A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 7: The Lebanese civil war #3

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The last post ended on the eve of possibly the darkest hour (among many dark hours) of the Lebanese civil war. After the invasion by Israel, the evacuation of the PLO from Lebanon had just been completed and the Israeli-backed Christian leader Bashir Gemayel elected president, only to be killed by a remotely-detonated bomb on the 14 September 1982. The fanatical devotion of the Phalangist miliamen to Gemayel has already been noted, and their fury in the aftermath of his killing was unleashed on the largely-defenseless (especially since the Multinational Force which could have protected them withdrew from Beirut two weeks before schedule) civilians left behind in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Between the 16 and 18 September, the Israeli army surrounded the camps and admitted the Phalangist militia, as well as some of Haddad’s SLA troops flown in for the occasion, who massacred between 1000-3000 men, women and children (casualty figures are still debated) in cold blood.
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Image: Robin Moyer
There is nothing quite like the power of eyewitness testimony. The American reporter Janet Lee Stevens, who saw the aftermath, gives an idea of the horrors:
‘I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.’
The following documentary made by Al-Jazeera includes the testimony of survivors. In this sense it is vital, but also one of the most harrowing hours of television I have ever seen:
Even in the midst of the horrors of the Lebanese war, the Sabra and Shatila massacre was shocking in its brutality, cowardliness and senselessness. Many of those who physically carried out the murders were wayward members of the LF who had been active in the movement earlier in the war but released from service when the militia became more disciplined and professional under Gemayel. Deemed unfit for service due to indiscipline and drug-abuse, they were formed into a special regiment under the command of Elie Hobeika, the Phalangists’ liasion officer with Mossad, who kept the unit in reserve for tasks such as this. This is Hobeika on the right, along with another Phalangist commander Samir Geagea on the left, who will also be prominent in what lies ahead:
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Geagea and Hobeika. Image: Histoire des Forces Libanaises

While the Phalangist militiamen were the ones who went into the camps and slit the women and children’s throats, the question of broader responsibility for the massacre would assume even greater political significance. In terms of negligence, certainly the MNF which pulled out early bears some share of blame; Arafat had begged them to return, citing the danger in which Palestinian civilians were under after the murder of Gemayel. Israel, which was in control of the area in which the camps lay at that time, obviously bears responsibility for failing to prevent the massacres. Even their own investigation held Ariel Sharon personally responsible for failing to intervene to stop the Phalangists and forced him to resign as defense minister the following year. Many observers, however, have argued that Israeli responsibility went beyond negligence and failing to prevent the massacre, to claim that they deliberately facilitated it. Certainly there is no doubt that the Israelis sealed off the camps and sent the militias in, as well as helpfully illuminating the area with flares for the next two nights while they did the killing. It has always been argued that the Phalangist militia was sent in to root out ‘terrorists’, although by this stage it seems to have been widely believed by both the Phalangists and Israelis that all Palestinians-man, woman and child-could be categorised as ‘terrorists’. Certainly they had made little distinction between combatants and civilians in their bombings of the previous months.

The massacre resulted in a rare flurry of international activity on Lebanon’s behalf, even if it was ultimately to little avail. Unusually, even the Americans were critical of the role Israel had played, with Reagan’s representative to Lebanon telling Sharon he ‘should be ashamed of himself’. Belatedly realising the catastrophic consequences of their hasty withdrawal, the MNF returned on the 20 September. The following day, Bashir Gemayel’s brother Amine was elected President with American backing. Beyond protecting civilians, the mission of the MNF was now to assist the Lebanese state to restore sovereignty and authority over its territory. Amine Gemayel enjoyed a reputation as a more moderate and consensual politician compared to his late brother, a builder of bridges between the different sects. He declared himself to be taking power in the name of all the people, and the Lebanese army were once again deployed to the streets of Beirut to restore law and order. It soon became apparent, however, that Gemayel’s power was being wielded in the interests of his own community under the guise of reconstructing the state. The Muslims in west Beirut were subject to constant harassment and arrests by Gemayel’s army, who worked hand in glove with the LF, who behaved as conquerors. People were arbitrarily detained and in some cases disappeared, never to return.

While the MNF expressed concern about this turn of events, their role as supporting Gemayel’s regime essentially turned them into collaborators with it. They were blissfully unaware, or unwilling, to see that they had become partisans in the war rather than a neutral force. This disjoint between self-image and reality is evident in the following short video about the U.S. Marines’ presence in Lebanon in 1982. You can either turn the sound off or listen to the audio with propaganda sensors on full power. The narrator typifies the attitude of many Americans, oblivious to (and not very interested in) what the war was about, and the delusion that they stood aloof, keeping the warring parties apart. The litmus test for such a claim is, did the Marines confront the IDF or their Christian allies? Not likely.

It was obvious to the Muslims of Lebanon that the MNF were there to foist a Christian Gemayel government upon them. Of Lebanese communities, the Shia had borne the brunt of Israeli bombings in the south, the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, and now of Gemayel’s persecution. It was thus from this community that resistance began to form against the MNF. While this also consisted of French and Italians, it was the Americans-already figured as the ‘Great Satan’ in the demonology emanating from revolutionary Iran-who were seen as chiefly responsible. The Americans’ belief that they somehow stood outside the conflict was brutally shattered in April 1983 when their embassy was blown up by a suicide bomber driving a truck laden with explosives. 63 people were killed, including senior members of the CIA’s staff in Lebanon. Six months later, the barracks of American and French troops stationed in Beirut were also bombed, killing 241 Americans and 58 French paratroopers.
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United States embassy (left) and barracks (right) after 1983 bombings. Images: Marine Corps.

The barracks bombing was the biggest single attack on the U.S. military since Iwo Jima, and the biggest loss of life of Americans in one attack until 11 September 2001. These attacks were some of the first instances of suicide bombings in the modern era. Attacking the enemy without being hampered by any regard for your own survival is, of course, nothing new. The Japanese kamikaze pilots most famously adopted it in the Second World War. Until its emergence in Lebanon in the 1980s, however, it was rare for non-state actors in conflict to employ it. It would become all-too common in the decades that followed up to the present day. The standard explanation is that this dramatic rise in suicide attacks was due to a new religious fanaticism colouring conflicts in the middle east. Of course, this cultural dimension to the act cannot be entirely dismissed. The emphasis on death over dishonour in traditional samurai culture no doubt played into the willingness of Japanese soldiers to take their own lives, just as the cult of martyrdom in Shi’ism influenced the ‘human wave’ attacks of Iranian soldiers after the revolution. More than a readiness to commit suicide in killing the enemy, I think it is the celebration of this sacrifice that really  characterises these cultures. When you think about it, there have been many circumstances where soldiers from European armies were sent into certain death (the columns of soldiers in World War One marching across no-man’s land towards machine-gun fire armed only with batons springs to mind), but these were not explicitly celebrated as suicide attacks, even though they basically were. Beyond the cultural dimension, I think it is worth considering something the author J.M. Coetzee has observed of suicide bombers, that they may be ‘a response, of a somehow despairing nature, against American and Israeli achievements in guiding technology far beyond the capacities of their opponents’. That is, they are a function of the asymmetry of wars which have become so unequal that the weaker party have few means of retaliation left open except to take their own life.

But I digress.

The result of this bombings was that the MNF withdrew in the Spring of 1984. The Americans essentially washed their hands of Lebanon and despaired of re-establishing state control over the country. This American withdrawal might seem surprising to us who have lived, post-2001, with a United States that has not been shy to retaliate with overwhelming and disproportionate power to attacks on its citizens, even against people who were not responsible for those attacks. In the 1980s, however, it was less than a decade since the humiliating retreat from Vietnam, and American public opinion was less than enthusiastic about foreign adventures, especially in wars they didn’t understand, or want to understand. The United States regime knew this, and contented itself with either fighting through proxy armies like the Contras in Nicaragua, or wars in which they would meet no significant opposition, such as the tiny island nation of Grenada, which was invaded just two days after the barracks in Beirut were bombed.

Who were these new actors in the Lebanese civil war, who had declared war on the American superpower in their backyard and succeeded in frightening them away? The bombings were claimed by the ‘Islamic Jihad Organization’, a shadowy guerrilla movement which was so shadowy that its existence was only attested by the telephone calls made to claim responsibility for bombings. Many observers, indeed, denied that the organisation even existed in any real sense, and that it was merely a front used by the Islamist militia in order to avoid directly associating themselves with certain acts. This movement, growing in strength at this time, funded by Iran and trained by its Revolutionary Guards, was Hezbollah.

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Flag of Hezbollah.

We have already encountered a Hezbollah (The Party of God) in revolutionary Iran, and this Lebanese version, though it would be oversimplistic to describe it as a foreign branch of the Iranian, was profoundly influenced and guided by the latter. It had been active since the Israeli invasion of 1982, when Iran sent 1500 Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon with Syria’s consent. It was only gradually, however, that the outside world was beginning to realise there was a new Islamist grouping in the conflict. We have already examined the situation of the Shia in the last post, as well as the Amal movement, which had emerged to defend their interests and fought the Palestinians in the south, who were blamed for bringing the wrath of Israel upon the area. Amal, although founded by a Shi’ite cleric and characterised as a Shi’ite group, had secular features in that it reached out to all sectors of the community and did not aim at the establishment of an Islamic state (for which reason it had poor relations with the Iranian revolutionaries). Hezbollah was different in that its aims were explicitly non-secular, aspiring towards a theocracy such as that established by Khomeini in Iran. Its immediate aims were the expulsion of foreign armies (except the Syrians, who supported it) from Lebanese territory and the reform of the Lebanese political system to reflect more fairly demographic realities.

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Hezbollah gunman, 1980s Beirut, note the picture of Khomeini on the rifle-butt. Image: Al-Jazeera.

With the occupation of the south by Israel, the population of poor urban Shia in Beirut was increased by refugees from that area. Some of these lived in the Palestinian refugee camps and formed  a significant proportion of the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, not to mention the repression carried out by Amine Gemayel. There was therefore no shortage of grievances to push people into supporting either Amal or Hezbollah. Notwithstanding their common enemy, conflict between the two factions was probably inevitable given they vied for the same constituency. Indeed, this last decade of the civil war will be marked by as much by intra-sectarian fighting as inter. Amal, after the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr in 1978, was led by his colleague Hussein el-Husseini, who resisted committing the movement to military engagement in the civil war beyond fighting the Palestinians in the south (see last post), whom they also regarded as interlopers. This more moderate leadership was ousted in 1980, however, by Nabih Berri (below), who represented the more militant grassroots of the movement.

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Image: Sahm Doherty

Tensions began to emerge within Amal about the role Islam was to play in the movement, and a breakaway faction known as Islamic Amal, was formed in 1982, which would eventually be absorbed into Hezbollah. Amal’s involvement in the war gradually extended to fighting not only the Israelis, but the Gemayel government as well. At the same time, they would find themselves embroiled in a conflict with Hezbollah for the allegiance of the Shia community. These two conflicts, which dominate the middle of the 1980s, are known respectively as the ‘Mountain War’ and the ‘War of the Camps’, and involved numerous other actors besides the two Shi’ite factions. To explain them illustrates well how smaller conflicts in Lebanon became entangled within larger ones, and necessitates broadening the canvas once again to the national stage.

In the Mountain War, the mountains in question were those of the Chouf region, dominated by the Druze and their leader, Walid Jumblatt, who narrowly avoided being killed by a car-bomb in December 1982. A significant Christian minority lived in the Chouf, however, and its return to the control of the state was a priority when Amine Gemayel came to power. Gemayel’s attempt to subdue the area was carried out not only by the Lebanese army, but also by the LF, who were in no mood to magnanimously establish a power-sharing regime with equal regard for all sides. These forces were led by the above-mentioned Samir Geagea, who established an LF presence (with Israeli approval) in the west of the Chouf in early 1983. The incursions were resisted by a coalition of Jumblatt’s PSP, along with the Communist party and the SSNP, essentially the core members of the LNM, which had dissolved following the Israeli invasion of 1982. This new coalition was known as the Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF), and while not members, was allied with Amal and also PLO elements who were beginning to re-emerge in the country following that organisation’s official withdrawal. The LNRF operated under the wing (I think this is an appropriate image) of Syria, just as their opponents were sanctioned by Israel. We need to constantly bear in mind this proxy war nature of the conflict as we go forward…or round and round in circles as the case may be.

Of course, this sub-war was not just about control of the Chouf. Fighting spread to the suburbs of Beirut and the whole thing took place against the backdrop of the American-led intervention and subsequent withdrawal, and the growing realisation by Muslims that the Gemayel government had little intention of reforming the political system in any serious way. Furthermore, Gemayel was proving reluctant to sign an accord (the so-called ‘May 17 agreement’) with Israel that would have given the Israelis a massive say in Lebanese affairs and alienated Syria. In order to twist his arm, Israel began to withdraw their support for the Christian forces in the Chouf, and without this support, the LNRF overran the army/LF positions in September 1983. The latter were forced to retreat, along with many Christian civilians, to the town of Deir el Qamar, where they were besieged until December. Those Christians in the Chouf unlucky enough not to escape were attacked by the Druze militia and a massacre of around 1,500 civilians in the area took place, not to mention the displacement of many thousands more from their homes.

At the same time, in west Beirut, Amal were fighting for control of sections of the city against Gemayel’s army, which was backed up by the MNF. American battleships in the Mediterranean fired shells at LNRF positions (although often missed and killed many civilians) and Reagan sent in extra troops, making increasingly belligerent statements about teaching Syria a lesson and unconditionally backing  Gemayel. It is here you begin to see why they weren’t regarded as neutral peacekeepers by the Lebanese Muslims. The Americans’ French and Italian allies even expressed their concern that the MNF was coming to be seen as just another hostile foreign presence in the country, partial and combatant. It is against this backdrop that the suicide bombings discussed above occurred. By December, the Israelis had rescued many of the Christian fighters in the Chouf and Amal and its LNRF allies were proving more than a match for the Lebanese army in west Beirut. By early 1984 they had essentially driven Gemayel’s forces out of their part of the city and taken over. Berri even managed to convince Shia  elements of the army to defect to Amal.

West Beirut came under the control of a number of different militias, who sometimes fought each other. It is basically in this period after the withdrawal of the MNF that Lebanon’s image in the west as an incomprehensible violent maelstrom of chaos really begins to approach the truth. A series of wars within wars within wars, as the various sects, once they had established control over their own areas, began fighting amongst themselves over the spoils of power. Law and order was replaced by the rule of brute force, protection rackets and summary executions. Any ideological or even sectarian dimension to the violence was often lacking and it becomes difficult at times to distinguish what was going from simple turf warfare between gangs.

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The ‘War of the Camps’ was primarily between Amal and the PLO, as the Palestinian refugee camps in west Beirut were surrounded by Amal forces. These were heavily supported by Syria, who wished to prevent the PLO under Arafat from once again establishing itself as a major player in the war. The irrepressible Arafat, having fled the country in 1982, was back in Lebanon and Assad was haunted by the same old concern that it would provoke an Israeli invasion that would damage Syrian interests, and that it would become a rival locus of power. Using a number of anti-Arafat Palestinian factions who I won’t go into here (the last thing we need is more acronyms) Arafat’s partisans were attacked in their new headquarters in Tripoli in the north of the country, and their leader was expelled from the country for the second, and last, time, in December 1983.

This was not the end of the PLO’s resistance, however. In Beirut, Amal was not only supported by the Syrians but even a part of the Lebanese army commanded by Michel Aoun (more of whom later). Fighting centred around control of the Sabra and Shatila and Burj el-Barajneh camps and lasted sporadically between May 1985 and July 1988. The Palestinians were supported by a local Sunni faction which I haven’t mentioned yet, named Al-Murabitoun (‘The Steadfast’) and, belying any image of this as simply a Shia-Sunni conflict, Hezbollah who, in its rivalry with Amal, also took the side of the PLO. In the early stages of the conflict, Jumblatt’s PSP and its LNRF allies helped Amal defeat Al-Murabitoun, but were less enthusiastic about fighting the Palestinians, with whom they had a long tradition of comradeship. By the end of the conflict, they were in fact fighting alongside the PLO and Hezbollah against Amal. This seemingly-interminable conflict was only brought to its inconclusive end with the Syrian army’s direct intervention and occupation of west Beirut in 1987.

Despite the Syrian support for Amal, however, Hezbollah emerged ultimately stronger from the power struggle. In the west, its profile was raised by its association with numerous kidnappings of westerners in Lebanon from 1982 onwards. Like the embassy and barracks bombings, these were often carried out under other names such as Islamic Jihad in order to avoid direct responsibility, but it is generally accepted Hezbollah were behind them. Indeed many observers believe that Iran was ultimately pulling the strings. It is difficult to discern any other concrete motive to the kidnappings. The MNF had, after all, departed in 1984 and yet the seizure of Americans and European individuals continued unabated. Some have suggested that Hezbollah saw the kidnappings as insurance against renewed foreign intervention in the country, others that the Iranians saw them as a means of gaining leverage in backstairs diplomacy with the west. This latter objective can be seen in the secret Iran-Contra deals described in an earlier (part 4) post. The Iranians were ultimately responsible for getting Hezbollah to release many of the hostages, with the last, American journalist Terry Anderson, being let go in December 1991. This BBC documentary about Iran gives a good account of the whole affair. The bit about the hostage situation starts at 8:20.

If you keep watching to around 35:00 you realise the somewhat shabby treatment of Iran by the Americans. Having helped get their men released, the United States government then reneged on an promise to improve relations with Iran in return. Also, don’t miss the skulduggery of the French opposition, who apparently scuppered negotiations to release French hostages and paid Hezbollah to keep them until after the French election in order to help Jacques Chirac win.

Certainly these were not acts of random or mindless vengeance. To capture, keep hidden and keep alive a western civilian for years on end in war-torn Lebanon required a level of planning and military discipline that suggests a determined purpose. While it cemented Lebanon’s reputation in the west as a lawless hellhole, among the Lebanese Shia (and indeed across the Muslim world) it contributed to Hezbollah’s growing prestige as the true face of Islamic resistance to the west. Allegiance to Hezbollah was no doubt bolstered by the Israelis’ indiscriminate bombing of Shia villages in the south, and the continued covert involvement of the United States. The most notorious of these incidents was a car-bomb in March 1985 intended to kill the cleric, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who was (wrongly) believed to be the leader of Hezbollah, for which the CIA and British intelligence are believed to have been responsible. It killed 80 civilians, mostly women and schoolgirls, and Fadlallah escaped with minor injuries. Such actions only fueled support for Hezbollah’s more radical message of resistance to Israel and the west.

Hezbollah’s prestige was probably most augmented by their leadership of the fight against the Israelis in the occupied south. While Israel had not withdrawn by the end of the civil war in 1990, Hezbollah effectively bogged them down in an unwinnable war of attrition which, for the first time, inflicted what could be described as a defeat on the IDF. Israel would finally withdraw in 2000. It is interesting to reflect that senior figures on both the Lebanese and Israeli side credit the Israeli invasion with the genesis and growth of Hezbollah. It’s current leader Hassan Nasrullah has said that, had Israel not invaded, ‘I don’t know that something called Hezbollah would have been born. I doubt it.’ The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, one of the more reflective of the political class there, also stated: ‘When we entered Lebanon … there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah’. This attests to a phenomenon which will be seen time and time again with other groups like the Taliban or Islamic State, which is the expansion of a small group of fundamentalists to a major actor in the conflict, not so much as the result of some homegrown rise in religious fervour as a response to the destabilisation of their country by outsiders.

While the Muslim groups were busy shooting at and blowing each other up, the Christian militias were showing they were every bit as capable as their Muslim opponents of internecine conflict. The agreement which would eventually bring the Syrians into Beirut again had been signed by the LF leader Elie Hobeika, but Samir Geaga didn’t support it, nor did Amine Gemayel, who was leader of the Phalangist party as well as being president. The LF split up into two factions, led respectively by Hobeika and Geagea, and fought a bloody and destructive conflict over whether to accept the accord or not. Geagea, who had the support of the Lebanese army and also maintained close ties to Israel (while Hobeika sought to break these ties) eventually emerged dominant and Hobeika fled to the city of Zahlé  in the Beqaa, forming a rival LF under Syrian patronage.

Gemayel, meanwhile, was nearing the end of his term as President in September 1988. This being Lebanon, however, it wasn’t simply a case of the parliament meeting and electing a successor. The Syrian-approved candidate was the former president Suleiman Frangieh (yes, he’s still around; he was old the first time around, now he’s 78!) but he was unacceptable to Geagea’s LF faction (not to mention the Americans) and nobody could agree on an alternative. When a session was arranged to elect (i.e.crown) Frangieh, the Lebanese army under it’s commander Michel Aoun (below) was accused of preventing the delegates from east Beirut from attending, and thus preventing the session from reaching the quorum necessary to validate the election.

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Michel Aoun. Image: Lebanese army.

Rather amusingly, Aoun denies he prevented them, suggesting in interviews that they called him and asked him to prevent them from attending. The haggling went on so long that Gemayel’s term ran out without a successor being elected, so the latter appointed a military government headed by Aoun, who himself had wanted to be president but was opposed by the Syrians. He now became acting Prime Minister, or I should say at least one of the acting Prime Ministers, because Gemayel’s Prime Minister Selim Hoss refused to accept his dismissal, citing the National Pact, which reserved the post to a Sunni (Aoun is a Maronite) and set up its own rival regime in west Beirut with the support of Syria, dismissing Aoun from his position as commander of the armed forces. Aoun on the other hand had the support of most of the army, Geagea’s LF and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was seeking to extend its influence over the middle east (the invasion of Kuwait was less that two years away) where the local Ba’ath party were deadly rivals of the Syrian Ba’ath party. This alliance incidentally would alienate the Americans from Aoun when they became enemies with Saddam Hussein, and pushed them into supporting the Syrians’ role in the country.

The stage was set for the last major showdown of the civil war. Aoun declared a ‘War of Liberation’ from the Syrian occupation in March 1989 and a campaign of shelling between east and west Beirut followed in the next few months which was more destructive than anything yet seen in the war, which for Beirut is really saying something.

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Beirut skyline during the artillery bombardments of 1989. Image: Al-Jazeera.
These horrors, and moreover the fact that the two regional powers of Syria and Iraq were now fighting a proxy war in Lebanon, raised concerns among other Arab states of the Lebanon conflict spiraling into a more widespread war. This finally focused minds on finding a negotiated settlement to the civil war. In October 1989, Lebanese parliamentarians from all sides convened in the Saudi Arabian city of Taif and signed an accord which would ultimately put an end to the war by providing for political reform recognising the increased numbers of Muslims in the country, and a ‘special’ relationship with Syria which would give the latter a profound role in Lebanon’s security affairs. Fawwaz Traboulsi has, I think accurately, described post-war Lebanon as a Syrian ‘mandate’, which is also kind of neat, as when we started this story it was a French mandate.
The accord was ratified in November and René Mouawad elected as Lebanon’s new President. That the war was not yet at an end, however, was made painfully clear as Mouawad was killed by a car-bomb seventeen days later. Michel Aoun, still ensconced in east Beirut, and still enjoying the support of large sections of the population (both Christian and Muslim) was the primary remaining obstacle to the establishment of a ‘Pax Syriana’, although it was never conclusively proved that he was responsible for the assassination of Mouawad. Aoun made a final push to shore up his power during the Summer of 1990, now fighting Geagea’s LF as well, who were positively disposed towards the Taif accord. A huge part of the reason that a Syrian-dominated peace became possible was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990; with the Americans keen to attract Syrian involvement in their war against Iraq, the price was allowing Assad to throw all his might against Aoun and end the situation where there were two government’s claiming legitimacy. It is truly remarkable, incidentally, how every time you think the Assads have manoeuvred Syria into the position of pariah state, they somehow manage to make themselves indispensable and ingratiate themselves with the west once more.
The end came in October, when Syrian troops entered east Beirut and took the surrender of Aoun’s forces. Sadly, there was to be one final bloodstained chapter in the war, as the Syrian soldiers executed around 250 Lebanese soldiers after they had already surrendered, many of whom shot at point blank range. Aoun, meanwhile, whose personal ambition had contributed greatly to this bloodbath, was given refuge in France, where he would live for the next fifteen years. He would finally be able to return in 2005 because the Syrians would finally withdraw their army from Lebanon in that year. At the time of writing (2016), he is jostling for position to finally realise his ambition of becoming President, with the support of Samir Geagea, who he has patched things up with. But all of these events are beyond the scope of this post, which will close with the exhausted agreement of all parties in the civil war to stop fighting. The Christians and Muslims now had equal numbers in parliament, the Muslim Prime Minister’s powers were increased relative to the Christian President, and the militias began the process of disarming and handing over power to the Lebanese state. The only group which was not obliged to disarm was Hezbollah, in recognition of their role defending the south against Israel.

The Lebanese civil war lasted from 13 April 1975 and ended on 13 October 1990, that is, 15 years and 6 months. The death toll is often given at around 250,000 victims, although more recent research has greatly reduced this. I have seen estimates as low as 40,000, and am frankly at a loss as to how they can vary so wildly. Given the massive upheaval and suffering it involved, as well as its longevity, it is alarming how little really changed after all this. There was some slight reform to the political system as has been seen, but sectarianism remained a cornerstone of politics and Syria remained entrenched in Lebanese politics. The emergence of Hezbollah is of course a vital episode in the emergence of Islam as a force in middle-eastern politics, but once again we should reflect upon how little role religion played in the genesis of the war. It was only after years of suffering and, even more significantly I think, hopelessness, that an anti-western religious fervour was kindled, but this cannot be said to characterise the war as a whole, which had far more to do with problems specific to Lebanon than any broader conflict in the middle east as a whole. Because I think a picture says a thousand words, I will end this series on Lebanon with this picture of a man praying in the rubble of his own home in southern Lebanon, 1993, where the war against Israel continued sporadically to the present day.

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Image: Al-Jazeera.

 

Featured image above: Amal militia members attacking the church of St.Michael, Beirut, 1984.

 

End of part 7

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A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 7: The Lebanese civil war #3

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 6: The Lebanese civil war #2

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When we left Lebanon at the end of the last post, it was enjoying an interlude of uneasy peace (although they didn’t know it was merely an interlude) between the autumn of 1976 and the spring of 1978. Syrian forces had occupied the country (except for the far south, which was too close to Israel for comfort) in order to protect the Christian Maronites from succumbing to overwhelming military defeat from the alliance of (mostly Muslim) left-wing groups known as the LNM, not to mention to prevent the Palestinian factions from becoming too powerful. This is not to say that Hafez al-Assad’s government wanted the Christians to win the war either. A fragile, weakened Lebanon at uneasy peace with itself, dependent on Syria to secure this peace, suited the Syrians just fine. This state of affairs, however, was not destined to last. When hostilities broke out again in 1978, it was the Christian Phalangists and Syrians who would be fighting each other. Before we find out what changed in the interim, it should first be noted that this period of ‘peace’ was not without its violence. For starters, the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, which had become a part of the Lebanese war, did not cease. Palestinian fedayeen attacks continued upon the north of Israel.

Secondly, one of the leading figures in the conflict, Kamal Jumblatt, was killed in March 1977. It has never been definitively established who killed Jumblatt, but the overwhelming likelihood is that it was the Syrians. As seen in the last post, his relationship with Syrian President Assad broke down in the lead-up to Syria’s intervention in 1976. Often admired by the left and certainly by the Palestinians, to whose cause he was deeply committed, Jumblatt was intransigent and implacable in pursuit of victory over the Phalangists and a non-sectarian Lebanon, an intransigence that simply did not fit Syria’s plans. The message in killing Jumblatt, who was shot in the head as he sat in the back of his car, could not have been clearer: refuse Syria’s help at your peril. The following striking poster bearing Jumblatt’s face surrounded by flames was produced by the PLO after his death and reads ‘Martyr of the Palestinian revolution, and the Lebanese National Movement: The great teacher Kamal Jumblatt’.

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Image: Signs of Conflict Archive (Lebanon)

His assassination provoked a spate of killings of Christians in retaliation. Bear in mind, all of this occurred in the ‘peaceful’ interval between bouts of war in 1977, so perhaps it would be more accurate to describe this as a less intense period of conflict.

Jumblatt was not merely the leader of the PSP, but the leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, who were native to the Chouf, a mountainous area just south of Beirut. He was succeeded in these roles by his son, Walid, who would prove to be every bit as wily and capable a leader as his father, and remains active in Lebanese politics to this day. Here is Walid Jumblatt in 1982, looking spaced-out next to Yasser Arafat.

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Image: Gilles Peress

1977 saw a deterioration in relations between the Christians and the Syrians who had saved them from defeat. The reasons for this are complicated, but a major turning point was the peace process between Israel and Egypt, under the sponsorship of American president Carter. I briefly looked at these Camp David Accords, which would be signed in September 1978, in part two. Following Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Assad began to reassess his attitude to the Palestinians, whose power in Lebanon he had been trying to contain. This is a good example of the way the Lebanese war was increasingly being drawn into the wake of other conflicts, not only Israel-Palestine but also the rivalry between Syria and Egypt, and specifically Assad’s ambition to become Egypt’s replacement as the leader of the Arab world against Zionism. With Sadat’s repudiation of this role, Syria once again began to turn towards the Palestinians in Lebanon, at the same time that they and the Maronite Christian factions were feeling increasingly disenchanted with one another.

Having saved them from defeat, the Syrians expected allegiance from the LF, but found their clients less than grateful for their help, especially when it became clear they were not going to eliminate the Palestinian threat altogether. Leading the opposition to Syrian intervention among the Christians was Bashir Gemayel, son of the Phalangist founder, who I introduced in the last post. Gemayel will become an increasingly central figure from 1977 onwards. In contrast to his later incarnation as a besuited politician, at this stage, he promoted a military, tough-guy image, which endeared him to the foot-soldiers of the Phalangist militias. Something like this:

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Image: Tore Kjeilen/LookLex

Gemayel in fact inspired an intense personal devotion from the men under his command. What can only be described as a cult of personality grew up around him. The following lines from the animated film, Waltz with Bashir, are the observations of an Israeli soldier present during the 1982 occupation, who witnessed the Phalangist soldiers’ reverence of their leader at first hand:

‘They carried body parts of murdered Palestinians preserved in jars of formaldehyde.
They had fingers, eyeballs, anything you wanted.
And always pictures of Bashir.
Bashir pendants, Bashir watches, Bashir this, Bashir that…
Bashir was to them what David Bowie was to me.
A star, an idol, a prince, admirable.
I think they even felt an eroticism for him.’

Waltz with Bashir (2008), by Ari Folman.

Even today, the extent to which he was implicated in the more gruesome of his soldiers’ atrocities is hotly debated. If you research him online you will find no shortage of people lionising him, claiming he was unaware of the horrible things being done in his name, how he attempted to prevent killing of civilians etc. It is not always easy, from this distance, and given the wildly conflicting accounts, to determine the truth in each individual case. Personally, I cannot help but conclude that militias under his command were involved in too many massacres of civilians for him not to have been aware and, indeed, responsible, for these crimes. For all his film-star looks and polished rhetoric, and the fact that the Americans would come to regard him as the answer to Lebanon’s woes, he was one of the more ruthless in a war that brought more than its fair share of cruel, ruthless men to the fore.

When the LF agreed to Syrian intervention in 1976, Gemayel attempted to resign his positions within the movement. He was instead given funds to found his own military organisation within the movement, with its headquarters at Karantina, which had been the site of the massacre of Muslims the year before. This independent command made him one of the most powerful militia leaders on the Christian side. Furthermore, even as the Syrians were entering Beirut to prevent the Christians from being overwhelmed by the LNM and Palestinians, Gemayel was already in touch with the Israelis, whom he saw as a far more promising ally in what he clearly saw as a conflict that was far from over. Others in the Christian camp were similarly disposed to Israel, but there was also a powerful faction, which included the current president Sarkis, who continued to be staunch allies of Syria. Then there was the former president Frangieh and his Marada movement, which would become one of the first victims of Bashir Gemayel in his rise to dominate the Christian factions. In fact, if you thought the multitude of warring groups discussed last time was confusing, you are in for a treat, because internecine conflict now breaks out within the militias.

The Frangieh family and the Marada had their power-base in the Zgharta region in the north of Lebanon, and specifically the town of Ehden. The Marada had co-operated in the earlier stages of the war with the Phalangists, but this co-operation had led to a growing Phalangist presence in the region, where they had not traditionally been strong. They began to threaten Marada dominance and muscle in on their protection rackets (I did liken them to gangsters in the last post). The pulling-apart of the Christians into pro-Israeli and pro-Syrian factions brought the rivalry to a head in 1978. The Marada leader, Tony Frangieh (son of Suleiman) attempted, by both negotiation and force, to get the Phalangists to leave the area now that the war was ‘over’. Bashir Gemayel had by now settled on a strategy of removing his rivals among the Christian militias before attempting the takeover of the state. Accounts differ as to what exactly happened. Those who seek to defend Gemayel’s reputation suggest that the initial intention was merely to kidnap Frangieh, but whatever the intention, a gunfight broke out in which Tony Frangieh, his wife and three year-old daughter were killed, along with 32 of his associates. Those sources less keen to preserve Bashir Gemayel’s reputation claim the murders were planned in advance; I have even read claims that the couple were forced to watch their toddler shot before they too were killed. Given the kind of things that were later to occur, I do not think that it was beyond the capacity of the Phalangist gunmen to do such a thing.

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Aftermath of massacre at Ehden. Image: Al-Jazeera

Meanwhile, in the same Summer of 1978 that the Ehden massacre took place, outright hostilities broke out between the Christians (excepting of course the Marada brigade) and the Syrians, who were now regarded as an army of foreign occupation. There was now no pretense that the war was not back on. This period of conflict (sometimes referred to as the ‘hundred days war’) began when the Syrians came into conflict with the Christian breakaway faction of what had been the Lebanese national army in Beirut. The Phalangists and Tiger militias were quickly drawn into the fighting, in which the Syrians shelled their positions within the city, showing scant regard for civilian lives. The area of Achrafieh (there is a map of Beirut in the previous post) in east Beirut was the stronghold from which the militias withstood severe Syrian pressure and, by the autumn, essentially forced the Syrians to withdraw from Christian east Beirut. This victory cemented Bashir Gemayel’s reputation as the champion of the Christian Lebanese. Although not everyone was sure they wanted him as their champion, you only had to look at what happened to Tony Frangieh to figure out where that got you.

The following years saw the permanent decline of the Marada movement and the Frangieh dynasty. Gemayel soon turned his attentions to those allies who had helped him fight the Syrians. As I noted in the last post, the Tigers militia were the military wing of former president Camille Chamoun’s National Liberal Party. While small compared to the Phalangists, they were known as fierce and well-equipped fighters, and made an important contribution to the LF campaigns discussed up to now. They had suffered a number of setbacks since 1976 however. First was the Palestinian takeover of the coastal village of Damour, where Chamoun lived and directed the defense, before fleeing by helicopter. In common with much of the political leadership of the Christians, Chamoun then acceded to Syrian intervention as the only means of saving the Christians from defeat. This move provoked a split between his NLP and the Tigers militia, which was led by his son, Dany:

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The fact that the Tigers leaned towards opposing the Syrian presence in Lebanon might be thought to make them natural allies of Bashir Gemayel, and in 1978 they were. But there was more at stake here than what foreign power you aligned with. Gemayel was determined to consolidate all Christian militias under his rule. Some who knew him, such as the Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari, claim that  he was consciously imitating the Zionist underground movement during the British mandate period, in which all opposition was ruthlessly suppressed to create a single, disciplined and unified structure. Gemayel’s secret contacts with Israel were becoming more and more significant, and less secret, and by June 1980 he was ready to make his move. The Tigers’ base at Safra, north of Beirut, was attacked and over 80 members were killed, basically decapitating and finishing the movement as a significant factor in the war. Dany Chamoun, however, was allowed to escape, and went into exile, and he will be back in Lebanon later on; the civil war is not finished with him. The LF from then on was reconstituted with Bashir as its unquestioned leader.

But we need to backtrack a bit to explain why Israel was playing such an important role in Lebanese politics by 1980 (there are even claims that Mossad orchestrated the Ehden massacre), because I forgot to mention that they had invaded the south of the country two years earlier. So, back to March 1978, that is, before the aforementioned ‘hundred days war’.

The Palestinians had, of course, been using southern Lebanon as a base from which to launch attacks on Israel for years. What is less well-remembered is that Israeli had also been shelling the area for a long time. These bombings had inflicted massive civilian casualties. In many villages, almost the entire population had either been killed or fled, and it was suspected in some quarters that the Israeli government’s objective was to effectively depopulate the area, widespread burning of crops and infrastructure accompanying the killings. A particularly nasty Palestinian attack took place along the coast that month, killing of 38 civilians (plus the nine attackers, who were killed by the Israelis) near Tel Aviv. This was, ostensibly, the reason for the Israeli government’s invasion of Lebanon, whose avowed intention was to push back the Palestinians back away from proximity to Israel and beyond the Litani river, about 30km north of the border, creating a ‘security zone’.

In the light of this new aggression by the Israeli government, it is worth mentioning that a new prime minister, Menachem Begin, had been elected the year before. Begin’s victory in the 1977 election broke the monopoly of power enjoyed by the Israeli left since independence and marked a distinct right-turn for mainstream Israeli politics. It is ironic that Begin was subsequently best remembered internationally for making peace with Egypt, because by Israeli standards, he and his allies represented a particularly hardline Zionist nationalism that had little time for compromise with the Palestinians or other Arab nations. Begin had been around, in opposition, as long as Israel had existed. Back in the late 1940s, Albert Einstein and other prominent American Jews described his party as a ‘terrorist, right-wing chauvinist organization [. . .] closely akin in its organization, methods, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.’

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Menachem Begin. Image: U.S. Air force

This time, Israel’s incursion into southern Lebanon was to last only a week, but its consequences would last for years. The major strategic goal of expelling the Palestinians was largely achieved, although not without stiff resistance. As usual, it was the civilian population that suffered most, with 100,000 to 200,000 refugees fleeing the area. The Syrians, fearing the Israelis would use the population’s evacuation as an excuse to annex the land, tried to send refugees back southwards, into the war zone. Oddly enough, the outcome of the operation would leave southern Lebanon dominated by two military forces, neither of them Israel or Palestine (although the Palestinians would drift back into the area as well). One was the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which would act as Israel’s proxy in the area after they left, and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL for short.

It was noted in the last post that in the spring of 1976 the Lebanese army itself split into Muslim and Christian factions. The Christian side came to be known as the ‘Army of Free Lebanon’ (AFL) and its leader in the south was Saad Haddad:

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Saad Haddad. Image: Steve Hindy
By 1980, his part of the army would split off from the AFL and become the South Lebanon Army. I’m just going to refer to Haddad’s forces as the SLA from now on. The SLA was more or less entirely armed and controlled by Israel as a means of allowing them to engage militarily without maintaining their occupation officially. Haddad was a loose cannon, ruling over an enclave he declared to be the ‘Free Lebanon State’ which no-one else recognised. Under his sponsorship, an evangelical Christian radio station was set up, the ‘Voice of Hope’ which broadcast (Haddad sometimes turned up to do a spot as DJ) a mixture of gospel proselythising and political propaganda. The Israelis would also refer to this part of the country as ‘Free Lebanon’, although what exactly it was free from (Lebanese government control?) is unclear.

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A part of the UN’s mandate in the area had been to restore Lebanese sovereignty over the area. Despite all the good intentions this, along with the other parts of their mission (to restore peace and confirm Israeli withdrawal) went unfulfilled. Instead, UNIFIL were attacked at will by Haddad’s forces (and by extension, Israel). Instead of exerting any kind of control over the south, the UN soldiers ended up ensconced in isolated posts dotted throughout the country, the limited nature of their mandate effectively barring them from making any serious attempt to challenge the SLA, or any other armed group. UN soldiers were even killed by Palestinians on occasion. It has been argued by some, such as Fawwaz Traboulsi, that UNIFIL has unintentionally reinforced Israel’s occupation. They remain in southern Lebanon to this day (2016), still ‘interim’ after 38 years. In many ways it is a mystery: why did Israel, which had agreed to the original mandate of UNIFIL-which was partly to remove the Palestinian threat to their own northern border-allow (even orchestrate) the SLA attacks on it? I will leave the question hanging there for now, because although the Israelis officially pulled out their own troops after a week, their work in Lebanon is far from finished.
In the wake of this invasion, the Syrians, who had intervened two years earlier to disarm the Palestinians, now began to do the opposite. They and Israelis, although they could sometimes see each other along the Litani, were careful not to engage in any fighting directly, although the Syrians were fighting the Christian militias in Beirut that summer, as seen earlier. Nor were the Palestinians the only opposition in the south. The last thing we need here is yet another faction in this conflict to consider, but that’s what we’re going to get. I have neglected to discuss one group of Lebanon’s population up to now, so as to consider it in the period when their armed militia becomes a significant factor in the war. Most of the refugees fleeing the Israeli invasion, and the majority in that part of the country, were Shia. The Shia were Lebanon’s poorest community, economically and politically underprivileged. Robert Fisk dates this status to the days of Sunni Ottoman rule, when ‘they were treated with contempt, [. . .] neglected and turned into outcasts with much the same arrogance as that shown by the English Protestants towards the Irish Catholics during the same period.’ The ‘National Pact’ I discussed in the last post allocated power in Lebanon on the basis that the Shia were the third largest group in Lebanon, after the Maronites and Sunnis (based on a dodgy census taken way back in 1932). By this period, however, they had overtaken both the others in size and become the largest, without any concomitant increase in representation.
While it might be expected that all of this would make the Shia fertile recruiting ground for the left and radical Palestinian groups, but this is not how things played out. A major reason for this is this man, Musa al-Sadr:
Sadr_pic_1

Al-Sadr was an Imam from Iran who had come to Lebanon in the late 1950s, sent by the Iranian clergy to lead the Shia community in the southern city of Tyre. In the following years, he gained a following among Lebanese of all sects as a champion of the underprivileged, regardless of their confession. Sadr was very much a practitioner of an active Shi’ism, blending politics and economics with theology, and he resisted co-option by the various factions of Lebanese politics. He came to be regarded by  as a moderate figure as civil war loomed in the 1970s; while demanding the Christians relinquish some of their power at the same time he was an avowed enemy of Communism. The Americans looked upon him favourably as a bulwark against not just Communism but pan-Arab nationalism as well. For the first time, the most neglected section of Lebanese society was politically organised as a coherent group. This was called the ‘Movement of the Deprived’ and was founded in 1974.

When war broke out, Sadr attempted to hold his movement aloof from the conflict, going on a hunger strike in May 1975 to demand peace and a government of national unity. At the same time, however, the Shia were already forming an armed wing. An accidental explosion at a training camp in July of that year killed over sixty trainees, revealing the militias hitherto secret existence. This militia, the ‘Lebanese Resistance Regiments’ would come to be known by the acronym AMAL (from its Arabic name), by which name the whole movement is better known.

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Amal logo

In the early years of the civil war, however, Amal played little role in the conflict and Sadr’s movement as a whole put forward a series of very moderate demands for political reform. Much of this changed in 1978. Firstly, there was the Israeli invasion. The already put-upon Shi’ites of the south were now living under occupation and the often-indiscriminate cruelty of Haddad’s forces. Secondly, and a source of enduring mystery, Musa al-Sadr vanished off the face of the earth on a visit to Libya in August of that year. It would be too much of a tangent to analyse all of the different theories surrounding his disappearance, interesting as they are. He was a guest of Muammar Gaddafi, whose regime claimed that Sadr and his companions departed Libya for Italy. Most believe that Gaddafi had him killed for some reason, possibly at the behest of Yasser Arafat, whose PLO were rivals for power in southern Lebanon with the Shia and close allies of Gaddafi. Then again, it is reported that Sadr and Gaddafi had an argument about religion; maybe Gaddafi went berserk and killed him. Even with the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, it remains unclear what happened to the Imam.

Whatever the reasons, with the occupation of the south and the disappearance of their leader, Amal began to take a more militant turn. The success of their Iranian revolution in 1979 by their fellow Shi’ites only emboldened them. Despite the fact that Amal members were trained by the PLO in its early days, the rivalry with the Palestinians became increasingly violent, not to mention their fight with the Israelis and the SLA. Amal came to see the Palestinians as foreign occupiers who had brought the wrath of Israel down upon their country. Some Israeli strategists argued that they would find far more reliable allies in the Shia of southern Lebanon than the Christians, and that they should seek an alliance with Amal, but such an alliance did not materialise. Support for Amal came increasingly from Syria, and this connection would intensify even further in the 1980s, when Amal will come to play an increasingly important role in the conflict, but will also come to be rivaled among the Shia by more militant, and explicitly Islamic players like Hezbollah. This is just to establish who Amal are and where they stand. They will return to our story later.

