [Khaddam] now supports these accusations. If the accusations are true, this man was a senior official at that time and therefore responsible for the terrorist acts.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You say that Hezbollah was not involved in the hijacking. However, the picture of Imad Mughniyeh, who was in charge of military operations in Hezbollah, was taken showing him standing next to one of the hostages taken in the TWA hijacking in 1985. Is this not proof that Hezbollah was involved in hijacking the plane?
[Akhtari] This charge lacks supporting evidence. The martyr Mughniyeh had no connection at all with this issue. “The hijacking of TWA flight 847 was claimed by a group that called itself the “Oppressed in the World Organization.”
[Note: The CIA says that this group was connected to Hezbollah. The operation took place on Friday 14 June 1985 and the hijacked plane was scheduled to fly from Athens to Rome with 153 passengers onboard. The operation lasted for two weeks, during which an American passenger was killed. The plane took off at 10:10 and shortly after the flight began two persons ordered the captain to change course to the Middle East. They were armed with pistols that they succeeded in smuggling through airport security. The plane stopped for several hours at Beirut Airport, where 19 passengers were released in exchange for refueling the plane. The second stop was at Algiers Airport where 20 more passengers were released. The plane then returned to Beirut. This time the hijackers killed an American passenger who was formerly a US Navy diver and threw his body on the tarmac.
At Beirut Airport more gunmen joined the hijackers. On 15June the plane then flew another time to Algiers, where 65 passengers were released and then the plane returned to Beirut again. The hijackers demanded the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel and that an international denunciation of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon should be issued. They also demanded an international denunciation of the US role in Lebanon. Imad Mughniyeh, Hassan Izzaldin, Ali Atwah, and Muhammad Ali Hammadi were accused of the hijacking. According to US intelligence, these persons were members of Hezbollah. Greek intelligence personnel succeeded in capturing Ali Atwah before he could get on the plane. He was released in exchange for eight Greek passengers who were on the plane. On17 June 1985, Nabih Birri, leader of the Lebanese Resistance Brigades (Amal Movement), made a successful mediation effort and secured the release of 40 passengers. Thirty-nine passengers continued to be held until 30 June 1985 when they were released and flown to Germany.]
[Asharq Al-Awsat] After Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus, Iran announced the formation of a joint investigating committee, but Syria denied that. Please clarify this confusion.
[Akhtari] To begin with, there was no Syrian-Iranian investigating committee.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However, one of the assistants of Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced through the Iranian news agency, IRNA, the formation of a joint investigating.
[Akhtari] I did not hear this announcement. Anyway, practically I do not see that we need to form a joint committee. Perhaps the Islamic Republic announced that we were prepared to help if we were asked to do so. We trust Syria, and the brothers in Syria began investigating the issue. It is their concern more than ours because Mughniyeh was their guest in Damascus and, of course, because of the close relations between Hezbollah and Syria, Syria has a special interest in this issue. It is in the collective interest of Amal, Hezbollah, and Syria to follow up this issue with the utmost seriousness. I am certain that Syrian President Dr Bashar al-Assad gave instructions to this effect. We have no doubts about this matter.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many things have been said about Mughniyeh. Personally, how would you describe him? Does his assassination in Damascus in this way mean that Syrian security was penetrated?
[Akhtari] I cannot talk about this subject. This is a security matter in which various parties may have been involved, and I do not have any evidence or anything clear to make a comment on this issue. However, I knew the man from the start. He was a loyal and religiously committed man. He was active in Hezbollah and was a strong and courageous man. He played an effective role in the resistance and in confronting the occupation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a specific date when Syria will announce the results of the investigation into Mughniyeh assassination?
[Akhtari] Ever since I returned from Damascus to Tehran, I have not discussed this issue and I have no information about it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have stated that the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad are legitimate offspring of the revolution and the Islamic Republic. In what way were they backed ideologically, financially, and strategically? Is this support continuing today?
[Akhtari] After the Islamic revolution’s victory and the spread of Islamic reawakening and the spirit of confrontation against injustice, aggression, and imperialist conspiracies, these ideas became widespread. The idea of resistance grew increasingly stronger among the Palestinian Muslims. After the victory of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, the Palestinians became convinced that resistance was the best way. The Palestinians nurtured themselves on this idea and it became an international idea. As a country that supports the idea of resisting the occupation, the Islamic Republic supported the idea of resistance by the Hamas movement in Palestine. Additionally the ties between the Islamic Republic and Hamas are well known. The Islamic Republic’s backing to Hamas’s legitimate government in Palestine is well known and public. As is well known, apart from ideological and financial support, communication with the Palestinians is now severed. Everyone knows this. No group or party can give aid to Hamas without it being publicly known because the Hamas movement is inside Palestine. The backing for Hamas’s government is clear and well known. There is nothing else that is hidden.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Apart from the financial support, is there any political support? Is there coordination and consultation about the situation in the wake of the events in the West Bank and Gaza, especially as Khalid Mishal, chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, frequently meets with Iranian officials in Tehran?
[Akhtari] There is constant communication, there is an exchange of visits, and there is political backing. I mean we offer political support for their positions. We also exchange views with them. However, if you are asking about coordination in the strict sense, there is no coordination. They make their own choices and decisions. There is no coordination in planning. They do what they themselves want and decide.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A few weeks before you left Damascus, the idea of holding a conference of the Palestinian factions was raised. It was meant to be a response to the Annapolis conference. This conference, however, was delayed and finally was not held. It was said that the Palestinian factions refused to hold a conference because of the complexities of the regional situation. Was the reason a disagreement between Tehran and the Palestinian factions?
[Akhtari] Actually there never was a decision to hold a conference in Tehran. What happened was that Foreign Minister Mottaki, while visiting Syria, publicly announced to the Palestinian factions that if they wanted to come and meet in Tehran, they were welcome. He said: If you want to hold a conference in Tehran, we are prepared. There had been a standing invitation for several months to the Palestinian factions to go to Tehran, prior to Ramadan, last year. One month before Ramadan we informed them of the invitation but circumstances were not favorable for such a visit. It was postponed until after Ramadan. At that time we again said that we were willing to receive them in Tehran. The media portrayed this visit as a conference. Actually there were no plans for a conference. We consider Iran our Palestinian brothers’ second homeland. They can visit Iran any time they want. Of course, it depends on their circumstances.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you were appointed as Iranian ambassador in Damascus, relations between the two countries had not yet reached the level at which they now stand. No strategic relations had yet been established. How did you build these relations? Was this the first task you carried out, especially as you had said earlier that your aim was to build relations at this strategic level? Or did things gradually develop during your posting to Damascus?
[Akhtari] Of course things occur in a gradual way. When a person wants to reach the summit, he has to climb the steps gradually. It is not possible to reach the top in one leap. A strategic aim of every government or state is to establish relations with various countries in various political, economic, and cultural spheres–in short in all spheres. Like other countries we have also sought to achieve similar goals. At the start there were difficulties because the Islamic Republic was still a young state. After that Iraq imposed a war on us and we had internal problems. All countries, Arab, Islamic, and European took Saddam’s side at that time, namely, east and west, as we used to say. Three Arab countries took our side and several Islamic countries adopted a good or neutral stand. Most of the European countries, however, the United States, Israel, and the Soviet Union, all backed Saddam militarily, technically, and financially in the full sense of the word, as everyone now knows. Syria, Libya, and Algeria took Iran’s side. Along the way, after a period of several years, Libya somewhat withdrew. Algeria also withdrew. But Syria remained. Relations gradually grew deeper between Iran and Syria and expanded in the cultural and economic spheres. We built strong foundations for economic cooperation.
