This article originally appeared in The American Interest on September 26, 2019.
The Iran-born Lebanese Musa Sadr is well-known today for transforming the Lebanese Shi‘a from an oppressed, marginal group into an influential community that gave rise to the Shi‘a protest movement Harakat al-Mahroumin (Movement of the Dispossessed) and its militia, the Amal Movement. But the other thing Sadr is well-known for is his mysterious disappearance in Libya in 1978, after which the Islamic Republic of Iran, using the roots of the movement Sadr started in Lebanon, would eventually form Hezbollah. Questions to this day remain: Who killed Musa Sadr? To what end? And what might have been if he had not disappeared?
To put together a fuller picture of his disappearance and death, we must first step back in time and look at Sadr’s relations with the Shah of Iran. This forms the first piece of our puzzle. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had set his intelligence and security organization, the SAVAK, to the task of monitoring Sadr. The SAVAK tracked him from his studies in the religious seminaries of Qom, Iran, in the late 1950s to his arrival in Lebanon to replace Abd al-Hussein Sharaf al-Din, who had died in late 1957, and finally to his disappearance in Libya in 1978. After the Islamic Revolution, three thick volumes of documents detailing the SAVAK’s surveillance of Sadr were published in Iran. From these volumes a fuller picture of the story of Sadr’s life has emerged, including his complex relations with the Shah and his revolutionary opponents who, in the 1970s, took refuge in Lebanon and used it to stage their revolt in Iran.
The SAVAK documents form the basis for the recent book by Arash Reisinezhad, The Shah of Iran, the Iraqi Kurds, and the Lebanese Shia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Reisinezhad masterfully traces the course of Sadr’s life through the prism of secret SAVAK reports, some of which were published in Reisinezhad’s book for the first time, as well as memoirs, articles, and interviews of Iranians who were active in Lebanon before the revolution. In many regards, the SAVAK documents on Musa Sadr fill in the gaps of Fouad Ajami’s excellent biography The Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (Cornell University Press, 1987).
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s policy in Lebanon was focused on counteracting the pan-Arab aspirations of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Shah saw the Lebanese Shiite community as the cornerstone of Iran’s non-state foreign policy, including joint anti-Egyptian activity with the Lebanese Maronite Christian community. The Shah delegated the practical responsibility for this policy to the SAVAK, not to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The complexity and sensitivity of the issue required nondiplomatic tools, and the SAVAK was the go-to group on matters concerning political and other forms of subversion outside Iran’s borders.
As the secret documents show, the SAVAK clearly saw Imam Sadr as a leading political figure in Lebanon. In 1966, when he established the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council, the first religious-political organization of the Shiite community in Lebanon, a SAVAK report (quoted in Reisinezhad’s book) noted his importance:
Seyyed Mousa Sadr is a Shia clergy with a “strange” position in Lebanon as such that he has become the “Heart of Beirut.” No Lebanese [politician] dares to disobey his commands. Whenever he leaves or enters Lebanon for his short trips, all Beirut elites should welcome him. He is far more powerful than [the] Lebanese President. One can easily find his images in all Lebanese newspapers and magazines as well as Beirut bazaars…. Sadr has established various foundations in Beirut. He is the head of the Shia council and was entitled Imam by his followers. [There was a rumor that] the Leban[ese] President feared his power. All military generals are Sadr’s Fedayeen. It would be unbelievable if any political actor disobeys his orders…. There is no power beyond Sadr’s power in Beirut and whenever he intends, he travels to any part of the world with a special ceremony…. In short, Sadr means Lebanon and Lebanon means Sadr.
To bolster his position amidst the political elite in Beirut, Sadr needed a strong ally from outside Lebanon that wielded great power within it. That led him naturally to consider neighboring Syria, where President Hafez al-Assad faced a political crisis centered on the constitution’s stipulation that the President of Syria had to be a Muslim. A violent unrest in Syria in 1973 also heightened President Assad’s need for religious legitimacy. Assad’s Alawite origins did not mesh well with the Syrian constitution’s religious test, because the Alawites at that point were not recognized as Muslims by other Muslims.
It was here that Sadr stepped in and volunteered to help President Assad. Making use of his role as chairman of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council, Sadr appointed Sheikh Ali Mansur, a local Alawite cleric, to the post of Ja‘fari Mufti of the city of Tripoli and northern Lebanon. By doing so, Sadr effectively determined—importantly, by means of an administrative/political decision rather than theological one, and not by issuing a fatwa (religious ruling), because he lacked sufficiently senior religious status to do so—that the Alawites were Ja‘fari Shi‘a, and therefore Muslim. Later, at the beginning of 1975, Sadr took an additional step toward recognizing the Alawites as Shi‘a when he held a burial ceremony at the grave of the oldest brother of President Assad, Ahmed bin Ali bin Suleiman, in Latakia.
