Imad Mughniyeh in Iran: The Stuff of Legends
By: Elie Chalhoub
Published Tuesday, February 14, 2012
On the fourth anniversary of his assassination in Damascus, Al-Akhbar meets Iranians who worked with the man who spent 25 years building Hezbollah into a formidable resistance force.
Eyes take on the colors of the setting sun on a wintry day. Their redness holds back tears that well up at the memory of the fallen friend whose assassination has yet to be avenged. There is heartfelt affection in Iran for the man whose over 25 years of joint struggle earned him the confidence of the “Imam Leader” and the respect of Iran’s generals and military.
A strong desire to share stories about the legendary commander is tempered by fear of inadvertently revealing secrets and putting lives in danger. Yet the Iranian officials who got to know Imad Mughniyeh believe he is owed his due in this world, just as they hope he is rewarded in the next.
Iran’s relationship with “Hajj Imad” was no brief affair. The Islamic Republic had denied that until the day he was martyred where it paid tribute to the fallen leader at his funeral. The Iranian delegation was led by Ali Akbar Velayati, representative of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by then Foreign Minister Manushehr Mottaki on behalf of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A symbolic tombstone was also erected at Behesht-e-Zahra, graveyard of Iran’s own martyrs in Tehran.
Mughniyeh’s connection to Iran began with the outbreak of the revolution in 1979. He was a frequent visitor to the Islamic Republic and became a fluent Farsi speaker, acquiring a distinct Tehrani accent, according to those Iranians who met him.
One Iranian official who knew Mughniyeh from the early 1980s onwards was struck by his religious faith and personal modesty.
“He was a pleasant person, gentle and polite; God was always present in his life. The smile never left his face – even though his life was always on the line and he was always prepared for martyrdom. He was a model of modesty and selflessness,” the official recalls.
When supervising resistance operations, however, the relaxed manner disappeared. “He would be very alert, all his thoughts focused in one direction, somewhat tense...and extremely worried that any mishap could foil an action whose planning and preparation took months,” he adds.
Few of the people who met Mughniyeh in Iran were aware that he was Lebanese. Many knew him as “Hajj Radwan.”
“Once he came to Tehran with Sayyed Hassan [Nasrallah] after the 2006 war,” recalls an official who accompanied them.
“We went to the home of Haddad Adel, the speaker of parliament. There, the Sayyed met with a host of Iranian officials who came to congratulate Hezbollah on its victory. They all wanted to have their pictures taken with him. Hajj Radwan was the one who took the camera and began taking photos. Even Haddad Adel did not know at the time that he was Imad Mughniyeh,” the official adds.
Mughniyeh took great care not to reveal his true identity to those not in the know. “He always made sure to keep out of the picture, even in the literal sense: he never gave anyone an opportunity to photograph him,” he adds.
The same point is made by another associate of Mughniyeh. “Whenever we met, whatever the occasion, inside Iran or outside it, if we wanted to take photos, he would grab the camera before anyone else and become the photographer,” he recalls.
Iranians familiar with both Mughniyeh’s identity and his contribution to the Lebanese resistance are universally admiring of his prowess.
“He was an amazing organizer...Those who knew Hezbollah at its inception could not have imagined that one man, named Imad Mughniyeh, would be able to accomplish what he did in building the resistance as an organization,”says one longtime associate.
“Hezbollah set itself up independently. Right from the start it stood on its own feet. Iran knows about the strategic matters, and they may have consulted with us about some details, but few in Iran know exactly how Hezbollah functions,” he continues.
The source adds that Mughniyeh was “very close” to Khamenei, “who was very fond of him and trusted his analyses of developments.”
Moreover, Mughniyeh often acted as a translator at “sensitive meetings” between Iranian officials and representatives of close regional allies, especially Syria.
Most of the Syrian officials present at these talks were unaware of the interpreter’s true identity. The few exceptions included intelligence officer Colonel Mohammad Suleiman, who was assassinated in Tartous in 2008.
