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Exploiting Martyrs for Propaganda

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

02 Apr 2010 19:0114 Comments
sayyadshirazi.jpgIran's military heroes, often forgotten while alive, are both valorized and cynically employed in death.

April 10, 1999, dawned bright in north Tehran. Like thousands of others that spring morning, Brigadier General Ali Sayyad Shirazi left his residence to go to work. He had no bodyguard, no escort, no special command car, not even a sidearm. Nothing in his modest appearance betrayed the fact that he had been in command of Iran's army during the eight-year war with Iraq. A man who wore the orange overalls of a municipal street sweeper approached his car. General Shirazi reached down for his wallet to tip him for tending the street. When he looked up, the man shot him at point-blank range. General Shirazi was dead. Now Iran could mourn and remember him.

Immediately, it was announced that he had actually been promoted two weeks earlier to the rank of major general. In accordance with the Iranian tradition that elevates military martyrs by a rank, he thus became Lieutenant General Ali Sayyad Shirazi in dispatches.

His funeral was well attended by military and government officials, as would be expected. However, the event stood out from similar occasions. Thousands of ordinary people, retired army officers, war veterans, and even housewives came to pay homage to their fallen hero. This unorchestrated, spontaneous outpouring surprised the officials in charge. The forgotten ones had not forgotten Sayyad Shirazi. It was the only opportunity they had been given in the years following the war to show their respect and express their gratitude toward a man who had fought gallantly in defense of their homeland.

Today Sayyad Shirazi's name is heard often. There are many buildings and roads dedicated to his memory. A recently constructed highway in the capital was named after him. A high school, an industrial group, a number of official buildings, an army training camp in northern Iran, and other small military complexes also bear his name. Several books commemorating his life have been published. The propaganda apparatus portrays him as a pious Muslim and a great warrior who believed earnestly in the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader. The stories about him emphasize his religious conduct and his devotion to the Islamic system. He is presented as the perfect soldier and commander.

Interestingly, most of the stories about Sayyad Shiraz lack details of the location, date, other individuals involved, and historical background. The narrators often neglect to mention that he was recalled from semi-retirement in the last year of war to fight the Mojahedin (MKO), whose armed columns were invading Iran from the west. It is told often how he masterfully destroyed that force, a victory that led to his assassination by the MKO ten years later. But there is a convenient silence about the disagreements between Revolutionary Guard commanders and army leaders such as Sayyad Shirazi that persisted throughout the war. There is also no discussion of the fact that he had not been promoted to major general when the war ended, in contrast to his counterpart in the Guards.

After the war, Sayyad Shirazi was not given any active command and spent his time in various staff assignments. There was almost no mention of him in the news. From time to time, he was seen attending military maneuvers or giving an interview on the anniversary of a major war offensive. That was all. For the most part, he was quietly forgotten.

Why did his death change that? It is one of the greatest ironies of the Islamic Republic of Iran that heroes tend to be recognized only when they are dead.

Iran's cities, towns, and villages are filled with the portraits of martyrs, those who were killed in the war with Iraq, in the fight against drugs, in terrorist attacks, or even in car or plane accidents. At the entrance to most communities there is a mural with the names or faces of its martyrs. Any available façade in Tehran or other metropolitan areas is likely to be adorned with a quote from a martyr, or a portrait of one. IRIB, the national television and radio broadcaster, continuously airs programs about the war and about its martyrs and their families. The martyrs are routinely quoted expressing their loyalty to the Revolution, affirming their devotion to Islamic ideals and the Imams, asking their comrades in arms to sacrifice themselves for the good of Islam and the Revolution, and reminding their families to be patient and calm.

There are many reasons to question the sincerity of the official apparatus in its treatment of Iran's martyrs. On New Year's Eve, for example, IRIB broadcast a program about Hemmat, the Bakeri brothers, and Kharrazi, legendary Guard commanders during the Iran-Iraq war. Their memories are universally revered in Iran. The program concerned, as usual, their devotion to the Revolution, to Islam, and to the Islamic Republic's leaders. However, this show of respect is belied by the harassment, evidently sanctioned by the regime, of the martyrs' widows and other family members. In the aftermath of last year's presidential election, they were assaulted by President Ahmadinejad's supporters for backing Mir Hossein Mousavi. The harassment sunk to repellent depths, with outrageously immoral remarks made about the widows.

Yesterday, I spent a few hours with a middle-aged veteran who served at the front for most of the war's eight years. He was bitter about the lack of true respect for Iran's martyrs. As he sipped his tea, he told me, "They paint Bakeri's portrait on all the highways and then fill their media with filthy gossip about his wife. They have no respect for martyrs; they just treat them as propaganda instruments. Look at us, I served at the front and they never really pay attention to our problems or even our opinions."