Reisinezhad rightly focuses on the role of General Mansur Qadr, the Shah’s senior representative in Lebanon, with respect to Sadr. In August 1973, Qadr was appointed Iran’s Ambassador to Lebanon in addition to his role as head of the SAVAK station in Beirut—a position of great power and influence in the country that the Shah saw as supremely important in the Middle East. Qadr wanted to recruit Sadr as an agent, but Sadr refused; he was only prepared to pledge his loyalty to Iran and to the Shah. There is no evidence for the claim by Sadr’s opponents that Sadr had already been recruited by the SAVAK in Iran before coming to Lebanon. Sadr was called upon to replace Abd al-Hussein Sharaf al-Din, who had died and left the Shi‘a of Tyre and southern Lebanon without religious leadership. The son of Sharaf al-Din, J’aafar Sharaf al-Din, lacked aptitude for the position, and according to one testimony he himself asked Musa Sadr’s older brother, Reza Sadr, to convince Musa to lead the Shi‘a of Tyre. The senior Shi‘a clerics Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim Khoei and Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim in Najaf, Iraq, and Ayatollah Sayyed Hossein Borujerdi in Iran were also involved in the task of bringing Sadr to Lebanon. The young and ambitious Sadr saw Lebanon as a new arena of activity in which he could both free himself from the limitations under which clerics operated in Iran and fulfill his goal of engaging in politics. These were the circumstances that had brought Sadr to Tyre in 1959.
Reports do show that the SAVAK was well aware that Sadr had been sent to Lebanon. General Teymur Bakhtair, the founder and head of the SAVAK from 1956 to 1961, met with Sadr, was favorably impressed with him, and gave him his blessing, without which it would have been difficult for Sadr to operate in the new country. Sadr thus became part of Iran’s non-state foreign policy in Lebanon, but was by no means a SAVAK agent.
In his book The Fall of Heaven, Andrew S. Cooper noted that in 1973 Sadr made use of his Iranian friend Ali Kani, who was part of the political establishment in Tehran and close to the Shah, and with whom Sadr would meet frequently in Beirut. Sadr gave Kani a 20-page booklet that was written in Arabic and contained a concise version of Ruhollah Khomeini’s thoughts: a bound version of the Grand Ayatollah’s lectures calling for an overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic government. Sadr warned Kani that “this [Khomeini’s booklet] is the juice of a sick mind” and requested that the work be brought to the attention of the Shah. “The Shah read it and he loved it,” Kani reported to Sadr; the monarch, in other words, saw that he could make use of the booklet. Two hundred thousand copies of the booklet were printed and disseminated in Iranian universities so that the intellectuals would be able to read Khomeini’s words and learn who he really was.
Sadr’s relations with Khomeini were complex. Sadr was not an enthusiastic supporter of him; he did not recognize Khomeini as Marja‘ Taqlid (the highest religious authority in the Shiite world) and opposed the most important element of Khomeini’s doctrine, Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, according to which only clerics could lead the Islamic state). When Sadr entered his office in the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council in Beirut in May 1969, he hung on the wall a picture of Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, who was based in Najaf, Iraq, and whom he saw as the supreme religious authority of Lebanese Shiites. Khomeini’s associates were baffled by Sadr’s disregard.
Sadr had known Khomeini while he was still living in Iran. Reisinezhad notes that Sadr also played a key role in saving Khomeini from execution in the wake of the bloody riots against the Shah that Khomeini’s supporters organized in Iran in June 1963.
A short time after Khomeini was exiled to Bursa in Turkey, and thence to Najaf, Sadr helped him get an initial interview with a foreign newspaper. Lucien George, a reporter for Le Monde who converted to Islam through Sadr, interviewed Khomeini in Najaf. Khomeini acknowledged Sadr’s assistance. Reisinezhad quotes the SAVAK documents to the effect that Khomeini had good relations with Sadr, respected him, and was even considering him as his replacement in case of his death. But the SAVAK’s observations here appear to have been exaggerated—part of its attempts to cast Sadr in negative light in the Shah’s eyes. Other reports pointed to tensions between him and Khomeini, or even described their relations as poor. Hajj Mostafa, Khomeini’s son who managed his affairs in Najaf, bore a deep grudge against Sadr, among other things because he believed Sadr did not respect Khomeini’s religious authority, and because of Sadr’s close relations with the major Shiite sources of authority who opposed Khomeini.
