This article originally appeared in the American Interest on February 27, 2020.
For decades Iran has claimed that Israel has been holding four of its diplomats in captivity. Before he died in January, Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani confirmed to an Iranian journalist that this is a lie.
For more than four decades, Iran has claimed that four of its diplomats kidnapped in Lebanon in July 1982 are being held in captivity in Israel. The claims have been trumpeted by Iran’s Foreign Ministry, published in state-run media, and used as a diplomatic club against Israel in international fora. However, an Iranian journalist close to the Revolutionary Guards who has been probing the kidnapping for more than 25 years has now concluded, based on conversations with an Iranian official in a position to know the truth, that this is a lie.
But before revealing the identity of the journalist’s source and why he is credible, it helps to know the identities the four Iranian diplomats and the circumstances of their disappearance. One was Seyyed Mohsen Mousavi, Iran’s official representative in Beirut. Another was Col. Ahmad Motevasseliyan, whom the Iranians presented as a military attaché in their embassy in Beirut but who was in fact the commander of the 27th Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards, the head of the Iranian expeditionary force in Lebanon, and the top Revolutionary Guards commander in Lebanon. The others were Taqi Rastegar Moqaddam, a journalist of the IRNA news agency, and Kazem Akhavan, a driver for the Iranian embassy.
In early July of 1982, Mousavi, Moqaddam, and Akhavan traveled in a car from Beirut to meet Motevasseliyan, who was then at the Zabadani base on the Syrian-Lebanese border. They wanted to discuss with him how to respond to the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in general, and what to do with the secret materials at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in particular, in light of the possibility that Israel would take over Beirut. The three came to Motevasseliyan’s headquarters in Zabadani, where Mousavi demanded to meet the Revolutionary Guards commander without delay. Mousavi explained what he wanted and tried to convince Motevasseliyan to come with him to Beirut. He stressed that his car had a diplomatic license plate and that the Lebanese gendarmerie’s security unit for diplomats would escort it.
For security reasons, however, the top Iranian command at the base did not want Motevasseliyan to go to Beirut. Mansour Koochak Mohseni, who was Motevasseliyan’s deputy and slated to take over his post in a few days, said that travel by the force commander would be dangerous and tried to convince him to stay at Zabadani. Mohseni claimed that, after Mousavi strongly insisted, it was agreed that Motevasseliyan could leave for Beirut.
On July 5, 1982, these four were making their way from the Revolutionary Guards headquarters in Zabadani, Syria, through Tripoli to Beirut, when they were seized at a roadblock north of Beirut (known as the “Barbara roadblock”) by the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia of the Phalange Party. After that, they disappeared, and definitive news of their whereabouts or fate remained obscure in the ensuing decades.
The day after the kidnapping came the telephone call saying the four had not reached Beirut and had been kidnapped on the way. Mohseni went to Baalbek and met there with members of the Lebanese Shiite organization that formed the nucleus from which the Hezbollah leadership grew. There it was decided to kidnap Lebanese Christians belonging to the Phalange and bring them to Zabadani, where the Revolutionary Guards had headquarters. According to Mohseni’s testimony, a total of 70 were seized and brought there.
In the decades since the kidnapping, Iran has made the incident a staple of its propaganda war against Israel, accusing Jerusalem of holding the four diplomats in one of its secret prisons ever since they were brought there by the Lebanese Christian militia that kidnapped them in 1982.
The disappearance of a group that included Iran’s official representative and Revolutionary Guards commander (who, as noted, was given a false identity as a military attaché in Iran’s embassy in Beirut) sparked outrage in Tehran. In an effort to force their release in the immediate aftermath of their disappearance, the Iranians embarked on a series of kidnappings of foreign citizens in Lebanon; the first was David Dodge, president of the American University in Beirut, who Iran claimed was a CIA agent. The Iranians put Imad Mughniyeh in charge of the kidnapping campaign. Mughniyeh was head of Hezbollah’s special-operations unit, which was called Islamic Jihad and worked closely with the Iranian intelligence services. Collaborating with him was Seyyed Ahmad Mousavi, the brother of the kidnapped Mousavi and a mysterious operative based in Beirut.
By the early 1990s, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Chairman of the Iranian Parliament and a man who wielded great influence over the leadership in Tehran, initiated the “smile policy” of openness with the West. Tehran decided to stop the kidnappings of foreigners in Lebanon, ordering Mughniyeh to free all the foreign detainees. Mughniyeh was also told to make a special effort to thwart Israel’s growing intelligence penetration of Hezbollah. One of the important casualties of Iran’s new policy in Lebanon, including the restructuring of Mughniyeh’s and Iran’s operational mechanisms in the country, was Seyyed Ahmad Mousavi, who had to leave his operational position without having discovered any clear information concerning the fate of his brother.
In the more than two decades since Iran ceased its campaign of kidnapping foreigners in Lebanon, Iran has continued to use the search for the four missing diplomats as part of its ongoing campaign against Israel. Its officials have ignored all disclosures of their ultimate fate, including testimony by Lebanese Forces members who were involved in the kidnapping and in the killing of the four. Instead it has continued to assert, with the aid and support of relatives of the four, that Israel is holding them in a secret prison in its territory.
It is at this point in our story that Hamid Daudabadi, an Iranian journalist close to the Revolutionary Guards who has been probing the kidnapping of the four Iranians for more than 25 years, steps in. He recently reported that he believes the four were killed by members of the Lebanese militia. He bases this conclusion, among other things, on a conversation he held with the notorious Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani before he was assassinated in Iraq earlier this year. Soleimani reportedly confirmed to Daudabadi that, just a few hours after the kidnapping, the four were no longer alive. To Daudabadi’s question as to why Iran continues to claim that the four are being held in a prison in Israel, the senior Revolutionary Guards commander said the claim was baseless.
A fair-minded observer might conclude that Daudabadi’s report is as close to a final, official verdict as we are ever likely to get: Qasem Soleimani himself believed that Iran’s long-standing, mendacious, unsubstantiated claim that the four are being held in Israel is a lie.