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Ghadanfar Rokon Abadi was Iran’s senior intelligence officer in Beirut in the late 1990s. I met him many times and he was always frank about Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon; he even spoke to students at a Christian university in east Beirut to explain why his country supported Syria. He was not very convincing: claiming that the Syrian revolution had nothing to do with poverty or oppression was a hard sell. He arrived back in Beirut as ambassador – and be sure, even more senior intelligence officer — in 2010, and subsequently herded then-president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad – a crackpot if ever there was one – on a tour of southern Lebanon.
But in November 2013, two suicide bombers attacked the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing 23 employees, Hezbollah guards and civilians who fell from their high-storey balconies when the explosion blasted through the streets. The attack was claimed by the ‘Abdullah Azzam Brigades’, named after a former lecturer in Saudi Arabia who would later help to found al-Qaeda, and was intended to destroy the entire embassy compound.
The Iranians believed the Saudis were behind the attack. The Saudis, as always, denied it. The bombers never got through the gates, and so their intended target, Ambassador Ghadanfar Rokon Abadi, survived. For less than another two years.
For in September 2015, now one of his country’s top diplomats (and still an intelligence officer, of course), he made the Haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and was one of those among the more than 2,300 men and women killed in the Mecca stampede. Among the 464 Iranians to die were a number of Iranian officials, of whom Rokon Abadi was one.
Was this really a tragedy, the Iranians asked, or something more sinister? The Saudis denied wrongdoing. But Iranians close to the ex-ambassador and his personal friends were enraged when the Saudis failed to return his remains for burial – for many months. And in the words of a man who knew him well and who called me in fury after the body was sent to Tehran, “when he came back, they had taken out all his insides – his heart, his stomach, everything was gone.”
Something perverse? Well, now, after the ‘remains’ of Jamal Khashoggi have not turned up in Istanbul following his murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, we have to ask this question. Those who fall foul of the rulers of the Saudi state must surely be made accountable. What happened to the body of Ghadanfar Rokon Abadi? Is the UN special adviser on unburied corpses aware of Khashoggi’s predecessor’s remains? It’s a very distressing question.
It’s also a very frightening one. For the battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a fearful, damaging and very worrying conflict which has already killed thousands of innocents in Yemen – with the help of American and UK personnel – and which continues to slaughter Afghani and Iraqi militiamen in Syria. I have myself seen, with my own eyes, Iraqi Shia armed groups in battlefields north-west of Aleppo and Afghan groups being taken to the greatest mosque in Damascus, and wounded Afghan fighters returning home to Tehran – via Damascus – after fighting for Syrian government forces in the north of the country.
In Tehran, a whole-wall poster praises the ‘martyr’ who died for Shia Islam in the Bosnian war. These things are taken very seriously in the lands of Shiism. In the year of centenaries – of 1918 and 1919 – the years of 1980 to 1986 have their own gruesome memories. Every year, the loved ones of this terrifying war visit the memorials of the epic battle which gave Iran its sovereignty.
Those who claim to understand Iran – Elliot Abrams, for existence, Trump’s new man for Venezuela – should read about this six-year war, and undertake to learn what it meant, and still means, for Iran. A million Iranians died so that their revolution should sustain and keep alive their belief in Islam, albeit corrupted and twisted by their successors. The protestors on the streets of the Iranian capital this week were not trucked into town for demonstrations: many of them lost their loved ones in a war to end all wars. Gas? Yes, they remember that, although we choose to forget that the gas fomenters came from New Jersey in the US.
So the monumental, epic war between Sunnis (for which read: Saudi Arabia) and the Shias (for which read: Iran) is much more than a mere row between Israel and Iran this past week. It is pitiful to listen to Netanyahu blathering on about “the last anniversary of the revolution they [the Iranians] will celebrate” if Iran attacks Tel Aviv. It is equally pitiful to listen to a Revolutionary Guards commander claiming that Iran could demolish entire cities in Israel if the US attacked Iran. Entire cities were indeed destroyed in the 1980-86 war. We do not need to be told that it can happen all over again.
But we should remember how deeply these matters can be used – and re-used – by the Saudis and the Iranians. By chance, an expert on the Shia-Sunni ‘schism’ – she would not like this phrase – was in Dublin last week to talk about the ‘misapprehension’ of Islamic culture in the West. Stephanie Mulder, a Texas teacher in Islamic art and architecture, has studied medieval shrines in Syria, and learned how they were venerated by both Sunnis and Shias, an architecture of coexistence, as the subtitle of her new paperback says. This is, of course, not a volume to be read by pro-Saudi Netanyahu or Israel-hating Revolutionary Guards. Or Elliot Abrams.
Because we are supposed to believe in the titanic ‘schism’ between Sunnis and Shias, between the pro-Western Sunnis led by the ‘modernist’ Mohammed bin Salman (or, at least, ‘MBS’ until real ‘modernist’ Khashoggi had his head chopped off) and the Iranian mullahs (who have allowed women to drive for decades after the revolution). We are supposed to believe that Elliot Abrams understood the Iranian revolution — as he no doubt understands the Venezuelan revolution – because he wanted to liberate the people of Islam.
The truth is that there is a vicious war going on between the Sunnis and the Shias of the Middle East, encouraged by the West. Perhaps the latest version started with the 1979 siege of the great mosque at Mecca – where French gendarmes were briefly ‘Islamicised’ before flooding the mosque basement rebels to death – or perhaps on 9/11, whose Saudi perpetrators have been gently forgotten. But we should keep our eyes on the uses that are made of this war. And learn more about it.