We began from square one and are continuing to develop these relations today. May God be praised, our economic relations focus on mutual investments. The volume of economic cooperation ranges from $2.5-3 billion. Currently there is a plan to build a joint refinery for Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and Malaysia. It will be a costly enterprise and of course there are other projects. With our Syrian and Iraqi brothers we have a plan to build a pipeline to carry oil and gas from Iran to Syria, passing through Iraq. We have discussed the project with the Iraqi Government and Syria and are waiting for things to calm down in Iraq. We also plan to expand the rail links with Iraq and Syria. The railroads mostly exist but we need to extend them and link them. This new railroad will be like the old Silk Road, will link east and west, and bring the three countries much closer to each other. At this time trucks, buses, and cars carry people and goods for example from Istanbul to Tehran, to Syria. If the situation becomes calmer, the new railroad will pass through Iraq as the median country and will allow much quicker trips. It will boost transportation between east and west. We have good intentions to serve the Arab, Islamic nation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tell us about how Iran and Syria became culturally closer during your posting in Damascus. What about the role of Ahl al-Bayt association which you supervise? Is it true that you chaired this association when you were ambassador to Syria?
[Akhtari] I was chairman of this association’s world forum during my last two years as ambassador in Damascus.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are its most important functions?
[Akhtari] Ahl al-Bayt is a nongovernmental association. It is an independent, private association that was founded 17 years ago. After a public meeting of a group of intellectuals and Ulema in Tehran, they agreed to form this association. They submitted the idea to His Eminence the leader Khamenei and asked his permission to place the association under his general supervision. He agreed. The association was established with three main sections: the General Assembly, the Supreme Committee or Council, and the secretary general. It began its work to promote several objectives, namely, acquainting the people with Islam, the character of the revered prophet, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him, and the members and imams of the Prophet’s Household. This was done because many people do not know Islam or are not aware of its true nature and are not acquainted with the personality of the revered prophet, the imams descended from the Prophet’s Household, and other Islamic figures among the prophet’s companions and Al-Ansar. This is done by various ways including writing, classifying, and translating books and issuing leaflets, magazines, and similar printed material.
Other objectives include promoting Islamic unity and uniting Muslim ranks by bringing the different schools of Islam closer together. As I noted before, many problems among Muslims sects and schools arise from lack of knowledge about each other. For example some of the adherents of our schools of Islam know nothing about the others. When we acquire more knowledge, we will discover that there are not many problems among us on numerous issues and that we can agree on more issues than the ones on which we disagree. Or even when it comes to certain issues we will discover that the disagreement is much smaller than we thought and that the whole problem is a very simple one. For example one jurist has an opinion on a certain issue and another jurist has a different opinion. This happens among all sects and indeed sometimes within the same sect. Sometimes there are differences of opinion over what is permitted by Shariaa [halal], what is taboo [haram], and what is simply frowned upon [makruh]. In all schools of Islam there are actions that we may declare un-Islamic but in various ways and out of various motives, they have been attributed to Islam by people who then made accusations against Islam and uttered calumnies against it and against its various schools. Our mission in this association is to sift through all these issues and clarify what is real, what is false, what is sound, and what is morbid. Another task is to communicate with other Ahl al-Bayt branches in the world and other public Islamic establishments.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many Ahl al-Bayt branches are there in the world?
[Akhtari] We do not have a statistic on this matter. As long as descendants and followers of the Prophet’s Household are spread out in the world, there will be branches according to their numbers. Indeed in some countries there is more than one branch. Some branches like to maintain contact with us. We communicate with them and supply them with Islamic books and some of our publications including Islamic books from other schools of Islam. The Ahl al-Bayt association is not a political organization. It is a cultural, religious, social, and ethical foundation that seeks to unify Muslim ranks and entrench brotherly feelings among the Muslims. We have a leaflet on how to deal with various Muslim schools, which explains our obligations towards them and their obligations towards us. The Ahl al-Bayt General Assembly meets every four years. Last year we held our fourth general assembly in Tehran and representatives from more than 100 countries attended. There were more than 500delegates present at the meeting from around the world. God willing, we plan to make efforts to promote economic and commercial relations between Iran and the other Islamic countries. Ahl al-Bayt’s secretary general is elected by the Supreme Council and then his name is submitted to his eminence the leader, who officially assigns him to the post. I was assigned this task for four years. It has been my task since I returned to Tehran.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are planning to start a television station for Ahl al-Bayt. How is the work going?
