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Tony Badran

Selective memory: Iran's role in the Marine barracks bombing

As the US moves closer to Iran it has placed the onus of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing on Imad Mughniyeh, even though it was an Iranian operation from top to bottom.

Smoke rises over the rubble of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. (Wikipedia)

Last Thursday marked the 31st anniversary of Hezbollah's twin attack on the US Marine barracks and the French paratroopers base in Beirut in 1983. The date passed quietly; ancient history as far as the Obama White House is concerned. After all, this is the era of US rapprochement with Iran. Under the banner of combating Sunni terrorist groups, which are now defined as the principal threat, Washington has effectively aligned with Iran and its assets. Today, the US is not only providing air cover for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and communicating with its command in Iraq, it has even indirectly shared intelligence with the Guards' Hezbollah arm in Lebanon.  

 

As such, when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif placed a wreath earlier this year on the grave of former Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh — the man who oversaw the attacks — the White House issued an awkwardly worded condemnation. The statement placed the onus for the terrorist bombings on Mughniyeh alone, drawing a subtle distinction between him and Iran. The White House, in its quest to appease Tehran, deliberately obfuscated both the nature of Iran’s relationship with Mughniyeh as well as Tehran's role in the 1983 bombings.  

 

Mughniyeh has long been the subject of all kinds of theories, and his beginnings as an Iranian operative remain shrouded in confusion. It’s widely known that Mughniyeh first began his life as a militant with the Palestinian Fatah organization. However, the details of this association have not been well understood, and some of the specifics are murky. 

 

For instance, it’s usually said that Mughniyeh was part of Fatah’s elite intelligence unit, Force 17, which also handled security for Yasser Arafat and the senior leadership. However, figures with direct knowledge of Mughniyeh’s association with Fatah paint a different picture. They deny that Mughniyeh was part of Force 17 or that he was Arafat’s bodyguard. Rather, Mughniyeh was one of several young religious Shiites who received training at the hands of Fatah, without being actual members of the organization. This was in 1976, when Mughniyeh was not yet 15 years old. Training these young Shiites, as well as various Iranian anti-Shah cadres working in Lebanon at the time, was supervised by Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir). 

 

Some of the accounts that maintain Mughniyeh was a member of Force 17 have claimed that he was brought in by the head of the unit, Ali Hassan Salameh. However, there might be some confusion here as well, involving another man with a similar name: Ali Deeb, a.k.a., Abu Hassan Khodor Salameh. Also a Lebanese Shiite, and a few years Mughniyeh’s senior, Deeb was working with Fatah. According to this account, promoted by Hezbollah’s circles, Deeb, who later became a senior Hezbollah operative and was assassinated by Israel in 1999, was the one who took in the younger Mughniyeh. 

 

But Mughniyeh’s true recruiter was someone else; an Iraqi-Iranian operative called Mohammad Saleh Hosseini. A devotee of Imam Khomeini, Hosseini had been in Lebanon since 1970 where he worked briefly with Imam Musa Sadr. Hosseini had contacts with Fateh since his days in Iraq. When he came to Lebanon, Hosseini worked directly with young Shiites and, like other senior Khomeinist cadres operating in Lebanon at the time, maintained close ties with the leaders of Fatah’s Student Battalion, where Mughniyeh and his friends sought training. Hosseini’s task was to cultivate these militant and religious young Shiites to become followers of Khomeini. Sure enough, Mughniyeh became a fervent disciple in the line of Imam Khomeini. This was Mughniyeh’s induction into the Khomeinist revolutionary circle, which was run by men who would become senior leaders in the IRGC.

 

According to leading Hezbollah expert Shimon Shapira, Hosseini maintained a close connection with Mughniyeh between 1976 and 1981, when Hosseini was assassinated in Beirut. By then, the Iranians had made the decision to establish their own group in Lebanon, drawing on the young assets, like Mughniyeh, that they had cultivated since the 1970’s. 

 

Shapira, who has tracked Mughniyeh’s career for many years, says that following Hosseini’s assassination, two other Iranian figures came to exert the biggest influence on Mughniyeh. They are Ali Akbar Mohtashami, former ambassador to Syria, and Hossein Dehghan, the current defense minister.