As the war in the south raged between the SLA-Israelis, Amal and the Palestinians, relations deteriorated further north between the Christians and the Syrians. 1980-1 saw intense fighting over the city of Zahleh (see map in the previous post), a predominantly Christian city about 40km west of Beirut which Bashir Gemayel’s forces had taken over. The Syrians bombarded the city which in turn led the Israelis to shoot down Syrian helicopters, claiming they were in contravention of an agreement between them that the air force against ground target. The Syrians said they were merely transporting troops and moved surface-to-air missiles into the area. Here is an interesting piece by British television at the time on the battle for Zahleh:

The reporter sums up the fate of the Syrians (and subsequently of anyone else who tried to intervene) very succinctly: ‘The Syrians once tried to restore a semblance of order, but were then themselves swallowed up by the anarchy’. I have heard this said of the Israelis, Americans etc. by several commentators on the Lebanon war, although personally I would add a note of caution to this idea that well-meaning outsiders were sucked into the chaos of Lebanon and somehow corrupted by the country. In many ways, I think it would be just as true to say that it was outsiders who prolonged the conflict with their interventions.

The crisis over Zahleh would be diffused by Philip Habib, a special envoy sent by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

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Philip Habib. Image: University of California Television.

Habib, who had Lebanese ancestry, managed to get the Syrians to withdraw, in return for which Bashir Gemayel promised to withdraw his forces in favour of the Lebanese army. He also made vague promises to cut links to Israel, which he never fulfilled. Just as they had after the ‘hundred days war’, the Phalangists saw the settlement over Zahleh as a victory, and returned to Beirut as conquering heroes. Bashir Gemayel’s stature only rose higher, and it is from around this period that his transformation from local warlord to aspiring president of the whole country begins. Whereas in the first phase of the war the LF had been fighting to preserve the traditional power-sharing structures that favoured the Christians, Gemayel was now, with Israeli and American backing, looking to destroy those power-sharing structures and seize power in order to expel the Syrians. These plans were also backed by Iraq, who had with the Phalangists a common enemy in Syria.

This plan went forward on all fronts; at the same time as his rival Christian militias were being slaughtered, attempts were being made to court western journalists. If you look on youtube for videos of the main figures discussed here, Gemayel turns up far more than anyone else, speaking pretty good, media-savvy English. In this long-term manoeuvering for power, Gemayel was no doubt coached by the Israelis, to whom his ambitions had become inextricably linked. What Israel became more and more convinced of, as the next presidential election approached in 1982, was that Gemayel could not achieve their main goal, of expelling the PLO from Lebanon, on his own. Another Israeli invasion moved inexorably closer. What nobody quite realised was that it would be on a greater and more ambitious scale this time. The architect of this 1982 invasion was a new and hawkish Israeli defense minster appointed in August 1981, Ariel Sharon:

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Ariel Sharon in Lebanon, 1984. Image: Max Nash, Associated Press.

It is, in a way, misleading to think of two Israeli invasions punctuated by disengagement. The Israelis were bombing Lebanon most of the time between their withdrawal of ground troops in 1978 and their return in June 1982. Retaliation for PLO attacks on Israel was always used as justification for these air-strikes, which once again claimed many civilian lives. June 17 1981 in particular saw intensive bombing of Beirut which it was claimed was an attempt to eliminate the PLO leadership, although its main effect was to kill perhaps 300 civilians. These atrocities provoked rare criticism of Israel from the United States, if no concrete action, and the truce arranged by Philip Habib mentioned above also put a temporary halt to these. An uneasy and unofficial (because neither side would negotiate directly with one another) truce lasted until April 1982, when an Israeli soldier was killed by a landmine while visiting SLA forces and Israel, with characteristic disproportionate force, bombed Damour, killing 23 people in retaliation, claiming that the Palestinians had broken the ceasefire agreement.

In fact, Arafat had no interest in breaking the ceasefire, and had made strenuous efforts to restrain his forces. He could, however, do nothing about the not-inconsiderable numbers of Palestinian forces outside the control of the PLO. It was the actions of one of these rival Palestinian militias which provided Israel with their excuse for the 1982 invasion. This was the attempted murder in London of Israel’s ambassador by the so-called Abu Nidal Organization, which was a more hardline rival of the PLO, sponsored by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The attempted assassination of the ambassador was most likely orchestrated by Iraq in retaliation for Israel’s bombing, the year before, of a nuclear reactor the Iraqis were building outside Baghdad. In short, it really had little to do with Lebanon, but was used as a casus belli anyway. It would be naive to take this at face value however. What Begin’s government (which had been re-elected in 1981) really hoped to achieve in invading Lebanon again was to install a puppet government with Bashir Gemayel as President and sign a peace treaty with it, expelling the Palestinian military presence in the country in the process.

On 6 June 1982, Israeli troops crossed the border once again. In line with their government’s publicly-stated goal, many of Israel’s own soldiers believed that the invasion would once again go no further than 40km into Lebanon’s territory, to establish an area under Israeli control, but go no further. Sharon had far more ambitious plans, however, and there is clear evidence (Sharon sued for libel a newspaper who made this claim and he lost the case) that Sharon even misled his Begin and the Israeli cabinet into thinking that he would merely take his troops as far north as the range of the Palestinian rockets and no further. It became immediately clear that this was on a far greater scale. The fact that the United Nations now stood in their way made zero difference; the UNIFIL troops could do nothing but watch as over 1000 Israeli tanks drove straight past them.
Tyre was quickly captured, followed by Sidon. In both places, the Israeli air-force bombed civilian areas indiscriminately. In this kind of dry political and strategic narrative, it is easy to forgot that the real victims of this war were innocent civilians caught in the middle. The British journalist Robert Fisk, who witnessed first-hand some of the worst atrocities of the Lebanese war, visited the site of a school in Sidon which had been bombed by the Israelis, next to which a PLO guerrilla had chosen to operate an anti-aircraft gun:
‘He may have been unaware that the school contained more than 100 refugees, although this is highly unlikely. His disregard was criminal, like that of the Israeli who killed him. For an Israeli pilot had presumably seen the gun flashes and decided to bomb the artillery. The Israeli could not have seen what he was aiming at; he could have had no idea how many civilians were in the area. Nor could he have cared. For if the Israelis were really worried about civilian casualties, they would never have dropped ordnance at night into a densely populated city.’
There is a tendency, which has always baffled me, to feel less appalled by the slaughter of civilians if it is carried out at a distance from the air, as opposed to ground troops armed with guns or machetes. Compare the thousands killed by the Serbs at Srebrenica by gunshot and starvation, rightly infamous in modern history as a genocidal act, to the comparable numbers killed (many from airstrikes) in the opening weeks of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ phase, which was presented in such a clinical and sanitised fashion that it almost seemed like a video game to spectators, was presented as somehow not as bad as the Serbs executing their victims at point blank range or the Rwandan Hutus hacking the Tutsis to death. But it was. Fisk’s book, Pity the Nation, is full of powerful descriptions of the aftermath of such ‘surgical’ bombing, and shows that the result of both massacres are pretty much the same pile of reeking corpses:
‘In the roof of the school there was a jagged hole, like the one we had seen earlier above the door of the municipality building, made by the Israeli bomb. It had not exploded on contact with the roof. The bomb had been designed to detonate only when it could no longer penetrate the hard surfaces that it struck. So it passed through three floors of the building right into the darkened cellar where the refugees were huddled in terror and only then, when it came into contact with the firm, immovable floor, did it blow up. The bodies lay in a giant heap that had left the children on top and the women beneath them. The bomb must have somehow lifted the huddled mass of refugees and sucked the heaviest of them into its vortex. The white lime dust lay more thickly over some parts of the pile than others, leaving the children exposed, their legs splayed open, heads down. [. . .]
An Israeli officer attached to his army’s `press liaison unit’ in east Beirut was to tell me next day that the story of unburied bodies in Sidon was `PLO propaganda’, that anyone who had died in Sidon was a `terrorist’ or – at worst – a civilian who had died at the hands of `terrorists’. The claim that more than 100 people, including children, had died in that school basement was `utter rubbish’. He instructed me to `check my facts’ before I wrote slanderous articles to the contrary. When I told him I had visited the school and seen the corpses with my own eyes, he told me I had received no permission to visit Sidon, that I should have travelled there with an Israeli escort officer and that I should not visit the city again.
Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation
They began to shell west Beirut on the 21 June. The city had already been subjected to bombing from the air which would kill thousands. In Christian east Beirut, however, the arrival of the Israelis was a strange replay of the Syrians’ arrival in 1976; the same people who had greeted Assad’s forces then were now greeting the Israelis as liberators. Even some Lebanese Muslims, especially the Sunni (who had suffered less as the hands of the IDF than the Shia) were not displeased with the arrival of the Israelis, if it meant the expulsion of the PLO. Even Walid Jumblatt, hitherto a staunch ally of the Palestinians, accepted the inevitable Israeli victory and agreed to participate in a cabinet of national salvation with Gemayel’s Phalangists and Amal. This left the PLO and Syrians as the only ones fighting the Israeli occupation.
The siege went on for almost two months, the Israelis bombing, cutting off food, water and electricity supplies, but reluctant to send troops in (apart from some undercover agents sent in to plant car bombs) for fear of the heavy losses they would incur. The Palestinians spoke of turning Beirut into ‘their Stalingrad’, making a last stand with surrender not an option. This prospect no doubt frightened the Israelis (not to mention the Lebanese stuck there with them); an enemy for whom death holds no fear is a far more formidable one that one who hopes to escape. But the PLO leadership, seeing the inevitable annihilation that would result if they remained, began to negotiate for their evacuation behind the scenes. Habib attempted to secure an agreement, to which efforts Sharon merely intensified the bombing. By early August, even the American government’s legendary forbearance ran out and Reagan criticised Israel, resulting in Sharon’s decision-making powers being curtailed by the Israeli cabinet.
Finally, on 18 August, an agreement was reached that the PLO would evacuate their forces from Beirut, to be dispersed throughout several Arab countries (Arafat was to be exiled to Tunisia), this evacuation to take place under the supervision of a ‘Multinational disengagement force’ consisting of troops from the United States, France and Italy. These troops arrived a few days later, and the Palestinians (as well as the Syrians) began to depart. Here is Arafat on board his ship as he departs on the 27 August:
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Image: Al-Jazeera
And here is Walid Jumblatt firing a machine gun to give him a send-off:
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Image: Al-Jazeera
It really began to look as if the war might be over, but this is Lebanon; there is always a cruel twist in the tale. Events move quickly now. A few days before the departure of Arafat, Bashir Gemayel was elected to the Presidency unopposed. Clear indications that the Israelis and Americans would accept no other candidate had been enough to convince a majority of parliamentary delegates to vote for him, and if that didn’t work, judicious bribes convinced the rest. His supporters celebrated on the streets of Beirut:
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Image: Georges Hayek

 

No doubt the inhabitants of west Beirut greeted news of his election with less enthusiasm. It was clear now that the Muslims, and especially the Palestinian civilians left behind in the refugee camps by the PLO fighters, were at the mercy of the new Israeli-backed president and his militias. The only tenuous protection appeared to be the Multinational Force who were scheduled to stay in Beirut for at least a month. These reboarded their ships on the 9 September, however, after only two weeks in the city. With the Palestinians gone, their job appeared complete, and they saw no reason to hang around.

Gemayel, meanwhile, was having secret meetings with the Israelis on the 1 and 12 September, at which Begin and Sharon demanded he sign a peace treaty with Israeli. The president-elect was reportedly furious at the high-handed way he was treated by the Israelis, however, and demanded that he be given time to build consensus among all the Lebanese for such a treaty. This indicates that, although he had been brought to power by Israel, Bashir Gemayel may have been preparing to distance himself from his patrons now that he was president. It will never be known what exactly a Gemayel presidency would have looked like, however, because he was killed by a remotely-detonated bomb on the 14 September.

aftermath

 

Although his killer had been a Christian, probably acting at the behest of the Syrians, this made little difference to the Phalangist followers of Gemayel who, as I noted earlier, were fanatically devoted to their leader and baying for blood in the wake of his assassination, and specifically the blood of Muslims. The PLO had left behind their elderly, women and children in the refugee camps on the understanding (Habib confirmed that this promise was made) that the Israelis would not enter west Beirut after their fighters evacuated. The Multinational Force, as noted, were no longer there to protect anyone. Within days of Gemayel’s killing, the Israelis broke their promise, citing the need to maintain law and order in the area. What was to subsequently happen in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, however, carried out by the Christian militias and overseen by the Israelis, was the very antithesis of law and order.
End of part 6
Featured image above: aftermath of a car-bomb, Beirut, 1980s.
A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 6: The Lebanese civil war #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 4. Iran: Revolution #2

khomeni

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I posited at the end of the last post not one Iranian revolution, but two. This is not the standard historiographic framework in which the revolution is examined, and I wouldn’t push the idea too far (it was mainly to justify dividing the story up into two posts), but it does add emphasis to an important aspect of this story which is often overlooked with the benefit of hindsight. That is, that while Iran became an Islamic republic in the years that followed, this is not what many of the revolutionaries had in mind when they helped remove the Shah. The process by which Khomeini and his followers prevailed over these other revolutionary factions in the years after the first revolution, will be the subject of this post. This dichotomy is supported by Khomeini himself, who in 1983 referred to this period of consolidation (and specifically the taking of hostages at the American embassy) as  a ‘second revolution’. The character which the revolution in Iran took had profound consequences for the west, and especially America’s, relationship with the region (largely due to the hostage crisis), for the civil war in Lebanon, which had been raging since 1975, and of course relations with Iraq, with whom Iran would be embroiled in a devastating war from 1980 to 1988.

In the political intrigues which follow, I will broadly divide the conflict into two camps: the clerical or ‘Khomeinist’ faction, who were working towards a theocratic state led by an Islamic jurist (Khomeini himself, until his death in 1989) and their erstwhile allies in the revolution who, while they envisaged some kind of role for the clergy in the new order, did not necessarily foresee that it would take the kind of leading role that Khomeini and his followers sought. At the moment of Khomeini’s return, however, it was far from clear that these two factions were working at cross purposes to each other. On the contrary, while Khomeini’s first speech after arrival at the airport was uncompromising in its attitude to the government left behind by the Shah and led by Bakhtiar (‘I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth’), he nonetheless appointed as the prime minister of his rival administration Mehdi Bazargan, whose background did not differ profoundly from Bakhtiar’s. Bazargan agreed to be prime minister only after a few days of reflection, after warning Khomeini that he did not favour a thoroughly Islamic state apparatus, and that he was committed to western-style democratic principles.

It appears that in these early months, Khomeini either believed he would have to compromise his principles by co-operation with less committed Islamists for practical purposes (he and his supporters were not at this stage in a sufficiently strong position to overpower all opposition), or that he was biding his time and playing down his real intentions until his supporters were ready to elbow their fellow-revolutionaries out of the way. Certainly from their meetings with Khomeini in Paris before the revolution, non-clerical opposition figures like Bazargan, Banisadr and Sanjabi had been left with the impression that the Ayatollah favoured merely an advisory role for the clergy, with politics left to the politicians and himself as a distant, spiritual figurehead rather than an actual ruler. This was in line with their own ambitions. Given that Khomeini never subsequently explained his thinking in this period, his intentions and strategy at any given stage are somewhat opaque, and we are left to guess what he was up to based on his later actions and statements made at the time. He held a press conference (this is the only picture I’ve ever seen in which Khomeini is smiling) to announce he had appointed Bazargan.

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It is worth quoting at some length what he said:

‘. . . through the guardianship that I have from the holy lawgiver I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him, he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the shari‘a. Opposing this government means opposing the shari‘a of Islam and revolting against the shari‘a, and revolt against the government of the shari‘a has its punishment in our law. Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.’

This was innovative in Islamic political thought. Sovereignty, Khomeini was claiming, did not ultimately lie with the people or a monarch, or indeed Khomeini himself. It lay with God, and as God’s appointed guardian on earth, the Ayatollah was taking upon himself the role of interpreting God’s will in political matters. At numerous vital junctures in the months ahead, Khomeini would increasingly play this trump card: asserting that to defy his will was defying God’s. Khomeini’s contention that the government should be headed by a ‘guardianship of the jurist’ (Vilayat-e Faqih) was central to the conflicts that lay ahead. He had expounded it in his writings but in the early stages of the revolution, these ideas were not widely known to the public, or even to his more secular allies. Khomeini kept this concept, which would make him the supreme authority in the state, relatively quiet for the moment, which was probably a wise course of action. Even among his fellow Ayatollahs it was not accepted for the most part. Opponents argued that within traditional Shi’a thought, Vilayat-e Faqih had merely extended to widows and orphans, but not to political control over society as a whole. The leading Ayatollah who argued that the clergy should take a back seat in politics was Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari:

Kazem_Shariatmadari

Shariatmadari had been, for the past few decades, one of the leading liberal thinkers among the Marja (the highest-level Ayatollahs in Shi’ism) and an advocate of peaceful protest against the Shah, for the implementation of the constitution of 1906. This would have retained the Shah as a weak constitutional monarch and made Iran a representative democracy. The Shah and his regime, with their characteristic stupidity, cracked down hard on Shariatmadari and other pacifist opponents, funneling opposition into more violent, confrontational channels. After his massacre of unarmed protesters, Shariatmadari’s condemnation of the Shah’s regime as ‘unIslamic’ was one of the milestones on the road to its collapse, depriving it of legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. After the revolution, however, Shariatmadari’s call for a constitutional democratic form of government, with the clergy once again retreating from political activity, made him an influential opponent of Khomeini and his followers.

Even if Khomeini was content to keep his concept of a Vilayat-e Faqih muted for the moment, it is clear that his supporters were mobilising for such an eventuality from an early stage. A secret organisation set up by Khomeini was already in existence before the fall of the Shah. After the Ayatollah’s return in February, the Islamic Republican Party (the IRP) was founded, which would play a leading role in consolidating the Islamists’ power. Among its founders were some of the central figures in the power-struggle ahead: Mohammad Beheshti, Ali Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Javad Bahonar. I find that its usually easier to remember a name when you can put a face to it, and there are a lot of names and middle-aged men with beards in what lies ahead, so we might as well have a look at some of them now:

Mohammad Beheshti
From left to right: Behesti, Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Bahonar.

Behesti was the leading member of the IRP from the start. For him and his followers, the first step was to establish some kind of mandate for the foundation of an Islamic republic. This would not be difficult, given that such a state was one of the rallying-calls in the protests against the Shah. A referendum was held at the end of March in which 99% of the electorate voted in favour. What is crucial to remember at this stage is that the ballot simply asked if the voter wanted an Islamic republic or not. No definition of what that would mean was offered, and while almost everyone could agree that they wanted an Islamic republic, what that actually meant differed widely in practice. These differing interpretations and the latent conflict they involved could be papered over in the heady days after the revolution’s victory, but they could not be avoided forever, or even for long. For the moment, almost everyone could rally around the slogan at least.

Even the armed leftist groups who had suffered most from the Shah’s repression, and now emerged as the strongest military factions, besides the army, were not necessarily opposed to some religious element in the new dispensation. Of the two largest groups, the People’s Mujahedeen supported a yes in the referendum, and the Fedayan-e Khalq (the ‘People’s Majority’) renounced armed struggle and supported the Islamists on a range of issues, hoping (in vain) to be tolerated as a peaceful opposition. Iran’s communists, the Tudeh (masses) party also supported not only the revolution, but the clerical faction in the coming struggles against their leftist rivals. It may seem strange to us that left-wing Marxist groups like these could support an Islamic element in governance, but we must recall the strain of ‘red Shi’ism’ discussed in the last post, exemplified by the writings of Ali Shariati, which was extremely popular among left-leaning intellectuals in Iran in the 1970s. This fusion of Shia Islam and Marxist thought saw no contradiction between religion and practical socialism; on the contrary, it saw true adherence to Shia principles as necessarily bringing into existence the kind of socially-just and egalitarian state of affairs advocated by Socialists. In many respects, it can be compared to the brand of ‘liberation theology’ which emerged in Latin American Catholicism in the 1970s and ’80s, which found itself in conflict with the more conservative establishment of the church in Rome. These left-wing Islamists have been largely forgotten due to their defeat and suppression by the more conservative brand of ‘black Sh’ism’ which prevailed in the revolution.

How Khomeini brought about this defeat has much to do with the development of his own armed groups to counter the threat of the leftists, which was one of his first priorities. Of the several groups set up, by far the most important were the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami (literally, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) and Hezbollah (the Party of God-note that usually when Hezbollah are mentioned in the west, the reference is to Lebanese Hezbollah, a later movement that was supported by the Iranian government). Sepah would in time become an elite part of the state’s military apparatus. In the atmosphere of fervid enthusiasm, they had grown rapidly to 11,000 members by September 1979, and were under the command of Hashemi Rafsanjani. The Hezbollah were less a formal military organisation than a paramilitary gang, extremely effective at intimidating gatherings of Khomeini’s opponents, fighting with clubs and other improvised weapons. Hezbollah would, in 1980, be instrumental in driving the leftist groups either underground or into exile by attacking their meeting places and bookstores.

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Left-wing activists (foreground) are attacked by Hezbollah (under the monument in the background), February 1980.

The next step was to flesh out what was meant by an ‘Islamic Republic’, with the writing of a constitution for said republic. This was where Khomeini could expect the greatest ideological resistance which, besides the armed leftist groups, came from those members of the interim government who belonged to Bazargan’s Freedom Movement. This party had similarities to the earlier National Front of Mossadegh, advocating liberal democratic values with a more overt Islamic cast than the National Front. A good European comparison might be the Christian Democrat parties of the postwar period, basically seeking to adopt most of a the trappings of a modern parliamentary democracy, but keeping the religious influence as a foundation. For the sake of shorthand, I will hereafter refer to them as the ‘moderates’, while recognising that that term is less than ideal. In the discussions surrounding a new constitution, these moderate Islamists were, in the beginning, a formidable obstacle to the full implementation of Khomeini’s program, given that they dominated the government which was responsible for drafting the constitution. Here are some of their leading members:

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Leading members of the Freedom Movement (left to right): Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, Medhi Bazargan, Abdolhassan Banisadr and Ibrahim Yazdi.

Ayatollah Shariatmadari was also consulted in the drafting of this constitution. The first version was published in June 1979, and merely gave a weak advisory role to the clergy. There was nothing about the Vilayat-e Faqih. It is interesting to note at this stage that Khomeini seems to have judged that the clergy’s claims to authority had been pushed as far as they would go under the circumstances. He declared the draft constitution ‘correct’ and approved it for referendum. The Freedom Movement and its allies, therefore, seemed on the brink of realising their ambitions. Then, something strange happened. Instead of quitting while they were ahead, the moderates felt duty-bound to have the new constitution debated by an elected assembly before its ratification, as they had promised their supporters. Despite warnings that, under the circumstances, any elections for an assembly would be dominated by IRP supporters, they allowed this to take place. In August, a body of ‘experts’ was elected to review the draft constitution. 55 of the 73 members were clerics aligned with Khomeini who, no doubt seeing his chance, announced that the new constitution should be entirely Islamic, and that non-clerical members of the body should not even enter into discussion on the religious elements.

It is in this period that the Islamists begin to gain the upper hand and flex their muscles over their erstwhile revolutionary allies. Newspapers associated with the left-wing opposition were attacked and closed, Hezbollah and other groups became more assertive, attacking opposition rallies and forcing women to cover themselves up in the street. Behesti, as chairman of the constitutional assembly, led the discussion towards acceptance of the Vilayat-e Faqih. Although it continued to be resisted (Ayatollah Taleghani warned at this point: ‘may God forbid autocracy under the name of religion’) by principled individuals, these were increasingly lone voices. Far from opposing the granting of the role of supreme leader to Khomeini, the masses seemed in favour of it. Clerical opponents like Shariatmadari either didn’t have the stomach for a showdown or, like Taleghani (9 September 1979) died at this opportune moment.

There had been signs before this that the provisional government lacked real power. Orders were being followed far more assiduously by the IRP and the Council of the Islamic Revolution. A great deal of the day-to-day running of the country was also being exercised by the thousands of komitehs (committees) which had been set up around the country as the Shah’s government collapsed. These were local organisations which, in their autonomy and ad-hoc nature, are in many ways analgous to the Soviets that exercised power ruled the early phase of the Russian revolution. By November the shape of the new constitution had emerged, giving broad powers to Khomeini as faqih (supreme leader), to be held for the rest of his life. The faqih was to be at the top of the hierarchy of government, with power to appoint the heads of the armed services and declare war or peace. It was also within his gift to appoint the heads of the national TV and radio stations, and even to remove the president if he was judged incompetent by the parliament. The faqih also had the right to veto candidates for the presidential election if he saw fit.

Such sweeping powers for an unelected position did not go uncontested. Those few remaining within the constitutional assembly, such as Banisadr, warned that it threatened to turn Iran into an autocracy again. Even if deference was paid to Khomeini personally, it was argued that after his death such powers might be abused by a less wise and righteous successor. Debates continued, long after the original time alloted to the assembly had elapsed. Despite opposition to the clerics, however, an atmosphere was intensifying with time, in which any disagreement with Khomeini could be interpreted and portrayed as a lack of revolutionary zeal. In such an atmosphere, it was easy for accusations of sympathy towards the former regime or foreign powers, to take hold in people’s imagination. Into this atmosphere, an event occurred in November which finally and decisively made public opposition to Khomeini untenable, locking Iran into a siege mentality against the outside world which benefited the clerics immensely.

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Anti-American feeling had been a factor in the revolution from the very beginning. This is not surprising, given how much the population had suffered under the dictatorship of the Shah, and the United State’s steadfast support of him over many years. It is only in retrospect, however, that the enmity between Iran and the ‘Great Satan’ appears inevitable. The tacit encouragement given to the opposition by the Carter administration has been alluded to in the previous post. The American embassy played a major role in assisting the revolution by, as Bazargan later revealed, working actively to secure the army’s neutrality. The Americans’ encouragement extended to direct contact between embassy personnel and the clerical opposition. The United States, as we can see from the example of Saudi Arabia or their support of fundamentalists in Afghanistan, had no problem with fundamentalist Islam as long as it could be used as an ally against communism. Initial attitudes towards the revolutionary government in Iran reflect a belief in the State Department that Khomeini’s regime could not only be accommodated, but could become part of what Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, liked to call an ‘arc of crisis’ along the Soviet Union’s southern flank, which might be used to foment instability and generally create a headache for the Russians.

Khomeini, however, was not reading the standard Cold War script, in which everyone has to choose a superpower to ally with. While his hatred of the atheistic communists was undimmed, he was also scathing of America, not because it placed the strategic interests of its neo-colonial empire above human life, but because of the materialism and inequality of the consumer culture it sought to export around the world. More pragmatic elements within his government, on the other hand, sought a restoration of relations with the United States. Despite misgivings, it was clear that Iran could not cut itself off from the outside world. For starters, the country would need someone to buy its oil, and the Americans were the world’s best customers in that respect; similarly, Iran had already paid for massive amounts of armaments which had not yet been delivered, and the Americans were holding back on delivery to wait and see whose hands they would fall into. The Iranian army also depended on the Americans for spare parts for the military hardware they already possessed. The subsequent inability to obtain these would be a huge problem in the years ahead.

Such practical considerations were of no interest to Khomeini and, after the Americans allowed the Shah into the United States on 22 October, public anger was ratcheted up several degrees. The Shah had been wandering from country to country after his flight, dying of cancer, and the Americans argued that they were admitting him on purely humanitarian grounds, so that he could receive treatment. The Iranians were having none of this, and demanded the Shah be sent back to stand trial for his crimes. Such was the tension that existed, indeed, that anyone who sought to reach out and mend relations with the United States fell under suspicion of collaboration with the enemy. This happened when Bazargan and Yazdi met Brzezinski in Algiers on 1 November, and a photograph of them shaking hands was published in an Iranian newspaper. Once again, the rift between the de jure government, impotent and tainted with accusations of lacking revolutionary zeal, and the real focus of power around Khomeini, was apparent. A group of students loyal to Khomeini decided to take matters into their own hands, confident (rightly, as it turned out) that the Ayatollah would support their actions.

After the Shah was given refuge, huge crowds had been protesting outside the American embassy in Tehran every day. On the 4 November 1979, a group emerged from the crowd and scaled the fence, then cut the padlocks on the gates, and led a storming of the embassy, during which over sixty embassy staff were taken hostage. Once again it was clear that the provisional government were utterly helpless (no police even attempted to defend the building) and that power on the streets belonged to autonomous revolutionary groups such as the ‘Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line’ which had organised the embassy takeover. This is, in the west, the central event of the Iranian revolution, and I don’t want to dwell too much on the diplomatic ins and outs of it too much, given that it has been examined in so much detail elsewhere. What is significant for the story here is that Bazargan and his government immediately called for the release of the hostages and asked for Khomeini to do the same. If he had, no doubt the whole thing would have blown over, but he didn’t.

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Instead, Khomeini indicated his approval and the IRC issued a statement supporting the students. Iran was here entering uncharted diplomatic waters. The inviolability of foreign embassies is basically a cornerstone of relations between countries; without it, diplomatic relations break down. The attempts to Bazargan and his allies to point this out, however, fell on deaf ears. Under the circumstances, it just made them appear more and more tarnished as sympathetic to the Americans, especially when documents seized in the embassy exposed their attempts to mend relations with them. It was clear to the prime minister that his position was untenable and he resigned on the 6 November. Khomeini announced to the country that Bazargan was ‘a bit tired and wishes to stay on the sidelines for a while.’

And the hostage crisis dragged on without end in sight. Every attempt the Carter regime made to negotiate their release ran up against the Iranians’ insistence that the Shah be handed over to them. This the Americans refused to do. The longer this went on, the more poisonous the atmosphere became, and the feeling of being picked on by American superpower only strengthened the power of Khomeini and the IRC. Under such circumstances of course, the referendum in December on the constitution resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Islamists. Khomeini was made supreme leader with all the powers he had demanded in his vision of a Vilayat-e Faqih. The new constitution also instituted the elected post of president, to be subordinate to the supreme leader. Elections were held in January 1980 for the position. Perhaps as a gesture to the still-significant middle-class constituency who supported the more liberal wing of the revolution, Khomeini vetted leading IRC members like Behesti from running, basically clearing the path for Abdolhassan Banisadr, standing as an independent, to win the election with an impressive 76% share of the vote. Here he is on the left at his inauguration. Behesti, standing next to him, looks suitably pissed off.

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Although  Khomeini and Banisadr were old friends, and the Ayatollah had facilitated Banisadr’s presidency, from here on in, they would generally find themselves at loggerheads, and the president stymied at every turn, not only by the supreme leader, but by the new Majlis (parliament) which, after the elections in March was dominated by the IRC and its allies. Accusations were made by the Freedom movement and the left that the vote had been rigged, and that people had been intimidated into voting for IRC candidates. What was not even concealed was the practice of a committee which filtered out candidates undesirable to the clerics. Whatever the reasons, it appears that Khomeini was prepared to offer the presidency as a sop to liberals, while securing control of the Majlis. Banisadr’s position was further undermined when Khomeini (who had to approve of the appointment) refused to accept his choice of prime minister, forcing the president to appoint an IRC-approved candidate, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, for the job. In the early part of 1981, Khomeini intensified his undermining of the presidency, accusing Banisadr of exceeding his constitutional powers and of secretly collaborating with the CIA. Many of his supporters were rounded up and imprisoned and, by June 1981, Banisadr went into hiding, eventually fleeing to Paris, where he lives to this day as a prominent spokesperson against the Islamic regime. Rajai was elected president in Banisadr’s place, although he and his prime minister. Mohammad Javad Bahonar, were killed by the People’s Mujahedeen in a bomb later that year. The same group incidentally, would also be responsible for the assassination of Behesti and 72 others, with a bomb at the IRC headquarters in June 1981.

Back in the midst of the presidential elections of 1980 (which took place in two rounds between March and May) the Americans, frustrated by a lack of progress in negotiations, made a disastrous attempt to rescue the hostages. In what was, in retrospect, an overcomplicated plan, eight helicopters flew into Iran and rendezvoused in an isolated desert region before continuing on to Tehran. They ran into a dust-storm and lost their bearings, and then, when attempted to refuel, one helicopter crashed into another killing eight crew members. The others abandoned the mission and fled, leaving classified documents in some of the abandoned helicopters with detailed plans of the rescue mission. It was an utter humiliation for the Americans and for the Iranians, a confirmation of what they suspected all along, of the Americans’ imperialist attitude towards their country and attempts to derail the revolution.

Such suspicions were of course not without foundation, given that the United States clearly had no compunction about violating the sovereignty of another nation state. It was also widely believed in Iran that the rescue mission had been thwarted by the intervention of God (the convenient dust-storm) and it only strengthened the hand of the clerics even more. This strengthening of the most radical elements of the revolution by outside attempts at intervention is a constant theme of Iran in the 1980s. Nothing smothers internal dissent than an exterior threat, and nothing brings divided factions together like a heroic national struggle for survival. We can see the same dynamic at work in revolutionary France and Russia. In this sense, the invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in September 1980 played a huge role in the Khomeinists’ consolidation of power. There is little doubt that Iraq was, at the outset the aggressor in the war. Seeking to take advantage of the revolutionary turmoil in the country and the army’s weakness, Saddam launched a surprise invasion on 22 September 1980 and, aided by the element of surprise, captured a significant amount of Iranian territory. Its initial air strikes on the Iranian air-force were bungled and ineffective, however, and the Iranians, once they had rallied, halted the Iraqi advance and settled in for a long drawn-out battle to expel the Iraqis from their territory.

Despite the major handicap associated with being unable to obtain spares for their equipment from the Americans, and the decimation of the army’s staff by the revolution, Iran had managed, by 1982, to push the Iraqis back across the border. The war might have ended there; Iran might have avoided the catastrophe that was to continue until 1988, but instead Khomeini and his supporters decided to pursue an aggressive war into Iraq. Those involved in decision-making still debate whose responsibility this was, no doubt because the war ultimately achieved nothing except take a million lives on each side and decimate the country’s infrastructure. It also contributed to the sense of Iranian victimhood against western plotting. It has to be said once again that they had good reasons to believe this. Partly due to the fact that Saddam Hussein was subsequently to become the caricature baddie on western tv-screens, we forget that at the time he was favoured by the west in the war, even if this was not officially admitted.

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At the start of the war, Hussein’s army received the bulk of its supplies from the Soviet Union and France, but by the time of the Iranian offensive in 1982, the Americans were actively seeking ways to lend their support as well. The Iraqis used complicated financial ruses to disguise arms-procurement from the Americans and British and, even more controversially, were knowingly supplied by the same countries with the means for manufacturing chemical weapons. These were used from 1983 onwards against Iranian soldiers and later, against Kurdish civilians, most notoriously at Halabja, where 4-5,000 people were killed on 16 March 1988.

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For the Iranians, this, and the fact that the Americans and the British refused to condemn Iraq for using chemical weapons, convinced them that they had no real interest in upholding human rights or international conventions like Geneva. What resolutions were taken at the UN condemned the use of chemical weapons in general, but it is to Iran’s credit that, while they did develop the capacity to manufacture them, Khomeini’s government declared their use to be unIslamic, and refused to use them. This last fact is interesting in that it left Iran at a significant disadvantage in the war. One of the main reasons they made peace in 1988 was the fear that Iraq would use chemical weapons on Tehran and other large cities. It does suggest a sincere principled religious outlook on the part of the revolutionary leaders, and not, as some have suggested, a cynical attempt to use religion to gain power. Even if we may not agree with Khomeini’s principles, it has to be acknowledge that he stuck to them, even at his own cost. In terms of international relations, this made him unpredictable, and therefore dangerous.

The hostage crisis is another example of this. Khomeini appears to have genuinely believed that the U.S. was plotting against Iran. Given the threat from the Soviet Union on their doorstep, it really would have made more sense for the Iranians to swallow their pride and restore good relations with the Americans. It has been seen that the Americans were only too willing to do so. Moderates like Banisadr, and more pragmatic clerics like Rafsanjani, were in favour of this. But Khomeini prevented it at every juncture. The hostages were held for a total of 444 days in the end. The Iranians waited until a few minutes after Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as president in January 1981 to release them. In fact, the hostage crisis and the bungled rescue attempt probably had a decisive impact on the failure of Carter to secure re-election. There is significant evidence, in fact, to suggest that Reagan’s campaign secretly worked with the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages to help Reagan win.

In the end, the crisis achieved little for Iran. Apart from the release of some funds  the Americans had frozen, the Iranians secured few concessions in their negotiations. In return, they earned the enmity of successive American governments and an international isolation which basically continued until the agreement of January 2016 to lift sanctions against the country. None of this was necessary or inevitable. Both countries have profoundly misunderstood and demonised one another to very little purpose. The culmination of this misunderstanding was in the years of George W.Bush’s presidency, when Iraq was portrayed as America’s nemesis in some kind of global clash of civilisations between the modern secular west and Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, the Iranian regime was bemused by this ‘axis of evil’ narrative, because they had just provided the Americans with military intelligence to help defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, whom they regarded as far more dangerous rivals than the Americans.

In fact, Iran’s conflict with the United States does not fit neatly into some narrative of an east-west clash of cultures at all. This overestimates the role played by religion in these matters. While certainly important, even at the height of revolutionary fervour in the 1980s, it was less central than is sometimes assumed. Iran’s soldiers, marching off to die in ‘human wave’ attacks against the Iraqis, were often portrayed in the western media as suicidal fanatics, dying for religion. While the rhetoric of martyrdom played a big part, research has shown that nationalism played at least as large a role in motivating them as religion. There is a discussion of this in the excellent book Revolutionary Iran by Michael Axworthy. It is also notable how little attempt was made by the Iranians to export the revolution abroad. Attempts were made to foment rebellion amongst the Shia in Iraq, with limited success. More often than not, however, they chose to defend their country against the Iranian invader; clearly national identity overrode religious. The opposite was true in Iran, where the Iraqis’ fellow Arabs in Khuzestan province might have been expected to side with Iraq, but for the most part, did not.

There were of course elements within the revolution who wanted to export it to other countries. At times, Khomeini himself seems to have encouraged this trend. Some have suggested that Iraq’s attack on Iran was driven by this fear, and that such an ambition drove Iran to prolong the war after 1982. The only place, however, in which Iran could be said to have significantly intervened was Lebanon, and in the rise of Lebanese Hezbollah, which will be dealt with in a separate post. In fact, the proponents of an expansionist Iranian revolution became, in practice, marginalised in the 1980s. Consumed by internal conflict and the Iraq war, Iran had far less influence on, for example, the war in neighbouring Afghanistan than might be expected. This is partly because the pragmatists like Rafsanjani gradually took precedence over the less prudent revolutionary elements. Pragmatism and realpolitik dictated strict Islamic principles be put aside on occasion for strategic advantage.

It has been noted in an earlier post that the Syrian regime of Assad (both father and son) was fanatical in its secularism and persecution of Islamists; it is interesting to note, however, that in the 1980s it was Islamic Iran’s most loyal ally, largely on account of the fact that they shared a common enemy in Iraq. Even more remarkable was the ambiguous relationship with Israel. Condemnation of Israel and Zionism went, of course, side by side with anti-American rhetoric in the early stages of the revolution. Israel had been a major backer of the Shah and was none too pleased to see an Islamist regime emerge in Tehran. In practice, however, there was a natural convergence of interests between Iran and Israel which could not be openly acknowledged, but which led the two countries to share intelligence, and for the Israelis to send arms to Iran. Even while they were fighting (by proxy) in Lebanon, Israel was aiding Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein, bombing Iraq’s plutonium research reactor in 1981 and even receiving permission to enter Iranian airspace for the purpose. Such collaboration, of course, had to be a closely-guarded secret.

It turned out not to be closely-guarded enough. When it came out, the Iran-Contra affair was even more shocking because, besides Israel, the backdoor means by which Iran was trading for arms included even the Great Satan itself. The Iran-Contra affair is a fascinating episode for what it reveals about the disparity between states’ avowed values and goals, and the extent to which they are prepared to subvert these apparent principles in pursuit of their strategic aims. The Americans had, since the hostage crisis, cut off all economic ties with Iran, refusing to either buy Iranian oil or sell weapons to assist them in their war with Iraq. They had also gone to some lengths to convince other countries not to sell weapons to them either, basically doing everything they could to hinder their war effort. At the same time, a war had been raging in Nicaragua since 1981 between the left-wing Sandinistas, who had overthrown the fascist dictator Somoza in 1979, and an armed group of counter-revolutionaries called the Contras. While under Carter, attempts had been made to assist the fledgling democracy under the Sandinistas, when Reagan came to power, these attempts were ended, and funding/arms was instead directed towards the Contras.

There was widespread discontent at this assistance, however, as the Contras were basically unreconstructed fascists who were engaged in widespread human-rights abuses and prepared to do almost anything to destablise Nicaragua. Although Reagan was president, Congress at this time was controlled by the Democrats, who managed to pass a bill forbidding the United States from funding the Contras. At the same time, in Lebanon (bear with me here)…a number of Americans (among other westerners) had been taken hostage by Lebanese Hezbollah, which had strong connections (some go so far as to say it was controlled by) the Islamic Republic of Iran. By its own policy of not paying ransoms to (or even negotiating with) kidnappers, the United States government was hamstrung in its efforts to secure the return of these hostages. So, the Reagan administration was faced with three things it wasn’t allowed to do-fund the Contras, ransom the hostages in Lebanon, and supply Iran with arms. It was realised that, with Israeli help, they could do all three.

Basically, the scheme worked like this: Israel would secretly supply Iran with American weapons and spare parts, Iran would pay Israel, who would pass on these funds to the Contras in return for replacement of their weapons by America. In return for this, Iran would ensure that the Islamist groups in Lebanon would release their American hostages. This was going on from November 1985, and worked like a charm until August of the following year, when the arrangement was leaked by a Lebanese newspaper. It was shortly afterwards confirmed by both the Iranians and Americans, for both of whom it was deeply embarrassing, and who both made every effort to limit the damage and shelter top-level officials from responsibility. What it does show that there was no obstacle in private to dealings with the ‘enemy’, but that public postures based on either religious principle or commitment to human rights and democracy, were largely a fiction, and indeed remain so to this day.

By the time of the Iran-Contra scandal, it can be said that the Islamic revolution in Iran had well and truly consolidated its power, and was here to stay. There is no hard and fast date we can put this at. Personally, I think the decree of December 1982 is a good point at which we can say the revolution came to an end. In this, the government sought to bring under its control the various komitehs and Revolutionary Guard groups, clearly asserting its right to a monopoly of violence, to rein in the revolutionary fervour that had served it well to that point but which, as in all revolutions, could ultimately become destabilising if given free rein too long. This is not to say that Iran was from then on a stable, untroubled society. Far from it, apart from the devastation caused by the war with Iraq, there continued to be rivalries and disputes in the corridors of power. Perhaps the most prominent confrontation was between Khomeini and his designated successor, Hussein-Ali Montazeri (below), who had once belonged to the most radical wing of the revolution, and was one of the most eager to export it abroad.

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As the 1980s progressed, however, Montazeri also became concerned with the government’s growing authoritarianism, his critique growing in confidence as he became more clearly identified as successor to Khomeini and a group of followers correspondingly gathered around him. His downfall came in the aftermath of the execution of thousands of mostly left-wing prisoners in 1988, which Khomeini had personally ordered. Montazeri was sidelined and eventually placed under house arrest, but remained a prominent critic of the Islamic republic (which he claimed was not being run on Islamic lines) until his death in 2009. His funeral, incidentally, became a rallying point for the protests of that year against the re-election of Ahmadinejad.