In April 1968, Sadr visited Khomeini in Najaf, and Khomeini’s son Akhmad visited Beirut several times, meeting with Sadr as an emissary of his father. Reisinezhad notes that when the Ba‘ath regime’s pressure on the Shiite clerics in Najaf intensified, Sadr invited Khomeini to move from Najaf to Lebanon. This invitation, Reisinezhad says, was respectfully rejected. I have found no evidence that Sadr invited Khomeini to Lebanon. The source that the author cites, the memoirs of Mansur Qadr, do not mention at all that, in a letter sent from Sadr to Khomeini and seized by a SAVAK agent, Sadr invited the imam to Lebanon. Mohammad Hassan al-Amin, one of the leading Shiite clerics in Lebanon, says in his memoirs that Yasser Arafat proposed inviting Khomeini from Najaf to Lebanon and arranging a place for him to live in the Beqaa Valley.
Mohammad Hassan al-Amin himself, who met with Khomeini in Najaf and invited him to move to Lebanon, does not mention Sadr at all in this context. Al-Amin promised Khomeini that the Palestinian leadership would take care of his security and other needs in Lebanon. Khomeini replied that he would think about it. After a short time, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, Khomeini’s close adviser and his emissary to the Palestinian leadership, brought Khomeini’s response to Arafat. Al-Amin was present at the meeting between Mohtashami and Arafat, which was positive. Following that meeting, the practical preparations began for bringing Khomeini to the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. The sensitive question was what position Syrian President Hafez al-Assad would adopt. Without him it was impossible to do anything in Lebanon—and particularly in the Beqaa Valley, which was controlled by the Syrian army.
Assad refused to allow Khomeini to move to Lebanon. Al-Amin noted in his memoirs that Assad’s refusal was based on his conviction that the Shah, with American and Western help, would succeed in quashing the revolution. Assad, al-Amin noted, also feared the Shah’s retaliation against Syria if Khomeini were to come to the Beqaa Valley. As al-Amin recounted: “I received a letter from Arafat and I met with Khomeini in Najaf. I had a written message and an oral message. In the meeting I learned that Khomeini was thinking of another alternative to Lebanon, but he did not talk about it, and it turned out that he left Najaf for France.”
Opponents of the Shah who were active in Lebanon from the beginning of the 1970s were divided into two main groups. These groups competed with one another over the nature of the revolution in Iran, how to achieve it, and positions of power in its leadership. Their dispute in Lebanon revolved around two main issues: the attitude toward the Palestinians in Lebanon and the attitude of the Lebanese Shi‘a community toward Khomeini’s Guardianship doctrine.
The Iranian revolutionaries received military aid, primarily in the form of weapons training, from Arafat’s Fatah organization, and to a lesser extent in the camps of the radical Palestinian organizations. When Musa Sadr established the Amal Movement in 1974, he put the militia organizations under the command of Mostafa Chamran, who admired Sadr and saw him as “the successor of the Imam Hussein.”
Chamran had an unorthodox background for a military commander. He had earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and plasma physics in the United States and so was invited to direct Sadr’s technical school in Burj al-Shemali near Tyre. Chamran was connected to: Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, a senior Shiite cleric; Mehdi Bazargan, an Iranian scholar and politician who was the country’s first Prime Minister after the 1979 revolution; and the Liberation Movement of Iran. Chamran was eventually appointed the first Defense Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranian revolutionaries came to Lebanon through Syria and directly from Europe, trained with weapons, and prepared themselves for the revolution. The claim by Hani al-Hassan, the first Palestinian Ambassador in Tehran after the revolution, that about 10,000 Iranians trained in Lebanon is exaggerated. Mostafa Chamran posited a more realistic number of a few dozen Iranians in the 1970s. The ideological dispute between the two Iranian groups created rivalries between them, sometimes bitter. This decisively affected the attitude of the radical Islamist groups that opposed Chamran, Sadr, and others from the Liberation Movement of Iran. The prominent figures in this group were Mohammad Montazeri, Jalal al-Din Farsi, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, and Akhmad Nafri, who were joined by Mohammad Salah Husseini, who arrived from Iraq and became the leading figure in the relationship between the Iranian revolutionaries and Fatah. Sadr’s recognition of Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, and, after his death, of Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim Khoei as the highest religious authority (Marja‘ Taqlid), while ignoring Khomeini as a source of authority, prompted antagonism and anger among Khomeini’s supporters in Najaf and Lebanon, whom Ali Akbar Mohtashami incited. Sadr’s opponents also knew that he did not support the Guardianship doctrine. The important piece of information—that it was Sadr himself who, through a common friend, conveyed to the Shah Khomeini’s book expounding on Guardianship doctrine as a form of governance—remained a secret.