A friend of his joined us in the middle of the conversation. The friend shook his head in agreement and said, "Look, they talk about martyrs and yet they never come to talk to us about those martyrs, who they really were. We shared foxholes and trenches. We went over the top together. We were their friends and brothers in arms and saw them as men and human beings. But you cannot talk about them as men, of their love for their children, wives, and parents, or their plans for the future. You only can talk about them publicly if you talk according to their guidelines."

He gazed at me and continued, "Look at how they are treating Haj Mohsen. Mohsen was our commander for the whole war and now they are at him whenever he talks or criticizes the government."

Major General Mohsen Rezaei, known by his troops as Haj Mohsen, was the commander in chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for most of the war and some years after that. After the war he continued his studies and received a doctoral degree in economics from the University of Tehran. Today he prefers to be called Dr. Rezaei. He ran for office in the last presidential election and performed well in face-to-face debate with Ahmadinejad. Government supporters accused him of disloyalty, of conspiring with former president Rafsanjani and disobeying the Supreme Leader by challenging Ahmadinejad. After my conversation with the veterans, I checked his website. One comment posted there by a reader was striking: "Haj Mohsen, I wish you dead, so they finally appreciate what you did for Iran."

Yes, for Iran's heroes it is not easy to be alive.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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This was very well done, I hope Tehran Bureau continues to publish these interesting dispatches from Iran, instead of Muhammed Sahimi's poorly written, meandering, and often sanctimonious diatribes parading as analysis.

Shahriar / April 3, 2010 6:49 PM

A very good article about a less discussed aspect of life in Iran.

Pedram / April 3, 2010 10:45 PM

If anything that qualifies as a diatribe it is your comment Shahriar. Care to provide a link to anything you have written that is constructive in any way?

Mohammad Alireza / April 4, 2010 9:32 AM

Shahriar, perhaps you don't like Sahimi's analyses, but I find them to be among the most informative on the net. And for what it's worth, I'm a PhD student in one of the nation's top Iranian Studies programs. Regardless of what your opinion is, it's very childish of you to be gratuitously belittling Sahimi's work in the comments section of another article.

Anonymous / April 4, 2010 10:12 AM

Sadly, martyrs and veterans usually come up short in relation to the services they've provided to the country.

Consider what the family of Pat Tillman has undergone right here in the US, or the government propaganda surrounding Jessica Lynch.

Yes, very sad.

Pirouz / April 5, 2010 3:30 AM

I am always amazed by how irrelevant comments are here. To me it seems Mr. Chenar is in Tehran and writing about his observations and this was a good article. In Isfahan we live these lines, the families of martyrs face many hardships, while government always claims it is taking good care of them, Isfahan had the largest number of casualties in war. I do not know if Mr. Sahimi actually has experienced the current conditions of Iran. But I respect those who write about their actual experiences. On the other hand, I do not understand why people like Pirouz try to confuse the perspective by mixing Iran with USA. To be informed is different from to have experienced.

Ali From Isfahan / April 5, 2010 10:28 PM

Thanks Tehran Bureau. This was a great piece.

Pedestrian / April 6, 2010 7:33 PM

I agree with Shahriar, we need more reports from Iran, we could do book reports on our own.

fariba / April 6, 2010 10:49 PM

The years Of Iran- Iraq war for Iranians resulted in nothing but death, destruction, and misery. It is true that Sadam hussein’s army attacked Iran and started the war but the roots and the motives for this war can be traced to Khomeini and his criminal gang of Revolutionary guard organisation and their ambition of exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution. Khomeini and his criminal anti -human gang did want this war for they repeatedly called Iran-Iraq war “god’s gift” for them. They used this war as an excuse to silence any voice of dissidence and to impose their repressive and tyrannical government system to Iranians. Tens o f thousand of dissidents were executed and tortured during those years. It was guys like Sayyad shirazi. Mohsen Rezaee and other criminals who lead the revolutionary guard and other repressive organizations and are responsible for hunting down, torture, and executions of ten of thousand of Iranians. Sayayd shirazi is n o hero to the Majority of Iranians. It is the illegitimate government of Iran and its propaganda machine who creates heroes of its criminal commanders and people in charge of its killing machine. Sayyad Shirazi got what he deserved because if he wasn’t killed now, he along with many other revolutionary guards members and basijis would be tried in people’s court in post Islamic government Era.

sia / April 10, 2010 9:16 AM

Sia, get your fact straight. The fact that you don't like the IRI doesn't make whatever you write true. "sia has seven fingers and his eyes are orange" ... see I can write anything I want, but it doesn't make it true. And never, ever DARE speak for the "majority of Iranians". CRIMINAL is YOU for generalizing and making sweeping statements like this.

The border disputes between Iran and Iraq can be traced all the way back to 1535, with the Ottoman quest of Baghdad. From then on, the governments of Iran and the Ottoman Empire signed nearly twenty treaties reconfiguring their disputed borders. The treaty of 1639 was the first in which the Safavids of Iran and the Ottomans settled on their borders. This treaty was confirmed over and over again in 1724, 1727, 1732 and 1736 as there came periods of hostility followed by periods of peace. What none of these treaties dealt clearly with however, was the Iran-Iraq border where it runs along the Shatt al-Arab. Another treaty was signed in 1937, only for a new round of confrontations to emerge in 1950s that continued up until the time of the revolution.

