By Masoud Kazemzadeh
Recently, the son of an influential religious and political leader of the Islamic Republic has alleged that the failed 1986 plot to bomb targets in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj ceremonies involved the highest echelons of Iran’s leadership.
Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, once the designated heir to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has recently been speaking out about the 1986 Hajj scandal, a terror operation that has remained obscure for three decades.
There are very few publicly known facts about the operation. During the 1986 Hajj pilgrimage, Saudi security officials at Jeddah airport discovered 150 kilograms of TNT that were hidden in the luggage of 150 Iranian pilgrims. Hojatolislam Mehdi Karrubi, the person appointed by Khomeini to be the chairman of Iran’s Hajj mission, officially apologized to king Fahad of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis detained three Iranian officials in Jeddah but released the rest of the pilgrims. The Saudi Interior Ministry published a statement at the time reading “Mohammad Hassan Ali Mohammadi, the highest official on the air plane, has confessed that he and his group were sent for the mission by the leaders of Iran. They wanted to use the explosives in the holy mosques in Mecca.”
The Iranian government denied any involvement and executed a man named Seyed Mehdi Hashemi on September 28, 1987 for the crime of organizing the plot. Hashemi was a mid-ranking cleric and one of the top officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He had been the head of the IRGC’s Office for Liberation Movements Abroad, which was responsible for providing assistance to radical Islamist groups (e.g., Lebanese Hezbollah and Jihadists in Afghanistan).
More than 30 years later, Montazeri is now claiming that Hashemi was innocent and that the official story implicating him is false. The two were connected by family ties, as Hashemi’s brother was married to Montazeri’s sister. Hashemi was also an ardent follower of Montazeri’s father, who was the next in line to become Supreme Leader at the time of the plot.
Available evidence suggests that Montazeri’s claim is credible and that the official version is most probably false.
1. Ahmad Khomeini, the powerful and ruthless son of the Supreme Leader
Ruhollah Khomeini, wanted to become Supreme Leader himself and had been trying to undermine Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. Accusing Hashemi, one of Montazeri’s staunchest supporters, of a rogue terror plot was a way to undermine Montazeri and diminish his chances for becoming Supreme Leader. This episode did in fact undermine Montazeri. However, it was
Montazeri’s forceful opposition to the mass executions of political prisoners during August and September of 1988, that finally convinced Ayatollah Khomeini to dismiss Montazeri from the position of Deputy Supreme Leader. The massacre of political prisoners, too, were orchestrated by Ahmad Khomeini.
2. When the August 1986 Hajj incident occurred, Hashemi was under surveillance by the Intelligence Ministry and was no longer at his earlier position at the IRGC. Had Hashemi done what was alleged, then there would have been plenty of hard evidence.
3.Hashemi was arrested in October 1986 after his followers kidnapped a Syrian official from the Syrian embassy in Tehran. Hashemi’s associates told the Syrian official about the secret meetings between the chairman of Iran’s parliament, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and American officials that later came to be known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The secret meetings occurred in May in Tehran with the authorization and strong support of Khomeini. The U.S. and Israel secretly provided Iran with sophisticated weapons in exchange for Iran getting the Lebanese Hezbollah to release American hostages in Lebanon. Hashemi and Grand Ayatollah Montazeri had strongly opposed the deal, and Hashemi’s friends leaked the news about the secret meetings.
The revelation of this sensitive secret was very embarrassing for the regime, because it showed that Khomeini was clandestinely collaborating with Israeli and American officials while publicly calling for their destruction.
Several allegations were later made against Hashemi, including that he was responsible for the Hajj plot.
4. One major piece of evidence undermining the official story was presented in a 2015 VOA Persian Service interview with Morteza Moussavi, previously a high ranking official with SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, who was tasked with heading up a new counter-espionage unit after the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah in 1979.
In the VOA interview, Moussavi claimed he knew about the plot before it was carried out. He said he had a copy of the minutes of the meeting in which officials hatched the plot. According to Moussavi, the plot was the brainchild of IRGC Gen. Mohsen Rezai. The officials present at the meeting that discussed the plot included Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Moussavi, Intelligence Minister Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Minister of the IRGC Mohsen Rafighdoost, and Minister of Islamic Guidance Mohammad Khatami. The goal of the plot was for the IRGC to take control of Mecca. Moussavi claims that he provided the evidence to both the U.S. and Saudi officials and then left Iran.
5. Hard-line websites critical of Rafsanjani have published Hashemi’s confession, in which he states that after his arrest some IRGC agents told him that the operation was conducted under Rafsanjani’s direction. Confessions are often extracted under torture in Iran, and thus one may dismiss them as unreliable. What makes this one relevant, however, is that despite the torture, Hashemi still implicates Rafsanjani.
Ahmad Montazeri, like his late father, is an honest man. One does not have to agree with him politically (and I do not), to agree with him that a thorough investigation of the 1986 terrorist plot should finally be conducted. Mehdi Hashemi was not a sympathetic figure, but his family deserves to know the truth about why he was executed.
Montazeri and Moussavi’s allegations have to be investigated thoroughly. Scholars, analysts, and journalists have a major role to play. Under the terribly repressive conditions in Iran, an objective investigation is not possible. Therefore, the responsibility to investigate this matter falls on the shoulders of those who reside in free countries.