Does this photograph show a Revolutionary Guard officer among 48 Iranian "pilgrims" freed in Syria?
Ever since 48 Iranian men were abducted in Syria last August, claims have circulated that they were not "pilgrims", as Tehran's officials and State media maintained. Insurgents asserted that their detainees were connected with the Iranian military, assisting the Assad regime in their attempt to crush the opposition. There were specific allegations that some of the "pilgrims" were officers in the Revolutionary Guards, the Islamic Repubic's elite force.
We have always been cautious about the claims. In part this was because of the lack of concrete evidence. In part it was because the detail that was given in media reports --- such as Asharq al-Awsat and The Australian --- may have come from the People's Mojahedin of Iran, the political wing of the "terrorist" Mujahedin-e Khalq.
This week the Revolutionary Guards story re-surfaced, as the 48 men were freed; at the same time, President Assad released 2130 civilian detainees in Syrian prisons. The site Digarban, notable for its criticism of the regime, listed seven Revolutionary Guards officers whom it claimed were among the men welcomed in Tehran's Mehrabad Airport.
The names given were Abedin Khorram, a Revolutionary Guards commander in Urmia in West Azerbaijan Province: Mohammad Taghi Safari, a commander in Bushehr in southern Iran; Sadegh Adibi, a commander of the Jahrom al-Mahdi Brigade: Ali Javadian, Mohammad Elahi, and Amrollah Hemmati, also from the Jahrom brigade; and Hojatoleslam Karim Hosseinkhani, based in West Azerbaijan Province.
So is Digarban correct?
Evidence in the story, which draws from other articles in the Iranian press, is sketchy at best. Khorram was named in last August's claims as "the head of the Martyrs Division for the Revolutionary Guards in West Azerbaijan", but there is nothing in the photographs from Damacus or Mehrabad Airport placing him among the 48 "pilgrims". The same is true for five other men, previously unnamed, on Digarban's list.
That leaves Hojatoleslam Karim Hosseinkhani for further investigation.
Hosseinkhani was listed in last August's reports as "a senior figure in the Basij militia for [West Azerbaijan] and a representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader". More importantly, we have a photograph of him from the site Basij News.
Most importantly, Hosseinkhani's picture in Basij News is remarkable to that of a man in the foreground of a photo of the returning "pilgrims", taken on Thursday at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport (see top of entry).
A comparison of Thursday's picture, with the man who appears to be Hosseinkhani at the front right, and the photograph in Basij News, reproduced on a PMOI site:
The evidence is not conclusive. Similarity does not mean that Naderkhani is the man in the Mehrabad Airport picture. An EA correspondent based in Iran comments, "This is the typical appearance of a Sepahi (Revolutionary Guard) cleric."
Even if Naderkhani is the man in the left-hand photograph, it does not establish that he is a "pilgrim" --- because of the close-up shot, he is not shown wearing the garland of flowers given to each of the 48 men. (However, it would be a remarkable coincidence that one of the men named in the August articles just happened to be at Mehrabad to welcome the freed Iranians.)
Truth is always difficult to distil from propaganda, especially when the political stakes are high. Those making "definitive" statements --- the insurgents with their assertions that some of the 48 were Revolutionary Guards officers; the regime saying there is absolutely no connection --- are doing so to gain supremacy in Syrian and Iranian battles.
Yet one can --- and, indeed, should --- establish the realm of the possible. A month after the "pilgrims" were abducted, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, disclosed that his men were providing logistical and advisory assistance to the Assad regime. When the Iranians were released in Syria on Wednesday, Revolutionary Guards commander Hossein Hamedani was on hand to greet them. And there is the circumstance that President Assad thought the Iranians were so important that --- as his soldiers remain in the hands of insurgents --- he released 2130 civilian detainees to return them to Tehran.
To be continued....