Tony Badran

Beheshti never came to Tripoli

Further evidence that Hezbollah’s progenitors were behind Musa Sadr’s disappearance

Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, number two of the Islamic republican system, makes a speech at the University, 30 November 1979 in Tehran (STAFF / EPU/LETHIKUVA / AFP)

This Sunday marks the 36th anniversary of the disappearance of Lebanese-Iranian cleric Musa as-Sadr during a visit to Libya in 1978. While it has long been understood that Sadr was liquidated by former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, there have also been questions about the role of Iranian revolutionary figures in Sadr’s demise. This year, new evidence has been introduced that sheds more light on the critical Iranian angle in the story.


The evidence appears in Kai Bird’s latest book, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, profiling senior CIA officer Robert Ames, who was killed in the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut. The book has received wide attention among Lebanon watchers, and for good reason. Bird relates that Ames asked Ali Hassan Salameh, then-PLO intelligence chief in Beirut, if he had any information on Sadr’s fate. Salameh offered a detailed account: “Qaddafi had agreed to host a meeting between Musa Sadr and one of his theological rivals, the imam Mohammed Beheshti… a close political ally of Ayatollah Khomeini. … Sadr and Beheshti were supposed to meet in Tripoli and iron out their political differences under Qaddafi’s auspices. Musa Sadr arrived – but Beheshti and his delegation never came to Tripoli.” Beheshti, Salameh’s report added, told Qaddafi that “Musa Sadr was a threat to Khomeini.” Bird adds that the intelligence reports Ames read on Sadr’s disappearance, “implicated Beheshti.” 


This account puts forward two important claims. First, Sadr’s elimination was directly linked to the inter-factional struggle among Iranian revolutionary cadres in the lead-up to the victory of the Revolution. Sadr was aligned with the faction despised by Khomeini’s lieutenants, who were working closely with the PLO in Lebanon – and responsible for the birth of Hezbollah. Second, by pointing to Beheshti, this account suggests the involvement of Khomeini’s innermost circle in Sadr’s removal.


Four years ago in this space, I highlighted this Iranian angle in Sadr’s murder, and again last year I further explored the role of the PLO-aligned faction; specifically the trio of Mohammad Montazeri, Jalaleddin Farsi, and Mohammad Saleh Hosseini. While all three were staunch Khomeini loyalists, none matched Beheshti in terms of seniority and influence.


“Beheshti,” Bird quotes a CIA analyst as saying, was the Revolution’s “chief executive officer.” Dubbed the cunning fox, he was seen as ruthless and Machiavellian, but also recognized as a key operator intimate with Khomeini. Beheshti was a central figure behind essential revolutionary instruments through which Khomeini cemented his control in Iran, including the Revolutionary Council and the Islamic Republic Party, which he created and headed until his assassination in 1981. 


Along with Morteza Motahhari – one of Khomeini’s most trusted aides in the 1970’s – Beheshti founded the Association of Combatant Clerics. The organization was to unite militant clergymen and Islamic activists in Khomeini’s line. By 1977, the Association was well established in Tehran, recruiting youth, distributing Khomeini’s sermons and statements, and supervising street rallies. 


In part, these clerics sought to counter the influence of Marxist ideas which were also being fused with Islamic discourse, and which were resonating with university students and even seminarians. Ironically, both Beheshti and Sadr belonged to what was dubbed a modernist trend among the clergy, and at one point in the 1950’s, before Sadr moved to Lebanon, the two had worked together on a proposal to reform the hawza seminaries, but the proposal went nowhere. Sadr soon moved to Lebanon and established an institute in Tyre. And although he too was interested in countering Marxist influence among Lebanese Shiites (and had hired Mohammad Saleh Hosseini to teach at his school), his views were not regarded well by pro-Khomeini activists. 


The late Sayyed Muhammad Fadlallah noted that when Sadr formed the Amal Movement, he was asked by the Islamist activists whether it was to be an Islamic movement, to which Sadr replied that it would be “according to how Musa Sadr understands Islam” – an answer which only exacerbated the suspicions of the Khomeini camp. Fadlallah added that some of the Iranian revolutionary cadres – that is, people like Farsi and Hosseini and their group – “who were influenced by the Palestinians, carried to Iran all kinds of negative ideas about Sayyed Musa Sadr.” Their interest was the promotion of Khomeini’s authority and leadership. Beheshti, through the various revolutionary instruments he formed, was critical in that regard, especially in the transitional period of 1979-1981. 


One could see why Khomeini and his closest associates would view Sadr as a threat, as Beheshti reportedly told Qaddafi. It was not only Sadr’s close relationship with the Liberation Movement of Iran and his potential political role there, or his tensions with the PLO, or his towering influence among Lebanese Shiites, that made him a potential menace in the eyes of the Khomeinist circle. But perhaps also it was his potential voice as a modernist cleric, which maybe could have resonated among the activist student base and among seminarians simultaneously. Having worked closely in Islamic education and indoctrination, and having mobilized activist students, both Beheshti and Farsi would have seen any possible encroachment into this realm by someone like Sadr as a threat.


Beheshti’s Association of Combatant Clerics appeared in Lebanon in 1978-79 as “the Association of Combatant Clerics in Lebanon,” with the same function of disseminating posters and slogans in support of Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Behind this activity was a militant Iranian-Iraqi junior cleric named Sadeq Musawi. Musawi was also close to the aforementioned Mohammad Montazeri, and claimed to have handled the Lebanon desk of the Islamic Republic Party and to have been a liaison between the Revolutionary Council in Iran – chaired by Beheshti – and the Lebanese arena. He continued to attack Sadr’s allies, such as Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddin and Hussein Husseini, even after Sadr’s disappearance, highlighting the extent of the enmity between the militant clergy and Sadr’s legacy. 


The faction Beheshti organized at Khomeini’s behest, and the instruments he formed in Iran and which were cloned in Lebanon, are the direct progenitors of Hezbollah. Little did Robert Ames know that the progeny of the same group of people he discovered to be behind Sadr’s death would also take his own life in Beirut a few years later.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Among staunch Khomeini loyalists, none matched Beheshti in terms of seniority and influence. (STAFF / EPU/LETHIKUVA / AFP)

The late Sayyed Muhammad Fadlallah noted that when Sadr formed the Amal Movement, he was asked by the Islamist activists whether it was to be an Islamic movement, to which Sadr replied that it would be 'according to how Musa Sadr understands Islam.'"

  • joseph.christo2

    Une analyse assez plausible, d'ailleurs appuyée par les agissements du régime policier iranien.Grand nombre de d'assassinés et disparus par l'arc irano-syrien.Les choses continuent aujourd'hui au Liban. j'ai entendu moi-même de la bouche d'un ami de Robert AMES,ce que ces régimes complotent pour asseoir leur pouvoir....Malheureusement il ya parmi les Libanais des brebis galeuses qui laissent faire...Nous espérons ramener ces galeux vers la vérité d'un LIBAN souverain et libre protecteur de toutes les communautés qui forment son identité... L'espérance est toujours un beau risque à courir.... JC de Magdala

    August 31, 2014

  • Patriot60

    Solid piece. Bird''s A Good Spy is a must read for those who care about Lebanon or the Arab World in general. The amount of detail is simply amazing.

    August 28, 2014