The issue of how to regard the Palestinians inflamed the dispute between the Iranian groups in Lebanon. The opponents of Sadr, particularly Mohtashami and Farsi, observed with concern the sometimes violent struggle between Sadr and Chamran, on the one hand, and the Palestinians in Lebanon, on the other. At one of the low points of this dynamic, which followed the fall of the Shiite quarter of Nab‘aah in Beirut to the Christian militias, Chamran wrote a letter from Lebanon to the pro-democracy activist Mehdi Bazargan in Tehran. In the letter, which was written in 1977 and ran to 42 pages, the Iranian revolutionary harshly criticized the Palestinian movement for its ideological impoverishment and its moral failure. He also accused the Palestinian leadership, including Arafat himself, of being unable to control his organization and his subordinates. This leadership, he wrote, had inflicted harm on the Shiite population.
Mohtashami described in his memoirs the tribulations caused to the Shiite population, but what particularly concerned him were Sadr’s statements against the Palestinians in a Friday sermon in Tyre:
I felt that the statements, which until then were spoken in whispers and in secrecy among the clerics and the preachers in southern Lebanon, implied that the supposed reason for the Israeli attack was the presence of the Palestinians and the bases they had set up in the area. And if the Palestinians leave and therefore do not attack Israel, it will not attack southern Lebanon. Statements in that vein worried me and I sensed a danger to the Palestinians’ future. Because statements in that vein influence public opinion among the residents of the south against the Palestinians and create an atmosphere that will prevent them from continuing to attack Israel. Therefore I decided to return immediately to Iraq [to Najaf] and report to the imam [Khomeini] and explain to him the different aspects of this danger.
Mohtashami reported to Khomeini in detail about what was happening in southern Lebanon, and clearly he raged against Sadr. The “fear,” Mohtashami told Khomeini, was that “the propaganda and the rumors that the gentlemen [Sadr and Chamran] have voiced against the Palestinian refugees and fighters could provoke clashes between the Shiites and the Palestinians. The imam heard my report and was very perturbed. I will not forget the consternation and the sorrow that were evident on his face…. All the disasters since the beginning of Islam were caused by these gentlemen.” Mohtashami summed up by saying that he “felt despair over the political path and the antirevolutionary attitude of Mr. Sadr.”
The results of Israel’s Litani Operation in March 1978 aggravated the enmity between the Shi‘a and Palestinians in southern Lebanon. The rift between Sadr and the radical Iranian faction, both in Lebanon and outside it, could no longer be bridged. As they saw it, Sadr had gone too far. The radical group—Jalal al-Din Farsi, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, Mohammad Montazeri, Mohammad Beheshti, and Mohammad Salah Husseini—sealed Sadr’s fate. He was judged guilty on two counts.
First, Sadr had compromised the Palestinian revolution and the Palestinians’ ability to act against Israel from Lebanon. Farsi, Mohtashami, Montazeri, and Husseini also feared an ongoing clash between the Palestinians and the Shi‘a that would weaken the Palestinian military presence in Lebanon and the legitimacy of the struggle against Israel. Montazeri saw the leaders of Amal Movement as “Maronite agents” and the special connections of the Lebanese Shi‘a movement as constricting Iran’s freedom of action in developing its ties with Libya and the Palestinians, whom he regarded as the spearhead of the Islamic jihad against Israel. “We,” Montazeri attested, “those who uphold the line of the imam [Khomeini], have taken practical steps toward forming an Iran-Palestine-Libya axis while the heads of the Liberation Movement have striven shamelessly to distance us from Palestine and from Libya.” In March 1979, Montazeri was Qaddafi’s honored guest in the celebrations for British Evacuation Day (the anniversary of the evacuation of British military forces from Libya in 1970), and at the end of 1979 he was active in recruiting thousands of Iranian volunteers and bringing them to Lebanon to defend its southern region.