“In these sensitive meetings, Hajj Imad sometimes used to translate in a way from which you could tell he was trying to make the meeting succeed,” the source says.
“He would put things in a way that was aimed at ensuring the approval of the other party. Sometimes he would add ideas and explanations of his own, and tell the other party that this was what the first party was offering. So he would effectively manage the negotiations by being the interpreter. And as a result, all sides got what they wanted,” he adds.
Mughniyeh would sometimes visit the religious center of Qom during his trips to Iran and meet scholars there, according to this source. A particular favorite was the late Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Bahjat, a prominent Shia scholar of the Irfani tradition.
One Iranian official who made frequent trips to Lebanon over the years describes Mughniyeh taking him on a front-line tour in South Lebanon in 2003. “He drove himself, pointing out every position, Hezbollah’s positions, and the Israeli positions...he was extremely courageous,” he says.
On an earlier trip, prior to the Israeli military withdrawal in 2000, the official says Mughniyeh showed him how Hezbollah had excavated tunnels deep into mountainsides to conceal missile launchers.
“They were fitted with railway racks, so the platforms could be pulled outside, a round of missiles fired, then withdrawn back into the mountainside,” he recalls.
“We couldn’t understand how they managed to dig out all those positions, and to transport those huge missiles all that distance on foot, and under the Zionists’ eyes...It was a massive achievement,” he said.
“It was then that I understood that if the Israelis tried to launch a military assault in Lebanon, they would suffer an ignominious defeat.”
Mughniyeh also provided his Iranian guests with a detailed view of Hezbollah’s modus operandi. They were shown military supply routes “which the Israelis wouldn’t be able to uncover even if they passed right along them,” fighters concealed in camouflaged underground positions, and a training camp located in a valley near Baalbek accessed by a rope slung between two adjacent hilltops.
After 2000, the official says, “I went with him on tour and saw the observation and monitoring rooms from which the fighters observe the Israeli positions” across the border.
The official explains that his trips to Lebanon were aimed at gaining a clear picture of Hezbollah’s activities. “Every time, I used to feel that I had learned something new by seeing how this movement operates...But I’ll tell you something frankly: Nobody in Iran knows how this party works. Yes, there are people who know on paper, but nobody understands fully,” he says.
Another Iranian official happened to be in Lebanon on the day of the Israeli pullout in May 2000 and joined Mughniyeh in the Hezbollah operations room.
“It was awe-inspiring. A historic moment. Everything was set up. One of the screens was showing Israeli TV’s coverage of the flight. I will never forget the sight of an officer kneeling down and screaming: we have left Lebanon!”
Mughniyeh, for his part, made personal contact with fighters on the ground to congratulate them.
“We had a discussion at the time about the day after the withdrawal...He said: ‘We will never allow the Israelis to attack Lebanon,’” the Iranian official remembers.
A different Iranian official recalls a meeting with Mughniyeh just days before he was assassinated in February 2008.
“We had dinner together, and discussed regional affairs,” he says.
Mughniyeh said he was convinced that “the rules of the game had changed” in the conflict with Israel. He argued that the June 2006 war had shown the limitations of Israel’s military might, and it was thus losing its capacity to perform its original function as an imperial outpost, and hence its value to its Western sponsors had decreased.
“He was very optimistic,” the source says. “His theory was Israel would fall on its own accord once it is incapable of performing the role expected of it by the US and the West.”
The Iranian official also speaks of the close bond between Mughniyeh and Hassan Narsallah. He describes them as “one spirit in two bodies...they were friends, comrades, and brothers.”
He says he often wonders how Nasrallah manages without him. “Nobody knew Imad like the Sayyed did.”
What Mughniyeh meant to Iran was perhaps summed up in a small way at an officially-sponsored youth conference in Tehran earlier this month. The delegates later met with Khamenei at a gathering attended by a host of high state officials. They included the commander of the al-Quds Brigade, the famous General Qasem Soleimani. The entire chamber stirred as he made his entrance, prompting a senior official to stand up and introduce him with a flourish: “This is Iran’s Imad Mughniyeh.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.