When Khomeini did die in 1989, his replacement was Ali Khamenei, who had been elected president in 1981 to replace the assassinated Rajai. Khameini’s prime minister, Mir Hosein Musavi (the pairing lasted until 1989), was to become a leader of the reformist movement of 2009, in which he ran against Ahmadinejad and accused the latter’s campaign of fixing the results. As the prison massacres would indicate, Iran became in many ways as repressive as it had been under the Shah. The organisation created to replace SAVAK, the SAVAMA, differed little, not only in its name, but in terms of cruelty. Some of its members were even recruited from former SAVAK operatives, rehabilitated for the purpose. Notwithstanding all of these teething troubles, by 1982, the essentials of the Islamic regime were in place, and no alternative, whether leftist, or sympathetic towards the Shah, stood any chance of replacing it. This is a massive element in the story of political Islam over the past half century: the establishment of an Islamic state of 50 (today 80) million people, governed along theocratic lines, in the heart of the what America liked to see as its middle-eastern strategic chessboard, and which was literally on the Soviet Union’s doorstep. It has already been noted, however, how surprisingly limited was Iran’s role as a fomenter of Islamic revolution abroad. Although the Iranian revolution produced a regime that was outwardly hostile to ‘the west’ and the United States in particular, it would be deeply misleading to conclude from this that, from this point on, political Islam and the west were locked in an ideological battle which has continued unbroken to this day. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The country which confounds this narrative is Afghanistan, where many of the forces that would come to characterise the Salafist movement of the 1990s onwards would coalesce. Before we come to the Afghan wars which followed the Soviet invasion of 1979, however, it might be useful to backtrack a bit and explain some of the other conflicts which have fed into the growth of militant Islam. One of my main purposes in this blog, after all, has been to explain some of the lesser-known corners of the Muslim world, whose wars occasionally pop up in the news and which seem incomprehensible to most of us. One of the most incomprehensible of these conflicts, which has been mentioned once or twice in this post, was Lebanon, which was ostensibly one of the most prosperous and peaceful corners of the middle-east until a devastating and prolonged civil war erupted in 1975. This will be the subject of the next post. After that, my plan is to make detours to Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq and Libya, as well as Yemen and the Persian Gulf states, to examine the development of political Islam in these countries (as opposed to a comprehensive history of them) in the last few decades. Afghanistan will then be examined, in many ways the fulcrum around which this story revolves, as well as the Algerian and Yugoslav civil wars, which were also vital episodes.

End of part 4

Featured image above: eyes of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 4. Iran: Revolution #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 3. Iran: Revolution #1

 

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In 1979, political Islam became headline news in the west with the Iranian revolution, which brought a 76 year-old cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Before this, the rise of Islam as a factor in geopolitics was acknowledged only by those with a specialist interest in the region; afterwards, there could  be no ignoring it. In retrospect, one of the most surprising things about it was the extent to which it surprised its contemporaries. In 1978, a CIA report on Iran stated that ‘the shah will be an active participant in Iranian life well into the 1980s’ and that ‘there will be no radical change in Iranian political behaviour in the near future.’ Iran, it was confidently asserted, ‘is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.’ Within a year, however, a 2,500 year-old monarchy had been overthrown and an Islamic republic instituted in its place. The latter fact confounded expectations that, if there was to be change, it would come from the progressive forces of the left rather than the clerics or ullama. It is important, therefore, to understand the roots of the crisis that  gripped Iran and examine why, in ridding itself of its autocratic ruler, it bucked the trend of so many revolutions in the west and instead of embracing enlightenment-based ideologies turned instead to (what appeared to many outsiders at any rate) the past.

In broad outline, the roots of the revolution in Iran bear similarities to the concurrent attempt at an Islamist revolution in Egypt which was discussed in the last post. Like in Egypt, a western-backed ruler presided over a period of rapid economic growth which benefited a tiny elite. This growth was fueled by an influx of capital from the west and was accompanied by a turbulent and disorientating cultural westernisation of the country. These processes alienated a large proportion of the population which remained poor, but excluded from any influence over the ruling of the country through the absence of any democratic processes. Much of this discontent stemmed from the huge numbers of people from rural areas who had moved to the cities in search of work and were often left impoverished, rootless and alienated-a receptive audience to opponents of the Shah’s rule. The Shah, however, appears to have been oblivious to the existence of this seething mass of resentment, right up until the eve of his deposition. Here is the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in modest casual attire:

To understand how his deposition came to this pass, it is important to note that Iran had not been an autocracy from time immemorial. It is often noted that the fall of the Shah ended a 2,500 year-old institution, but the Pahlavi dynasty were blow-ins, only recently founded by an Iranian army officer, Reza Shah Pahlavi, in 1925. He had been too close to the Germans during the second world war and was forced to abdicate by the allies in favour of his 22 year-old son. Mohammad Reza was a staunch western ally who allowed allied supplies through to their Soviet allies on its northern border. After the war, the early years of the Shah’s reign saw a weakening of his role in the country and moves towards a more democratic, pluralistic Iran. It might be thought that the country’s new American masters would be in favour of these modernising forces, but one thing determined that they would take the side of the autocratic, anti-democratic Shah. Once again, we are talking about oil.

The Anglo-Persian Oil Company had been founded in 1908 in order to exploit an oil find in the west of Iran. They built what would become the largest oil refinery in the world for the next fifty years. As oil became more and more central to the strategic interests of the west, keeping control over Iran became correspondingly more important. To Britain, especially in the 1950s (having been bankrupted in world war two) cheap Iranian oil was regarded as a vital mainstay of the economy, and a means of obtaining critical foreign currency through its re-sale. It is ironic that at a time when a British Labour government was embarking on an unprecedented program of nationalisations at home, it was not prepared to countenance such measures in a country like Iran, which it felt it could push around, diplomatically and (if necessary) militarily. Pushing Iran around, however, was not as straightforward a task as in territories like Saudi Arabia, newly-minted states which could be manipulated and bought with the promise of investment and arms, or those areas which had been under Ottoman control and fell under British and French power after world war one. Iran was an independent kingdom (it continued to style itself an ’empire’) with a long and proud history as one of the centres of ancient civilisation. The invasion of the country by British and Soviet troops in 1941 was a humiliation that would not be quickly forgotten. The installation of the younger Pahlavi, as well as incidents in the coming years, would cement his reputation in the eyes of many Iranians as a foreign-imposed ruler. These incidents would confirm that the British and Americans indeed saw him as a means to safeguard their economic interests in the country.

These interests came under threat from the forces that were unleashed as Iranians were given more control over how their country was run. In 1951, elections brought to power a prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, whose party (the National Front) sought to nationalise Iran’s oil and manage it in the interests of Iran’s people instead of a small number of foreign investors. Here is a picture of Mosaddegh as a child, standing next to an empty chair, meeting the Shah on his appointment as prime minister, and later in life under house arrest (yep-this isn’t going to end well for him).

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Mosaddegh’s government introduced a range of reforms that would form the bedrock of any modern, stable democracy: extending the franchise, social welfare, public works projects. Due to his party’s commitment to bringing Iran’s oil under Iranian control, however, the British (whose interests were directly threatened) and the Americans (who, as usual, saw the hand of the Soviets and communism in everything Mosaddegh did) determined to destroy his project. In the Shah they found a ready ally. He had already been trying to shore up the power of the monarchy in the years since coming to power. An outpouring of sympathy following an assassination attempt in 1949 was used to amend the constitution to increase his powers. As an aside, it is interesting to reflect as well on the mis-identification of the Shah’s would-be assassin. Keen to make the incident fit into a narrative of himself as an anti-communist crusader, it was assumed the perpetrator was a member of the communist Tudeh party. In fact, he was a religious fundamentalist disgruntled at the Shah’s secularist leanings. This is a foreshadowing of the Shah’s future persistent failure to recognise the relative strengths of his enemies within the country, and specifically the strength of the clergy’s opposition.

The Shah’s attempts to increase his powers was one of the main factors which motivated the formation and mobilisation of Mossadegh’s movement, which viewed a return to monarchical autocracy as a step backward. With its moves to nationalise Iran’s oil, however, the British and Americans took covert action. The CIA and MI6 collaborated on a coup to replace Mossadegh with a military leader of their choice as prime minister, one who would yield to the Shah’s demands for greater influence and, of course, forget any notions of confiscating western oil interests in the country. This plot was masterminded by the head of the CIA, Alan Dulles (below, far right) and co-ordinated on the ground by Kermit Roosevelt Jnr. (below, middle), a grandson of former president Theodore Roosevelt.

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The coup did not, at first, go smoothly for the conspirators. The initial attack on 15 August 1953 failed to remove Mossadegh, who instead had the general who attempted to dismiss him arrested. The expected support did not rally to the Shah, who panicked and fled the country, first to Iraq and then to Italy. Although seemingly in control of the situation, Mossadegh made a fatal blunder at this point. While the general who had been appointed prime minister, Fazlollah Zahedi (above, far left), remained at large, Mossadegh told his supporters (who had come out into the streets to ensure he remained in power) that the danger had passed, and that they should return to their homes. Zahedi, meanwhile, was rallying support to his cause with the help of lavish funds from the CIA (as a historical footnote, Zahedi had been arrested during world war two as a Nazi collaborator but no-one seemed bothered by that now). The Americans and British realised that whatever opposition to Mossadegh that existed had to be spurred into action. Provocateurs were hired to pretend to be communist protestors, who ran amok in the markets, vandalising businesses and creating the impression that a communist revolution was imminent. A panicked population were organised by another group of paid activists who posed as partisans of the Shah, and fought the ‘communist’ protestors. The army, already unsound in its allegiance to Mossadegh, came out in support of Zahedi, and within days, he was appointed prime minister and Mossadegh arrested.

With breath-taking speed then, Iran’s tentative steps towards creating a modern, secular democrasy were smothered by the 1953 coup. Although his death sentence was commuted by the Shah, Mossadegh remained under house arrest until he died in 1967. The Shah returned to Iran in the company of Dulles, and over the next two decades assumed greater and greater powers to himself, creating an autocratic police state and controlling his increasingly disgruntled population with the help of his secret police, SAVAK, founded in 1957 with American and Israeli assistance. SAVAK became notorious for its studied and systematic use of torture and killing of prisoners, often those who were guilty of no other crime than criticising the regime. Needless to say, the year after the coup, the Anglo-Iranian oil company resumed operations.

The removal of Mossadegh was a pivotal moment in the modern history of Iran, and one remembered and resented by the more progressive elements in Iranian society to this day. Mossadegh was in many ways comparable to Nasser in Egypt, a modernising nationalist and anti-imperialist who stood up to the old colonial powers, the plan to nationalise Iran’s oil being comparable to Nasser’s more successful nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The effect his removal had on Iranians can be gauged by imagining the effect Nasser’s removal would have had on Egyptians if the British and French had had their way and managed to remove him in 1956. Mossadegh became a martyr and a symbol for many Iranians of the better society they might have had, had democracy been allowed to take root in the country. The coup is also a textbook example, however, of the kind of event that is either misunderstood or entirely unknown to westerners, often those holding strong opinions or even with responsibility for policy towards Iran. In a 2006 interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the journalist John Snow remarked that many of the difficulties in Britain’s relationship with Iran went back to the coup against Mossadegh; Blair reportedly looked at him blankly and confessed that he had never even heard of Mossadegh or the events of 1953.

All dissent was forced either underground or abroad in the years that followed. It would be wrong, however, to claim that all of the Shah’s policies were necessarily retrograde and despotic. In the early sixties, a series of reforms were introduced which he liked to refer to as the ‘white revolution’. The centrepiece of this program was a series of land reforms that sought to transform the still-feudal character of Iranian landholding to one of small independent landowners. Peasants, who had hitherto been sharecroppers, or in some cases little better than serfs, were given cheap loans to buy the lands they worked from the great landowners. In elaborate ceremonies, the Shah would travel around the country handing out the title-deeds to these lands to his grateful subjects. Much of this was political theater, orchestrated by the Shah to portray himself as the benefactor of his people. In fact, the land reforms had been the brainchild of his agriculture  minister, Hasan Arsanjani, who was sacked before their implementation so that the Shah could take credit. It would also appear that the Shah, acutely conscious of the need to establish his power on a more firm social basis, carried out these reforms in order to create for himself a power-base among the poor, and to break the power of the old landed aristocracy.

This ‘white revolution’ was, therefore, actually the harnessing of genuinely progressive ideas by the Shah to buttress his authority against potential threats to his authority, such as his own parliament. From the removal of prime minister Ali Amini in 1962, such opposition was increasingly sidelined and prime ministers became mere puppets of the monarch. It remains true, however, that many of these ideas were modernising and progressive. A campaign was launched to spread literacy throughout a largely illiterate population, a new electoral law sought to give rights to participate in politics (to the limit extent that the public could participate in politics) to both non-Muslims and women, who had up until then not been allowed to vote. It was these latter policies in particular which provoked opposition from the one group in Iranian society that had not been thoroughly cowed into submission: the clergy. This was the only group that the Shah was wary of alienating, yet alienate them he did.

This had not always been the case. Fearing the onset of communism at the time of the coup, much of the clergy had rallied to the Shah’s side at that juncture. Great swathes of the clergy continued to adhere to the principle of non-interference in politics. They were led by the example of the Grand Ayatollah (the senior religious figure in Shia Islam) Seyyed Borujerdi, who resided in the holy city of Qom and preached quietism among the clergy in political matters. Not all of Borujerdi’s followers, however, shared his attitude. Another strain of thought was emerging in the early 1960s as a reaction to the Shah’s reforms. This argued that the clergy had an active, even pre-eminent, role to play in political life, and when Borujerdi died in 1961, one of his students who had been constrained by his teacher while he was alive threw off this constraint and became the leading clerical critic of the Shah and his ‘white revolution’. His name was Ruhollah Khomeini. Here is Khomeini in 1964 and later in life, sometime in the 1970s:

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In 1964, Khomeini led a protest that centered around two bills being passed through parliament at the Shah’s behest-one, a $200 million loan from the United States, and another (on which it was clearly contingent) new law granting American personnel in the country immunity from prosecution in Iranian courts. Khomeini articulated the deep sense of humiliation felt by the masses towards these arrangements, pointing out that:

‘Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted, but if an American cook runs over the Shah, no one will have the right to interfere with him. Why? Because they wanted a loan and America demanded this in return. Iran has sold itself to obtain these dollars. The government has sold our independence, reduced us to the level of a colony.’

Khomeini became a talismanic figure in Iran partly because almost no-one else dared to speak out openly against the regime. He said the most scathing, outrageous things about the Shah and his government, seemingly indifferent to the personal danger he was putting himself in. Spells of imprisonment made no difference; he would be released and they would claim he had promised to keep quiet; Khomeini would deny the existence of any such agreement and continue his denunciations. His aura of mystique grew with the government’s reluctance to deal conclusively with him. Instead of placing him under arrest, either at home or in prison, or having him killed, the Shah chose to send Khomeini into foreign exile in 1965. First he went to to Turkey, but soon afterwards moved to Najaf, a city in Iraq with a long history of providing refuge to Sh’ite clerics who had opposed tyrannical Shahs. Perhaps it was less a sign of his fear of the cleric than a sign of his overweening dominance over the country at this point that the Shah forgot the old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. No doubt he later came to regret this allowing Khomeini to leave and agitate against him from abroad.

To all outwards appearances, however, the Shah had nothing to worry about in the decade that followed. A plebiscite overwhelmingly approved his reforms (government-sponsored proposals at this time tended to always be approved by 99% margins and thus such results are questionable). What public protest there was, was put down ferociously by the police. Many were killed, others rounded up and tortured; from this point on, state terror was the order of the day and it could be argued that any peaceful, constitutional challenge to the Shah’s power became impossible. The opposition of the clergy was dismissed by the Shah as ‘black reaction’, the work of a handful of reactionaries who wished to drag the country back to the middle ages. For the most part, however, the Shah either chose to see, or chose to portray, all opposition as the work of ‘communists’. As his stranglehold over the country tightened, his arrogance and ultimate hubris swelled.

