Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, who has died at the age of 74, was a central figure in Iran’s 1979 revolution and its aftermath. The cleric and politician helped shape Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, into the proxy force the young Islamic republic felt it needed to battle the United States and Israel.
Hizbollah, designated a terrorist group by the US, is seen as an important form of regional leverage by Iran’s leadership, which has tried to replicate its success by creating similar groups elsewhere in the Middle East, notably in Iraq.
Within Iran, however, reaction to Mohtashamipur’s death earlier this month was muted and his role in establishing the proxy force barely mentioned.
“Today’s hardliners do not want to give him the enormous credit of founding Hizbollah,” said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist former vice-president, who added that Mohtashamipur was “one of the republic’s most complicated characters”.
Mohtashamipur was born in Tehran in 1947 and studied at seminaries in his home city, as well as in Qom. He soon came under the influence of a charismatic teacher, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, future founder of the Islamic republic.
In the early 1960s he fell foul of the Shah’s regime and he was arrested and detained for a time in 1962. Three years later, he joined Khomeini in exile in the Iraqi city of Najaf. In 1978, he followed Khomeini again, this time to France.
Back in Iran after the 1979 revolution, Khomeini’s inner circle debated whether the best way to “export” the Islamic republic’s ideals of justice and fighting imperialism in regional states was through existing groups or by creating new forces, a policy championed by Mohtashamipur.
In 1981 he was posted as ambassador to Syria. Iran was by then in a deadly war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad was the only Arab leader to back the Islamic republic. Assad’s support helped Mohtashamipur convince Tehran that the best way to further the revolution’s aims in neighbouring Lebanon, which had a significant Shia minority, was to create a new force, rather than supporting Amal, then the main Shia political grouping.
“He believed the Shia in Lebanon had no political or financial support,” said Fazel Meybodi, a cleric and former friend of Mohtashamipur. “He created Hizbollah and started sending financial and military support through Syria, a route that is still used.”
Hizbollah’s power grew in the chaos of Lebanon in the 1980s and it was later blamed by the US for the 1983 bombing of its Marine barracks in Beirut, in which 241 American soldiers were killed. Hizbollah and Iran denied responsibility.
Back in Iran after the end of the disastrous war with Iraq, Mohtashamipur opposed moves towards a more open economy to pay for the country’s reconstruction. But when his old revolutionary comrades became reformists and swept to power in 1997 on promises of political development, he quietly joined in, publishing a pro-reform newspaper that was shut down by hardliners. He was then elected to the reformist-dominated parliament.
In 2009 he publicly opposed the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, which he said was the result of “extensive fraud” that rendered the poll “meaningless”. After this, he was “pushed to isolation . . . while it was thanks to his background that he was not put into jail,” said Ali Mirfattah, a journalist who worked with Mohtashamipur at Bayan, a weekly journal.
Sidelined from politics, he moved back to Najaf, living as a cleric. Diagnosed with coronavirus earlier this month, he was transferred by car to the border province of Kermanshah and then to Tehran, where he died on June 7.
“He was a symbol of the unsuccessful idealism of the generation who made the revolution,” says Mirfattah. “Perhaps deep down he had realised that the causes he fought for would not materialise but he never acknowledged it and instead chose isolation.”