In December of 1991, the UN Secretary General wrote: "That Iraq's explanations do not appear sufficient or acceptable to the international community IS A FACT. [a fact which the UN seems to admit, but you seem to be ignorant of] Accordingly, the outstanding event under the violations referred to is the attack of 22 September 1980, against Iran, which cannot be justified under the charter of the United Nations, any recognized rules and principles of international law or any principles of international morality and entails the responsibility for conflict"

In 1986, the then-UN secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, formally accused Iraq of using chemical weapons against Iran.

You may hate the IRI or question its handling of the war - I agree that they used it to suppress opposition. But that it was an imposed war started by IRAQ and that thousands of people put their lives on the line and are now being treated like filth by both the IRI and clueless folks like you who are so blatantly arrogant to call them "criminal commanders" is the greatest of all tragedies. You can certainly doubt the actions of many of those commanders who lived after the war [like Rezaie, Shirazi, etc] ... but labeling them all as one and degrading them all as one just shows how ignorant you are.

It is because of this very totalitarian nature, of making statements without understanding, of this bitter hate, of being arrogant and ignorant enough to speak for an entire nation ... attributes which you seem to share all too well with our criminal president ... that we are in the state that we are in.

Houshang / April 10, 2010 6:19 PM

Given everything you said about the border dispute and the Iraq attacking Iran in 1980 is true ,and by the way I could challenge you in some of those issues. My question is why after 1 year of fighting in 1981 when Iraq government declared its willingness for ceasefire and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were ready to cover the damages inflicted on Iran, Khomeini and his criminal gang said no and continued to fight and push the war? It was Khomeini and his notorious Revolutionary guards and its commanding thugs who saw their survival d in that war. Yes I called them criminals because they are responsible for the mess we are in now. they are responsible for killing tens of thousands of Iranians either in war fronts or in prisons. They helped the IRG to become a killing and looting machine and It is so powerful now that controls major economical resources and political institutions in Iran. You should get your facts straight and stop supporting this criminal organizations and its anti-Iranian commanders. Since 1981, Sayyad Shirazi and Mohsen Rezaee were fighting a war not for Iranians but a war imposed on Iranians by their murderer leaders like Khomeini and other Ayatollahs in Power.

Sia / April 11, 2010 7:45 AM

Im hoping that anyone reading this has finally noticed that the average american(lower case letters) is possessed with a psychotic delusion that non-americans are put on earth by ALLAH to be judged, then categorized, then disposed of, by cowardly hypocryte americans. If you remain militarily weak, they WILL come to your land and do this to YOU.

Glenn / April 12, 2010 12:26 AM


Speaking of "getting your facts straight," perhaps you should do a bit of that also.

1. It was in June-July 1982 (not 1981 as you claim) that Iranian forces threw out Iraq's forces out of most of Khuzestan.

2. That Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were willing to pay Iran war raparation is a myth. Yes, I know it has been talked about extensively, but there has never been any confirmation of it by any credible source, including the Saudis themselves.

3. As Houshang said, the root cause of Iran-Iraq rivalry goes back hundreds of years. But, even if you do not want to go back that far, recall that even in the 1970s Saddam Hussein was forced to sign the Algiers Treaty with the Shah regarding the border dispute. The Shah had armed Kurdish forces to fight Iraq's central government. On the eve of invading Iran, Saddam went on Iraq's national TV and tore the agreement. Now, you still blame the IRI for the war, at least its initiation?

4. Having said that, I also believe that the war was continued needlessly for almost 6 years. The reason was ideological. But, there were ideologues on both sides. If Saddam Hussein had his chemical weapons in 1982, he would have continued the war also. He was as ideologically committed to fighting as was Khomeini.

Just because people hate the IRI and the IRGC does not mean that one can rewrite the history at will. Where is the sense of nationalism and patriotism here? Somethings are independent of the type of government that a nation has. They are called national interests, national expediency, historical facts, etc.

George Stewart / April 12, 2010 6:59 AM

Elegantly said, George.

I doubt it will make an impression on the febrile mind of your interlocutor, though.

Here is my impression:

At first, Iran carried the war into Iraq with the intention of capturing or isolating Basra, hoping to trade its gains for the removal of Saddam and the payment of indemnities.

Given that BOTH superpowers would not countenance an outcome decisively favorable to Iran, this strategy depended on immediate, overwhelming military success.

But, typically, IRI had devised no Plan B for disengaging from the war on ideologically palatable terms if the initial effort failed. And fail it did.

So Iran kept trying each year, launching futile, bloody assaults against increasingly formidable Iraqi defences until its own spirit broke.

Ali from Tehran / April 13, 2010 2:11 AM