Second, Sadr failed to recognize both Khomeini’s supreme religious authority as Marja‘ Taqlid and his Guardianship doctrine (Velayat-e Faqih). His opponents saw this as heresy linked to Sadr’s support for the Shah. Years later, when Khomeini died and Khamenei was appointed to replace him, the Lebanese Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah also refused to recognize the Guardianship doctrine and was almost killed by his former longtime bodyguard, Imad Mughniyeh, who in the 1990s became the leader of Hezbollah’s security apparatus and military wing. Some, such as Mohammad Beheshti, were concerned about the future and saw Sadr not only as a rival and an opponent of the revolutionary path but also as a future competitor in the event of Khomeini’s death. Beheshti was aware of the great admiration Sadr had earned among the supporters of the Liberation Movement of Iran and also among some of the senior clerics who had not recognized Khomeini’s religious authority.
Kai Bird’s The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, was the first to link Beheshti to Sadr’s death. Ames, a CIA officer who died in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, maintained close ties with Ali Hassan Salameh, then-head of intelligence for the Palestine Liberation Organization. At Ames’ request, Salameh gave him a detailed account of Sadr’s fate:
Qadafi 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…. The Libyan dictator wanted the two men to set aside their theological disputes and cooperate on a common, anti-western political agenda…. Musa Sadr and Beheshti were supposed to meet in Tripoli…. Beheshti told Qadafi—over the phone—to detain Musa Sadr by all means necessary. Beheshti assured Qadafi that Imam Sadr was a western agent…. Qadafi called Beheshti who told him Musa Sadr was a threat to Khomeini…. Musa Sadr and his … companions had been summarily executed and buried….
Sadr’s son-in-law, Mehdi Firozan, claimed that Jalal al-Din Farsi, who was close to Qaddafi, was responsible for the imam’s death and hinted that the motivation was to eliminate any possibility that Sadr would succeed Khomeini.
Sadeq Tabatabaei, one of the prominent figures among the Iranian revolutionaries who were active in Lebanon and a relative of Sadr, wrote in his memoirs that Farsi wasted no opportunity to undermine Sadr. Tabatabaei accused Farsi of distorting the facts by claiming that Sadr strove to get some of the Iranian revolutionaries, including Farsi himself, expelled from Lebanon; indeed the reverse was true. He noted that Farsi regularly gave false reports to Khomeini in Najaf in order to incite him against Sadr. Farsi conveyed similar false information to the heads of the Liberation Movement of Iran who lived outside of Iran in order to harm Sadr. He portrayed Sadr as a supporter of the Shah and as acting against the Palestinians. Sadr’s right-hand man, Chamran, complained that Farsi and Mohammad Salah Husseini were spreading rumors and lies “against us everywhere … and portraying us as lowly spies.”
Farsi also influenced senior clerics who were living in Iran. One of them, Hajj Manian, who was indoctrinated by Farsi, had been convinced that Amal was cooperating with the Phalangist militia against the Palestinians. So he was invited to come and see for himself how Shi‘a from the Amal Movement were fighting Christians. Manian, wrote Tabatabaei in his memoirs, “saw with his own eyes how young Amal members were fighting in the front line against the Christians and only behind them were Fatah forces…. He truly trembled when he saw the facts. I am in despair over the campaign of slanders against us…. The result of all the propaganda against us is that all our friends in Iran suspect our intentions.”
Khomeini was already elderly when he came to power, and it can be assumed that his associates discussed the issue of his successor. Some of them supported Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the father of Mohammad Montazeri; another group supported Mohammad Beheshti; and there were some who favored Sadr. Even if this possibility was a remote outlier, Sadr’s adversaries wanted to eliminate it altogether. Four decades after Sadr’s killing, Farsi expressed his view of the Lebanese imam: “When I was in Lebanon the revolutionaries surrounded me and not him. He [Sadr] had good ties with the Shah. He would say that our clerics should go to churches and the priests should pray in our mosques…. It was necessary to rebel, to revolt; to oppose, to object to, to protest against him. It was necessary to kill him for these things. We saw that there was no value [in killing him] because Muammar Qaddafi killed him.”
Even since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, no remains have been found of the vanished imam in Libya. His opponents took power in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the full story of Sadr’s execution is not known and will probably remain so. Some—Mohammad Montazeri, Mohammad Beheshti, and Mohammad Salah Husseini—took the secret to their graves, and some—Jalal al-Din Farsi and Ali Akbar Mohtashami—are alive but not talking. The great irony is that the torchbearers of the path of Farsi, Mohtashami, and their fellow opponents of Sadr now support the new movement that Iran established in Lebanon: Hezbollah, which is now embracing Sadr’s legacy. In Hezbollah’s new telling, Sadr has become one of the movement’s founding fathers, and Hassan Nasrallah praises him each year in special superlatives reserved for the heroes of Islam who are immortalized in Hezbollah pantheon.