[Akhtari] One of our goals is to establish a satellite television channel that will promote the association’s objectives. We have started the early work. Perhaps in the next few months, it will become operational.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the Ahl al-Bayt satellite television station carry political news or merely be a religious station? Where will it have its headquarters?
[Akhtari] The issue of the type of broadcasts has not been settled in a final way, nor has a headquarters been definitively chosen. It will be a moral, religious, educational, and social television station, not a political or a news station.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some circles warn that these activities might be tools to spreads Shiism and export the Islamic Republic’s ideology.
[Akhtari] When the Ahl al-Bayt television channel begins operating, God willing, it will become clear that all these fears are illusions. They are not true.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people in Syria are apprehensive at the increase of Shiite seminaries in the country. What is your response to the accusations that Shiism is spreading in Syria?
[Akhtari] Actually I see no reason whatever to be apprehensive of the presence of seminaries or religious institutes. There are many religious seminaries and institutes in Syria. One seminary has been operating for 25 years. It causes no fear. There are strong and close relations between the persons in charge of this seminary and the people in charge of the Sunni seminaries and religious institutes. They even have ties with Syria’s Grand Mufti Dr Ahmad Hassun. They had good relations with the former mufti, the late Sheikh Kaftaru. These relations have always been good. There are contacts between the Ulema from both sects. They organize joint celebrations and hold conferences for Islamic unity. Sunnis and Shiites hold joint Koranic functions every Ramadan. Inside Iran there are continuing relations between the Ulema and seminary instructors with Syrian residents and others, with Egyptian and Saudi Ulema for example. I believe that the fears you talk about are imaginary rather than based on something real. There is no reason for fear because we have relations with both Shiites and Sunnis in Iran and abroad. In the Iranian regions inhabited by Sunnis there are large religious establishments. We also have an institute to bring the Islamic schools in Iran closer to each other. Its members include many Shiite and Sunni Ulema from outside Iran. There are members from Syria, Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan. There are members from all the Arab and Islamic countries. This institute is similar to the Ahl al-Bayt Global Institute, where we exchange views and cooperate to hold many conferences and religious seminars outside Iran.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the rate of the increase of Iranian seminaries in Damascus? Have they increased to the point of arousing some people’s worry?
[Akhtari] The numbers have not increased. There are two or three large seminaries that have been present from 15 or 20 years ago. Of course there might be classes here and there that are associated with a seminary. This depends on the number of students.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are nicknamed the “sheikh”, and sometimes you are called “minister plenipotentiary.” Which name is closer to your heart? Could you give us a brief account of your growing up and education?
[Akhtari] Regarding the nicknames “sheikh” and “minister plenipotentiary,” this depends on the speaker’s choice and whatever comes to his mind [Akhtari laughs]. The important thing is the person who is addressed, not the words. Regarding my upbringing, I was born in 1945 and until I was 13 I lived in a village called Sarkah near the city of Samnan. But I was not born there. I was born somewhere else because my father and mother, may they rest in peace, lived in a village called Jarmasar. I was born there and we lived one and a half years there after I was born. After that we moved to Sarkah near Samnan. Later I left Samnan for Qom to study.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Under which cleric did you study in Qom?
