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Who Was The Man Who Took US Hostages, Established Hezbollah And Died Of Coronavirus

Former Iranian diplomat and hostage-taker Hossein Sheikholeslam during his visit of Tasnim News Agency on July 24, 2016. FILE PHOTO

The Islamic Republic's former deputy Foreign Minister and one of the leaders of young revolutionaries who invaded the U.S. Embassy in 1979 in Tehran and took 52 American diplomats hostage, Hossein Sheikholeslam died of Covid-19.

Sheikholeslam was also a member of the Iranian quintet that founded the Lebanese Hezbollah in the 1980s.

The quintet helped the Lebanese Hezbollah to entrench itself and grow to the extent that it is currently the key Iranian proxy force in the Middle East. While the United States and several other countries have listed Hezbollah as a highly dangerous terrorist group, the Islamic Republic counts it as one of the pivots of the so-called "Islamic Resistance Front."

Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour who was one of the founders of Lebanese Hezbollah. Undated
Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour who was one of the founders of Lebanese Hezbollah. Undated

The godfathers of the Lebanese Hezbollah were three young commanders of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Hossein Dehqan, Ahmad Vahidi, and Fereydoun Vardinejad, as well as cleric, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour who was very close to the founder of the Islamic Republic, and the Foreign minister's deputy, Hossein Sheikholeslam.

Later, Mohtashamipour served as the Minister of Interior (1985-89) but is now an isolated figure who is not among those close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Dehqan and Vahidi were also promoted to lead the Ministry of Defense, 2009-13, and 2013-17, respectively. Vardinejad was also appointed as the managing director of the Islamic Republic News Agency and director of the Iran Daily newspaper, and later as Tehran's Ambassador to Beijing. He is now a media adviser to President Hassan Rouhani.

Sheikholeslam in charge of Iran's Middle East policies

The Lebanese Hezbollah was founded in the early 1980s, when Hossein Sheikholeslam was the Islamic Republic's number two diplomat, as the Deputy Foreign Minister for Middle East Affairs. Hezbollah's swift creation and its entrenchment as a major actor on the Middle East stage, in the 1990s, coincided with Sheikholeslam's long-term tenure as the Deputy Foreign Minister (1980-1996.) No other Islamic Republic official has ever served at such a crucial position for such a long time.

Hossein Sheikholeslam (L) who was one of the students who occupied the US embassy in Tehran, sitting close to Massoumeh Ebtekar in a press conference at the embassy, undated.
Hossein Sheikholeslam (L) who was one of the students who occupied the US embassy in Tehran, sitting close to Massoumeh Ebtekar in a press conference at the embassy, undated.

He had become the best Middle East expert among Islamic Republic officials and was indispensable for the ruling class bent on expanding influence in the region.

Even when the reformist mid-ranking cleric, Mohammad Khatami, won the presidential election in 1997, and formed a new government, Sheikholeslam was appointed as Tehran's Ambassador to Damascus for six long years to stay at the heart of the Middle East developments and continue helping the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Regardless of who was at the helm of the Islamic Republic's executive branch, all top leaders and the powerful military elite, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) believed that helping the Lebanese Hezbollah was crucial for the regional policies of the clergy-dominated regime.

Furthermore, Sheikholeslam stayed at the center stage after his six-year term in Damascus as an advisor to the Islamic Republic Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and the commander of the IRGC's Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani.

Hossein Sheikholeslam, 68, died of Covid-19 last Thursday. Born in Isfahan, Sheikholeslam was an advisor to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Assistant to the Majles (Islamic parliament) Speaker Ali Larijani on the International Affairs.

"Israel should leave the Middle East"

Sheikholeslam disclosed in an interview with the Islamic Republic’s Ofogh (Horizon) TV on August 27, 2018 that Tehran had invested in the "huge defensive and strategic endeavor" of deploying roughly 150,000 missiles in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip.

The missiles are prepared to be launched at Israel at any time directed by Iran, he said.

Hossein Sheikholeslam during his visit to Tasnim News Agency on July 24, 2016.
Hossein Sheikholeslam during his visit to Tasnim News Agency on July 24, 2016.

He also maintained that since the U.S. has defined Israel's national security as part of its national security, this strategy is the Islamic Republic's most significant deterrent against both countries.

Furthermore, he claimed without elaboration that "Israel would have certainly attacked Iran's nuclear facilities at Bushehr, Fordo, and Natanz dozens of times were it not for Iran's missiles in these countries."

In the meantime, Sheikholeslam admitted that a ballistic missile fired from Iran would take eight minutes to hit Israel and would be detected by American and NATO radars in the region. However, he argued, missiles launched from Lebanon would reach Israel too quickly to be stopped.

Playing down the possibility of an all-out war between Iran and Israel, he insisted that Tehran neither intended to push Israel into the sea nor to use nuclear weapons against it.

Sheikholeslam asserted that Iran's military capabilities are exclusively deterrent, and that Iran merely wants the "Zionists" to "understand" that they had violated the rights of the Palestinians and should leave the region, especially since they "have citizenship in several European countries anyway."

The U.S. educated man taking U.S. diplomats hostage

Hossein Sheikholeslam used to study at the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to Iran in 1979 to join the Islamic Revolution that led to the downfall of the pro-West king, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Less than a year after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the 27-year old Sheikholeslam joined a group of revolutionary students who stormed the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979, in Tehran.

The group called the "Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line" took most of the Embassy's staff as hostage, demanding Washington to extradite the fallen king who was seeking medical treatment in the U.S.

Alongside Masoumeh Ebtekar who is now one of president Rouhani’s vice-presidents (called Sister Mary by the hostages), Sheikholeslam was present at all press conferences held by the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line.

Moreover, he played a pivotal role in reconstructing the Embassy's shredded documents, translating them into Persian, and selectively publishing some politicians seen as disloyal to the revolutionary government.

The U.S. Embassy hostages, 52 in total, were ultimately released after 444 days of captivity.

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    Morad Vaisibiame

    Morad Veisi is a journalist and an editor at Radio Farda and is considered an expert in affairs related to Iran's IRGC and the Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei.