Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri (who died in 2009) was the deputy to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was even supposed to succeed him. His son, Ahmad Montazeri, recently revealed in a series of interviews in Iran that in 1986 the Iranian Revolutionary Guard concealed explosives in the suitcases of unknowing Iranian pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform the annual commandment of Haj.
When revealing this for the first time 32 years later, Montazeri added that the senior officials of the Revolutionary Guard who ordered the concealment of explosives in the suitcases of a group of unsuspecting elderly pilgrims, were acting directly under the orders of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (former president of Iran and one of the architects of the revolution, who died in 2017). At the time, Rafsanjani was the chairman of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) and Ayatollah Khomeini’s de facto military commander during the Iran-Iraq war. His name was also mentioned by the Argentinian government as one of the planners of the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994.
From Montazeri’s statements in the two-hour interview, broadcast in Tehran on the Kheshte-Kham TV show hosted by Hossein Dehbashi, a senior Iranian journalist, it emerged that the explosives were transported to Saudi Arabia with the intention of detonating them during that year’s pilgrimage to Mecca. The then-King of Saudi Arabia, King Fahd, chose to remain silent on the issue and never openly accused Iran of attempting to strike at his kingdom, and the episode never reached the attention of the international media.
According to Ahmad Montazeri, after the Saudis discovered the suitcases, Mehdi Karroubi (former Speaker of the Majlis and presently under house arrest), who was then Ayatollah Khomeini’s representative to Iran’s pilgrim organization, was compelled to travel to King Fahd in person and apologize to him. Montazeri added that when his father Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri found out about this, he demanded an explanation from the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard. At least one of the officers involved in the incident, with whom the Ayatollah was acquainted, came to his office and admitted his involvement and that of the rest of the officers in ordering the concealment of explosives in the pilgrims’ suitcases. During the interview, Ahmad Montazeri reiterated that these senior officials were confidants of Rafsanjani and worked directly with his office.
According to Ahmad Montazeri, when his father found out about this incident, he sent a letter to Ayatollah Khomeini, but instead of investigating the matter, the senior echelon of the regime preferred to place the blame for it upon Mehdi Hashemi, who had already been arrested by the government.
Mehdi Hashemi, a Muslim clergyman and brother of Ayatollah Montazeri’s son-in-law, who was himself a senior officer of the Revolutionary Guard, was arrested after the discovery of the “Irangate” or “Iran-Contra” affair (involving Robert McFarlane, National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan, and aide Lt. Col. Oliver North). Hashemi was accused of being the source that informed a Lebanese newspaper (al-Shiraa) of a secret visit by a U.S. delegation to Tehran to meet with Rafsanjani. Officially, Mehdi Hashemi was accused of being in contact with an opposition organization, the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (which at that time was launching serious attacks on the Iranian leadership). Hashemi, who was not involved at all in the secret concealment of explosives in the suitcases of Iranian pilgrims to Saudi Arabi, was eventually executed in September 1987.
Ahmad Montazeri stated during his interview that even after many years, when his father briefly alluded to this incident in his memoirs, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was very angry about it. In a meeting with him (Ahmad Montazeri), Rafsanjani said that the Ayatollah did not need to reveal such a deep secret of the regime.
Similarly, in an interview with IRNA, the official news agency of the Iranian government, Ahmad Montazeri stated that Gen. Ali Shamkhani (today head of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and previously commander of the naval forces and minister of the Revolutionary Guard) was involved in the secret concealment of explosive charges in the Iranian pilgrims’ suitcases. Shamkhani’s office issued a denial and added that during this period, Shamkhani was serving at the front during the Iran-Iraq war and was very involved in the fighting.
Ayatollah Montazeri, opponent of the regime?
Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri was removed from his position of deputy to the leader of the regime several months before Khomeini’s death, and he did not inherit the leadership. He was even placed under house arrest until the day he died in December 2009, primarily as a result of his differences of opinion with the new leader Ali Khamenei regarding the principle of a clerical government (known in Farsi as Velayat e-Faqih). The elder Montazeri became the spiritual leader of the opponents of the regime, who sought to change it from the inside through reform rather than revolution. He was against the broad interpretation that the regime has granted to the rule of the clergy and also to the role that the Revolutionary Guard played in government.
Ahmad Montazeri, Ayatollah Montazeri’s oldest son, was accused many times in recent years of being in contact with the opposition group, the Mujahedeen e-Khalq, and activities against national security, and he has been imprisoned several times. The possibility that his recent statements will bring new charges by the government against him cannot be ruled out, especially as he made them at a time when the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia is growing.
According to Ahmad Montazeri, the result of the Iran Revolutionary Guards’s attempts to attack Saudi Arabian territory was that relations between Tehran and Riyadh further deteriorated after the trampling to death of more than 400 pilgrims in 1987 in Saudi Arabia, 275 of whom were Iranian. Khomeini stated in response to the pilgrims’ death that if his regime were to forgive Saddam Hussein for the long eight-year war waged between Iraq and Iran, it would still not be possible to forget Saudi Arabia’s betrayal of Islam. Khomeini added that even the Zamzam Well (the holy well in Mecca, from which, according to Muslim tradition, Ishmael and Hagar drank) could not wash away the crimes of the Saudis.
The history of tension with Saudi Arabia, the breaking of relations with Iran
The death of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims first led to the severance of relations between Tehran and Riyadh in 1987. However, Rafsanjani, who was elected president following Khomeini’s death, managed to restore relations as a result of his close relationship with Prince Abdullah, crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
When the bombing of the U.S. barracks in the Khobar Towers in the Saudi city of that name occurred in 1996, Iran was immediately suspected of being behind it. After a subsequent ruling by a U.S. court that the bombing was carried out by an organization known as Hizbullah al-Hijaz, with the involvement of Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah, the Iranian consulate in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan was bombed in August 1998, killing eight diplomats and other Iranians. The Iranians blamed the Saudis for supporting the attackers.
Yet none of this affected relations between the two countries, which became stronger during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Following Khatami’s presidency, his successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Saudi Arabia five times and even met with King Abdullah, who ascended to the throne in 2005.
Eventually, a series of terror attacks, as well as the outbreak of the Arab Spring and its realignment of the Middle East, with lines of friction between Sunnis and Shiites, led to a gradual escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are now waging war on each other through their cohorts in Yemen and Syria.
Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting Sunni terror groups against Iran, primarily the Balochis and the Jundallah (terrorist organizations acting mostly in the eastern provinces of Iran, mainly in Sistan and Baluchistan), as well as Arab elements in Ahvaz in the province of Khuzestan, including those who were behind a recent attack on a parade of the Revolutionary Guard in that city. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen on the southern border with that country and an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, with the assistance of a drug cartel.
The 2015 deaths of another 464 Iranian pilgrims in Mina, Saudi Arabia, in a stampede during the Haj pilgrimage, as well as the death of another 26 Iranian pilgrims earlier that year when a giant crane fell outside the al-Haram mosque, led to further deterioration in relations between both countries.
Iran has also accused Saudi Arabia of apprehending, arresting, and executing Shiite elements in the kingdom. As a result of these accusations, and in protest against the execution in Saudi Arabia of Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shiite sheikh who was close to Iran, the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad were bombed on January 1, 2016. This incident led to a decisive break of ties between both countries. Following Saudi Arabia’s decision, other Arab and Islamic countries also cut their ties with Tehran.
Presently, there is friction between the two countries as a result of Iranian subversion in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia itself (primarily in the eastern, oil-rich part of the country, where many Shiites live), the Iranian nuclear program, and the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the new order in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. This struggle is being waged in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States has now intensified the struggle between them, raising it to a new level of confrontation.