[Akhtari] In the early stages I studied under our master the martyr Ayatollah Bahishti, the late Ayatollah Rabbani-Shirazi, the late Ayatollah Mishkini, and many others. After that I went to the holy Al-Najaf where I studied for five years. I attended the lessons of Ayatollah Tabrizi, Ayatollah Rusti, and Ayatollah Shahbadi. For a period of six months I studied under the late martyr Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. I attended lessons under Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani for more than a year and some other Ulema. Of course my main, strong, and profound relationship was with Imam Khomeini. I was considered one of his disciples.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you get to meet Imam Khomeini?
[Akhtari] We met in Qom at the beginning of our revolutionary work after the imam started his Islamic movement. I was 15 years old. I joined the movement because of the circumstances at that time and our interest in Islamic affairs. After the imam was released from jail, we used to visit him at his home, followed his movement according to our ability, and performed the tasks that were assigned to us. We were carrying out opposition activities at that time. In 1964 I was jailed for the first time in Samnan because I was participating in the Islamic opposition movement. When I was released, I went to Al-Najaf. I arrived in Al-Najaf on the same day that Imam Khomeini entered Iraq. I reached Al-Najaf shortly before 10:00 and Imam Khomeini arrived in Baghdad at 1600. From Baghdad he left for Al-Kazimiyah, where he stayed for several days. We joined the imam in Al-Kazimiyah. We accompanied and served him until he got to Samarra. He then went to Karbala and after that to Al-Najaf. In Al-Najaf we were frequently present at the imam’s house and served him.
In 1968 after the 1967 war, I traveled to Syria in Ramadan. I stayed in a village near Homs for the purpose of conveying the call to the faith and to carry out religious guidance. I did the same in 1969. I traveled from Al-Najaf to the same Syrian village to carry out religious guidance. In the same year I left for Lebanon where I stayed for two and a half years until 1972, carrying out religious activities in Lebanon and spreading the faith. My ties with Syria and Lebanon go back more than 40 years. When I returned to Iran, I studied for give more years in Qom until the Islamic revolution triumphed. I had spent those years carrying out opposition activities, making speeches, and issuing statements. I was imprisoned in Iran for the second time in 1972. I was imprisoned for the third time in the last week before the revolution won and Imam Khomeini returned to Tehran. I was released the night he arrived.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What activities did you carry out to convey the Islamic message in Syria and Lebanon?
[Akhtari] I used to carry out this activity by myself. I also did some teaching work. There was no other apparatus that carried out the task of calling to the faith and guidance. I personally acted as spiritual guide to these villages that I visited. In Lebanon I played the role of prayer leader. I used to lead the worshipers in prayer at the mosque. I gave lectures and made speeches to the people in the form of lessons and debates with religious scholars including university professors and students. This is what I used to do, nothing more.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During the years you were posted as ambassador to Damascus, you were described as absolutely the most important ambassador in Syria. Your activity spread from Damascus to Lebanon and to the Palestinian factions. It was said that you were an envoy dealing with three or four very sensitive issues and the most influential and prominent ambassador in Damascus. You were called many good things. Now that you have left this post, do you have any connection with the issues you used to handle? Are you still following the situation in Damascus through the current Iranian ambassador Ahmad Musavi? Do you intervene sometimes to give advice?
[Akhtari] No, I do not interfere in anything now. The ambassador is the person assigned to this task. He will certainly be successful because circumstances are excellent now and relations between Iran and Syria do not suffer from any special problem. Hence, depending on how energetic the ambassador and embassy are, matters will develop and continue. My relations with many officials, ministers, and elite groups, with Ulema and religious figures, and even with ordinary Syrians are conducted in a personal capacity, no longer as an ambassador. This is how I always conducted my relations. Many Syrians come and see me in my office when they visit the Islamic Republic. They visit me in this office (his office is located in the building housing the Global Council of Ahl al-Bayt Association in central Tehran). If any brothers ask for any special assistance, I am always prepared to help if this does not clash with my official duties. I have faith in this relationship that I always sought to build and to develop. I made great efforts to nurture it. I am interested in the Syrian-Iranian relationship and its requirements.