Last Tuesday marked the anniversary of the disappearance of Shia cleric Moussa as-Sadr—often dubbed the father of the Shia resurgence in Lebanon—during a visit to Libya in 1978. While the view assigning responsibility for his disappearance to the regime of Moammar Qaddafi is a matter of general consensus, another less-discussed angle involving early factional infighting among Iran’s Islamic revolutionary cadres deserves attention for its critical impact on the outcome of the Islamic Revolution, both in Iran and in Lebanon.
The consensus view rightly holds that Sadr’s relations with the Palestinian Liberation movement in Lebanon and its allies (both local and regional) and weapons suppliers (such as Libya), had become irreparable by 1978, especially after Israel’s Operation Litani against the Palestinians had inflicted much damage on the Shia residents of southern Lebanon who were stuck in the middle. By then, Sadr’s pronouncements against the Palestinians had become regular, and the Libyan-funded press in Beirut attacked him constantly. Consequently, they had every motive to eliminate him.
Nevertheless, reference to the possible involvement (often characterized as indirect) or collusion of Ayatollah Khomeini and some of his closest associates in Sadr’s disappearance can be found in the relevant literature, ranging from personal memoirs of former Iranian officials, such as Shapur Bakhtiar, to books and articles on the Amal Movement (established by Sadr, and whose existence was made public in 1975), on Sadr himself, as well as on Iranian-Lebanese and Iranian-Syrian relations.
For example, in Syria and Iran, Jubin Goodarzi cites a former Iranian official “intimately involved with Lebanese affairs” to corroborate his statement that “Khomeini had had an indirect role in the elimination of Musa Sadr, whom he despised.” Khomeini, according to Goodarzi’s source, “intentionally misinformed Qadhafi that Musa Sadr had used financial aid provided by Libya for his own personal gain.”
Several authors have pointed out the ambiguous relationship between Sadr and Khomeini and the personal tensions that existed between them (and Khomeini’s entourage) as well. For example, at the 40-day memorial service of the Iranian ideologue Ali Shariati in 1977, over which Sadr presided, he did not allow any pictures of Khomeini to be put up, and only conceded to one small picture after being pressured by one of Khomeini’s most radical associates, Mohammad Montazeri – a close ally of Qaddafi and an advocate of strong ties with Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and whose father was one of the main architects behind the creation of Hezbollah.
But why would Khomeini and some of his associates have an interest in Sadr’s removal from the scene, when he had been a supporter of Iranian revolutionary cadres, having helped provide them with access to training and sanctuary in Lebanon? The answers may lie in a factional power struggle within the early revolutionary cadres, which intensified in the immediate years after the success of the Islamic Revolution, between 1979 and 1981, and the differences they had regarding the trajectory of the revolution and its alliances abroad.
Sadr had cultivated close ties with leaders of the Islamic Revolution, such as Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and Mostafa Chamran – who was intimately involved in the establishment and organization of the Amal Movement. However, these figures, who would go on to assume leading positions in the new Islamic regime between 1979 and 1981, had belonged to a particular faction within the Iranian Islamic opposition movement, namely the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI).
The rival faction – which included students and protégés of Khomeini, such as the aforementioned Montazeri as well as the operational mastermind of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, and a host of radical clerics such as Hadi Ghaffari – would coalesce under what became known as the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), which served as Khomeini's task force. They were behind instruments such as the Association of Combatant Clergy (which also sprung up in Lebanon at the time in 1978-79, along with the Committees Supportive of the Islamic Revolution) and the paramilitary Hezbollahi, which served as the IRP's strong arm and was supervised by the aforementioned Ghaffari. In fact, the IRP-aligned hardliners officially dubbed themselves “Hezbollah” and referred to their adversaries in the LMI as “liberals.”
The IRP was concerned with eliminating so-called “liberal” influence over the revolution. In his book on the Amal Movement, Augustus Richard Norton notes a belief among “well-informed observers” that “even after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, there was real fear that the ‘Amalists would take over the revolution.’” The ensuing battle was bitter and violent. Sadr’s associates in the regime would eventually all get either physically liquidated (as happened with Chamran and Ghotbzadeh) or politically sidelined in a time span of a mere three years after Sadr’s disappearance.
It can be said, then, that the struggle for control over the Shia of Lebanon was integral to the power struggle inside Iran itself, especially since figures like Montazeri and Mohtashami despised and distrusted Amal and its Iranian allies. For instance, about a year after Sadr’s disappearance, Montazeri tried to organize the first dispatch of a contingent of Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to Lebanon to help his allies in the PLO. It was Sadr’s former associates, such as the aforementioned Ghotbzadeh, who scuttled that effort. Iran’s factionalism was projected onto the Lebanese arena.
Indeed, the latter half of 1978 and early 1979 was a critical moment in this struggle. Sadr had been eliminated, and Amal was in disarray. Pro-Khomeini Lebanese cadres such as Abbas Moussawi and Hassan Nasrallah returned to Lebanon from Najaf, and there was a systematic infiltration of Amal in order to seize control over its direction. When that effort failed, Amal splintered, and the process eventually crystallized in the IRP’s creation of an alternative Shia movement, directly under Khomeini’s command and fully loyal to him. The Hezbollah of Iran created the Hezbollah of Lebanon, or, as it called itself, the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon.
While Libyan responsibility for Sadr’s disappearance is not under any serious dispute, the early power struggle among Iran’s revolutionary cadres provides a critical context to better understand the full impact of the elimination of a towering figure in Lebanon who was deemed, along with his allies in the Islamic revolutionary movement, a threatening rival to Khomeini and his hard-line lieutenants. Perhaps, then, it could be said that Sadr’s elimination was the first shot in the battle over the Islamic Revolution on two intertwined fronts: Iran and Lebanon.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.