 

In one account, Mohtashami met with Mughniyeh and Abbas Musawi in Tehran in 1981, and held initial discussions about training and building up the Khomeinists’ own organization in Lebanon: Hezbollah. As ambassador to Damascus, Mohtashami was well placed to facilitate the arrival of an IRGC contingent to Lebanon. And in 1982, the IRGC training corps entered the Bekaa, led by Dehghan. 

 

By 1983, Dehghan had become the commander of the IRGC force in Lebanon. During this critical period between 1982-83, “Dehghan took Mughniyeh under his wing,” Shapira says. “He was his operator.”

 

If Dehghan was Mughniyeh’s handler, Mohtashami was “one level above that,” Shapira says. This is the command hierarchy behind the attacks in 1983. Although Mughniyeh is often described as the “mastermind” of the attacks, in fact, he was the tactical commander who directly oversaw the mission. The planning and financing of the operation was Iranian. 

 

At the time, the US National Security Agency intercepted traffic between Tehran and Mohtashami. The intercepts revealed how Hezbollah reported to Mohtashami, and acted on orders that came from the IRGC command and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. They also uncovered that not only was Tehran providing financing and logistical support, but also it was issuing directives to Mohtashami to have their assets in Lebanon “take spectacular action against the United States Marines.” That particular intercept happened on September 24, 1983, a month before the attack happened. 

 

Mohtashami would later explain that Mughniyeh was responsible for carrying out special operations. But the chain of command ran from Tehran to Mohtashami in Damascus, to IRGC commander Dehghan, who handled Mughniyeh in Beirut. It was an Iranian operation from top to bottom.

 

The regime and its institutions responsible for the attacks remain unchanged — best evidenced by Dehghan’s senior position in the Iranian power structure. The regime’s outlook and objectives are likewise unreconstructed. Instead, the change has happened on the other side, in Washington. Three decades after the Beirut bombings, the shift in the current US administration's attitude toward these same Iranian institutions is nothing short of surreal. 

 

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

Smoke rises over the rubble of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. (Wikipedia)

The White House, in its quest to appease Tehran, deliberately obfuscated both the nature of Iran’s relationship with Mughniyeh as well as Tehran's role in the 1983 bombings.

  • PunditWatch

    The White House condemnation which you inexplicable describe as an "awkwardly worded condemnation" is not awkwardly worded at all! See the White House condemnation here: "The United States condemns the decision taken by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Khonsari to place a wreath at the grave of Imad Mugniyah, a former leader of Lebanese Hezbollah responsible for heinous acts of terrorism that killed hundreds of innocent people, including Americans. The inhumane violence that Mugniyah perpetrated – and that Lebanese Hezbollah continues to perpetrate in the region with Iran's financial and material support -- has had profoundly destabilizing and deadly effects for Lebanon and the region. The decision to commemorate an individual who has participated in such vicious acts, and whose organization continues to actively support terrorism worldwide, sends the wrong message and will only exacerbate tensions in the region." My understanding of the Beirut, Lebanon U.S. Marine barracks bombing of October 23, 1983 was that President Ronald Reagan ordered the Marines to Beirut and by doing so they were put in harm's way. And, the U.S. Marines and other coalition forces were needlessly put in harm's way because ultimately there was no worthwhile reason for the Marines to be in Lebanon. The then Secretary of Defense, Casper Weinberger attempted to dissuade Reagan from stationing the marines in Beirut, but he was not successful in the endeavor. This helped set the stage for the act of terrorism and tragedy which then occurred.

    October 18, 2015

  • truth2power

    The white house memo you condemn reads as "The United States condemns the decision taken by Iranian Foreign Minister etc. etc... The inhumane violence that Mugniyah perpetrated – and that Lebanese Hezbollah continues to perpetrate in the region with Iran's financial and material support -- has had profoundly destabilizing and deadly effects for Lebanon and the region." Did you miss the words "WITH IRAN'S FINANCIAL AND MATERIAL SUPPORT" ?? Or do just not let facts get in the way of a good theory?

    November 11, 2014