This was particularly the case after the onset of the oil crisis, which started in 1973, when the oil-producing nations of OPEC retaliated for the United States’ assistance to Israel during the Yom Kippur war (see previous post) by announcing an oil embargo against the Americans and selected allies. This occurred at a time of rising oil-consumption in the west and resulted in a sharp rise in the price of the commodity and everything that depends on it, that is to say, everything that the economy of the entire industrialised west depends on.

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The oil-crisis was, in the longer-term, a main cause of the economic contraction that affected the west in the 1970s. To examine this aspect is outside of the scope of this blog. It’s immediate effect on the Middle East, and Iran in particular, was to flood the region with petrodollars. Did the people of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran benefit from this boon, with the introduction of comprehensive welfare states, better public health and education, improved transport and communications infrastructure?

No, they didn’t.

Maintaining our focus on Iran, it becomes clear that much of this windfall was spent on arms. The Shah had a longstanding obsession with making Iran’s army the third most powerful in the world (he was always careful to stress that-the third-that he had no aspirations to rival the U.S. or the Soviet Union. He also repeatedly reminded them he had no interest in developing nuclear weapons. They don’t seem to have been unduly worried in any case. Given the reluctance to allow Iran to even develop nuclear power for civil uses in the last last decade, it’s interesting to note that in the Shah’s era, Iran was positively encouraged by the west to develop nuclear power, as this ad demonstrates:

The government did not limit its spending to arms purchases of course. Vast sums of money were also spent on prestige building projects and lavish parties to convince the outside world that Iran had been transformed overnight into an advanced industrial state. A notorious example of this was the celebrations that took place at the ancient city of Persepolis in 1971, to commemorate 2500 years of Iran’s monarchy. The Shah invited royal families from all across the world to witness gigantic re-enactments of pivotal events from Persian history; everyone stayed in a huge purpose-built city of air-conditioned tents and dined on a lavish meal prepared by Maxim’s of Paris at huge expense. The whole event lasted for four days and cost somewhere in the region of $20 million. Because it took place out in the desert nowhere near where anyone actually lived (which made it very easy to defend against potential protests or attacks), the infrastructure built for the festival could not be converted to any other use. The following pictures give some idea of the opulence of the occasion:

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It was, of course, a huge slap in the face for the poverty-stricken masses of Iran and a sign of how increasingly out-of-touch with reality the Shah had become. The truth was that, despite the Shah’s obsession with transforming Iran into a modern society, the transformation was only on the surface. It only applied to a tiny elite surrounding the Shah and his family and it did not extend to giving up his autocratic power, or sharing the country’s wealth outside this elite. The massive building projects which took place in the cities brought a huge influx of poor labourers in from the countryside; economic growth that was impressive on paper caused spiraling inflation which left these people materially not much better off than they had been back in their villages and, crucially, cut off from their own networks of support and social inclusion. This restless and disaffected urban proletarian would become the foot soldiers of the revolution. When the Shah did decide to do something about inflation, the austerity measures he imposed impacted most severely on the poor, only intensifying their hatred of him.

Even those few who benefited to some extent from the influx of foreign revenue and capital suffered from the massively inflated rents in the big cities. For a time, it could be argued that they were consoled for the lack of political freedoms by a surrogate pursuit of material wealth. Ironically, however, it was through their increasing exposure to western culture that educated Iranians became aware of political values and rights that were denied to them at home. Not being able to vote in meaningful elections, form political parties, or even openly criticise the government for fear of imprisonment or worse, was, many Iranians realised, not the norm in those countries which the Shah ostensibly aspired to make Iran like. The Shah himself implicitly conceded this when he remarked ‘when Iranians learn to behave like Swedes, I will behave like the King of Sweden’. Perhaps if he had appeased them, things might have been different, but the educated middle classes were among the most fervent supporters of the Shah’s overthrow, if not its replacement with a theocracy.

As much as economic turmoil, a crucial catalyst for revolution were the cultural changes which accompanied the hardship of these years. The Shah oversaw an aggressive westernisation of the upper and middle classes which, just like the financial influx into the country, affected very few but was looked upon resentfully by many. A similar phenomenon has been noted of Egypt in the 1970s in the last post. Isolated in their bubble of seeming-invincibility and opulence, the ruling elite forgot that, despite the kind of superficial modernisation with which they had surrounded themselves, Iran remained for the most part a deeply conservative and pious society. Here is an ad from the 1970s for something called Rayovac. The girl in the miniskirt caressing the bodybuilder…you can imagine the Ayatollah grinding his teeth.

While this seems very tame, even quaint, to us now, it has to be understood that this was a foreign culture being imposed on a people who, for the most part, regarded it as decadent, shocking and vulgar. While such a culture might have been welcomed if accompanied by political liberalisation and improved living-standards (compare the Americanisation of western Europe after world war two), in Iran it was accompanied by rising prices, a police state and censorship. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that so many rejected it so vehemently.

These conditions continued to worsen as the 1970s wore on. It took a series of violent and prolonged protests for the government to actually lose control. A significant turning point in this spiraling violence was the death of Khomeini’s son, who had remained in Iran, in late 1977. Many suspected the involvement of SAVAK and, when an article appeared in a government-affiliated newspaper in January 1978 which insulted the Ayatollah, accusing him of treason, collaborating with foreign enemies of Iran, and being a homosexual, furious protests broke out in defence of Khomeini, first in Qom, then elsewhere. The security forces opened fire and killed protesters, and were even alleged to have prevented local hospitals from donating blood to save lives. This was only the first of a series of atrocities, culminating in ‘Black Friday’ in September of that year, when the police killed dozens of unarmed demonstrators in Tehran. This is often considered the ‘point of no return’ for both the revolution and the Shah.

The army fires on protesters, Black Friday, 8 September 1978

The leading ayatollah remaining in the country, Shariatmadari, decreed the Shah’s actions to be unIslamic and decreed forty days of public mourning for the victims. These forty-day periods fed into a cycle of protests, atrocity feeding further rioting, which provoked further atrocities from the government. Brute force, however, was no longer effective in cowing the population into submission. To analyse why the Iranian people found the resolve to face down the regime at this point explains, in many ways, why the revolution took the form it did.

One reason was that conditions had become so dire for many that they had less to lose. This is a fundamental underlying many social upheavals in history. Leave people with little to lose and they will confront power more recklessly than they might otherwise. Another element was the belief in the necessity of martyrdom and sacrifice, always strong in Sh’ia Islam. As the protests of 1978 gathered momentum, Khomeini made a pronouncement that the tree of revolution would have to be watered with blood. The ante was upped noticeably this point as unarmed demonstrators confronted an army that began to lose its nerve in the face of this determination. This was not helped by the Shah, who could not decide whether to crush the uprising with unalloyed brute force or to offer concessions. On some occasions the troops were undermined by the Shah, who ordered them not to fire and even publicly condemned them for carrying out killings that he had ordered; on other occasions they were ordered to use all necessary force. Too late, the Shah offered concessions-liberalising of the political system and the dismantling of SAVAK-but instead of satiating their demands for change, it was perceived by the emboldened opposition as a sign of weakness and a spur to push on with the objective of overthrowing the Shah.

Another factor was the tacit encouragement given to the opposition from outside. One of the most humanitarian presidents of modern times, Jimmy Carter, had become president in 1976 and, in his campaign rhetoric, dropped some hints that he would pressurise the Iranian government into opening up its political system to meaningful opposition. In the 1970s, the Shah’s regime, once the darling of the western media, had come under increasing scrutiny by a public in the west alerted (for example by the Vietnam war) to the folly of supporting repressive dictatorships abroad. Iran’s human rights record was condemned by Amnesty International and his visits abroad began to attract protest. Although Carter toned down the rhetoric about human rights once he actually had power, his presidency left the Iranian opposition with the impression that they had his tacit support. It was, at least, no longer clear how far the Americans would go to keep the Shah in power. Many came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t lift a finger. They were right.

The government progressively lost control of the situation throughout 1978. In October, the Shah requested that Khomeini be expelled from Iraq. Saddam Hussein actually offered to have the Ayatollah assassinated at this point but, once again, the Shah failed to act decisively. Khomeini first sought refuge in Kuwait, but was refused. Other Muslim countries were considered before he decided to settle in a quiet suburb outside Paris. While thousands of miles away, the Shah’s allowing Khomeini to escape to France was another huge blunder. With better access to communications and the resources of the Iranian exiled community, the Ayatollah was in fact better able to lead the revolution from Paris than he had been in Iraq.

The personal leadership of Khomeini is something that must be acknowledged in any account of the Iranian revolution. Few single individuals in recent history have exercised such a control over masses of people. At times in the coming months, it seemed as if Khomeini merely needed to express his wish that something be done for it to happen. His charisma and sheer will was a central dynamic of the revolution and, in many ways, it was incomprehensible to outsiders. Seventy-six at the time of the revolution, and having lived outside Iran for 14 years, even up until the point of his return to Iran, it was expected by most observers that the old cleric would assume a vague spiritual role in the post-revolutionary period, like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. As will be seen, they could not have been more wrong. Despite the fact that many of the protesters were carrying pictures of Khomeini and that the country was flooded with recorded cassette-tapes of his sermons, the Shah continued, until well into 1977, to ignore the threat from organised religion.What belated attempt he made to address grievances were largely addressed to the middle-class, educated and western-influenced opposition-the heirs of the National Front and Mossadegh. In fact, this element of the opposition, who were allied with the clergy for convenience’s sake, do not seem to have considered that a theocracy ruled by Khomeini and his allies was a serious possibility. They appear to have believed that they could use the clerics’ influence over the masses and then discard them once the Shah was disposed of. In fact, the opposite was about to happen.

Given what followed the revolution, it is easy to forget in retrospect that the forces which deposed the Shah were multifaceted, a variety of pressure groups with wildly diverging interests. It was far from inevitable that the Islamists should so thoroughly take over in the way they subsequently did. The reasons for this are various. As already noted, it is partly to do with the way the Shah and his security apparatus concentrated most of their repression on the left-wing opposition. When the time came, the clergy and their supporters were in far better shape to take advantage of the opportunity to build a new administration. The mosque became the natural focus for organised dissent, as opposed to unions, workplaces or social clubs; the clerics tapped into the widespread discontent far more successfully than the left.

Indeed, if there was any individual who rivaled Khomeini as the soul of dissent in Iran during the 1970s, it was Ali Shariati. He was a sociologist and philosopher whose writings fused European socialist ideals, third-world liberationism and Islam, and he was hugely influential in the ideological ferment of the revolutionary period. While arguing that Islam could be a revolutionary force for good, he protested against an institutionalised Islam and in favour of one focused less on prayer, piety and theology and instead on action, social justice and equality. Shariati translated Fanon’s anti-imperialist classic, Les Damnés de la Terre (English: ‘The Wretched of the Earth’) into Persian and, like Fanon, was deeply influenced by the Algerians’ war of liberation against France. He posited a history of his faith that contrasted a ‘black Shi’ism’, led by the clergy, which had been allied with and legitimised the rule of an elite throughout history, with his own brand of ‘red Shi’ism’, which puts the tenets of the faith into action in promoting revolution among the masses. While comparing one of the earliest Caliphs with Che Guevara, Shariati argued that, over time, the ‘black Shi’ism’ of the clergy had come to eclipse the Shi’ism of the people.

In this picture, demonstrators during the revolution carry pictures of Shariati (front), as well as Mossadegh (behind):

Revolutionaries hold up large pictures of Ali Shariati (front) and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (back).

This photograph, incidentally, is by Maryam Zandi, whose work was suppressed by the Iranian government until she was finally allowed to exhibit her pictures of the revolution in 2015. There are more here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2016/feb/08/iran-1979-revolution-photograhy-maryam-zandi-pictures-enqelab-e-57. They are a fascinating document of this tumultuous period. What comes across from these images is the diversity of political views contesting the Shah’s rule. I mention Ali Shariati because in many ways he represents a path not taken during the revolution, having died in 1977 (around the same time as Khomeini’s son) of a heart-attack, although many people believed he had been killed by SAVAK-just one more of the grievances which fed into the protests of 1978.

Events moved fast in early 1979. In January, the Shah made one last push to placate the opposition, by appointing a new prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, who was a member of Mossadegh’s National Front. Sweeping reforms, including the overhaul of SAVAK and trial of its officials, were announced, but all of this was too late. Egged on by Khomeini in France, who ruled out all compromise with the old regime, the demonstrators intensified their demands for the abdication of the Shah. He bowed to the inevitable and, at Bakhtiar’s request, left the country on the 16 January, pretending that it was only for a holiday, but everyone knew that he was fleeing. At the airport, a soldier threw himself at the Shah’s feet begging him not to leave. I am not sure why the queen looks so happy in this picture-maybe happy just to be leaving, or because, reportedly, she had taken so many tranquilisers to get her through the experience.

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Within a fortnight, Khomeini was on a flight from Paris to Tehran. According to the best estimates, 5 million people came out onto the streets to greet him. This BBC report from the time gives a good sense of the sheer chaos of the event and the hysteria accompanying it:

While Bakhtiar’s government remained, the people’s demands for change now went way beyond a return to the status quo before the 1953 coup. Khomeini quickly forced a confrontation with the remnants of the old regime, ordering his followers to ignore the government’s curfew. A showdown loomed between the army and Khomeini’s supporters, many of whom were now armed with weapons looted from police stations and soldiers who had gone over to their side. A crucial moment came on 10 February when the army declared neutrality in order to avoid the prospect of a civil war within its ranks. Withdrawing to barracks, it ceded control of the country to the revolutionaries, Bakhtiar fled the country in disguise. He would be sentenced to death in absentia by the Islamic regime in 1980, although he survived several assassination attempts in France until they finally got him  in 1991.

I have titled this post ‘Revolution #1’ for a reason. It quickly became clear when writing this that to really understand the Iranian revolution would lead to a level of detailed analysis unwieldy for a single post. It is the event around which revolves the entrance of Islam into politics in the last half century, and for that reason it is important and it behooves us to understand what exactly happened. I think it can also be usefully examined not as one but two revolutions-the one that removed the Shah which has been examined here and the one by which Khomeini and his followers imposed an Islamic form of government on the country and sidelined (to put it mildly) his erstwhile allies and now rivals in the more secular, left-wing wing of the revolution. This second revolution will be examined in the next post, as will the role of the United States in what followed. In the aftermath of the revolution, both the United States and Iran embarked on a campaign of demonisation of the other which resulted in decades of misconception and ignorance about the other nation and its intentions. When we look at what was really going on behind the scenes at the time, however, we find that all was not as it seemed.

End of part 3

Featured image above: Legs of unfinished statue of the shah, Sa’dabad palace, Tehran.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 3. Iran: Revolution #1