In July 1980 a group of Iranian officers, mostly drawn from the air force, made what became a disastrous attempt at staging a coup d’etat.
The plotters had organized themselves in a secret group called Neqab (“the Mask”) and were led by two officers known for their courage and dedication: Major General Reza Mehdiyoun and Brigadier General Ayat Mohagheghi from the air force..
Brigadier General Ayat Mohagheghi
The plan envisaged for a commando unit to seize control of the Shahrokhi air base in Hamadan (west of Tehran), enabling the group to capture eighteen F4 fighters stationed there. Some of the fighters would then be flown over Tehran, less than six minutes’ time away, to bomb Rouhollah Khomeini’s residence in the hope of killing the ayatollah.
This dramatic act, the plotters hoped, would be the signal to other units positioned in the capital to seize the radio and television stations and to arrest the leading mullahs and their associates. The next move would consist of a demonstration on central Tehran by thousands of tough guys from the southern districts of the capital.
The “Mask” plot was quickly discovered and stopped before it could get off the ground. More than 300 people were arrested and some 80 of them were later executed on Khomeini’s orders. The executions were followed by a fresh purge of the armed forces, weakening them even further only weeks before Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980
Before his trial, General Ayat Mohagheghi was beaten and interrogated and later brought on television where he was questioned by Hojatoleslam Reyshahri about his role in the coup attempt.
Despite his shabby appearance he appeared calm and defiant as he sat in a white short-sleeve summer shirt alongside four other defendants. Clearly there was no doubt in his mind as to what awaited him at the end but he was determined not to disgrace himself.
“My decision to participate in the plot stemmed from my disillusionment in the face of what was happening to my family and country,” he said.
Although many of the details of the plot are shrouded in mystery a videotape of General Mohagheghi’s television confession was smuggled out and distributed by Iranian exiles in Europe, Canada and the USA.
What follows is based on this videotape and whilst not the full story it remains to date a modest attempt to reconstruct events leading to the July Plot.
Sometime in April 1980 General Ayat Mohagheghi, a former ace pilot and Air Force Commander under the Shah who had been kept on in his post after the Islamic revolution, was approached by Lt Nasser Rokni. “I want to talk to you about our country,” Rokni had said.
Mohagheghi suggested that they meet at his house in Tehran where they could speak more freely. The two men had known each other and they discussed the lamentable state of the country and armed forces.
Both officers agreed that something had to be done to change things and so Rokni gradually revealed that “certain forces” were busy creating a network. “You can join us or not join us,” he told the sceptical Mohagheghi. “Either way the decision is yours to take.”
It took Mohagheghi several days before agreeing to join the conspirators. At a secret meeting held at Rokni’s house Mohagheghi discovered that his old friend General Mehdiyoun had also been drawn into the ‘Mask’ network which consisted of a military and a civilian branch.
Also present at the meeting was a mysterious businessman known by the alias “Ghorban” who was to provide economic support for the operations with funds sent by “patriotic exiled groups outside Iran.” During their meetings, often interrupted by an old maid bringing tea, the men discussed the possibilities of staging a coup and the risks involved.
Politically, the conspirators favoured the restoration of the exiled Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last prime minister and the leader of the Paris-based National Resistance Movement of Iran. There were even hints that the exiled Shah had met with Rokni and received his blessing. As improbable as that may sound it was good for morale.
Organisation was always a great problem for the conspirators as it was always a concern that the agents of the Islamic republic were watching to neutralise any counterrevolutionary plots and every week news of fresh executions – most of them in public – appeared in the press and media. Some of the meetings took place at the luxury Arya-Sheraton Hotel on the former Pahlavi Boulevard.
In hindsight the plan appears rather amateurish and even Mohagheghi admitted that there was nothing on paper. One day Rokni told him that his team planned to capture Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport and launch the operation from there.
Mohagheghi, a professional and charismatic officer with the looks of a film idol, dismissed the idea as impractical because the area around the airport was too crowded and many innocent people could get killed. Besides the airport was heavily guarded by revolutionary guards.
Instead Mohagheghi proposed another plan that included seizing an isolated air base in Hamadan. Under the Shah he had served as the Air Force Commander of Shahrokhi air base and responsible for training many of Iran’s top tactical fighter pilots. After the revolution he had been briefly detained and later reinstated in his post because of his exceptional abilities by President Bani Sadr.
After several more meetings the conspirators approved the plan and declared that as the senior officer in the group, Mohagheghi was to lead the supersonic air raids against key targets in Tehran. His unique position and familiarity with the air base made him indispensable to the success of the operation. In the days that followed, Mohagheghi continued to report to his command post at Shahrokhi and formulating a number of operations that were to take place.
Energy, resourcefulness, determination, eloquence, charisma, an irresistible magnetic charm – all the qualities Mohagheghi had previously employed in his pre-revolutionary tasks were now directed towards conspiracy. It was a dauntingly arduous and complex undertaking. Tirelessly and with cavalier insoucience, he drew up a plan.
Among the key targets chosen to be struck by Fighter jets dispatched from Shahrokhi were Khomeini’s house in Jamaran, the Presidential Palace, the runways at Mehrabad Airport and several key bridges and road intersections to create confusion. Every precaution would be taken to keep the loss of innocent lives at a mimimum.
After three months the conspirators went into action but from the beginning everything that could go wrong did. On Wednesday, 9th July 1980, General Mohagheghi and twenty other Neqab members left their houses in the early dusk hours and headed for the rendezvous point on Elizabeth Boulevard where a bus was to pick them up.
It was around 7:30p.m. when most of the conspirators gathered together. But the bus was late. At about 8pm. a jeep filled with armed revolutionary Pasdars suddenly appeared on the street causing the group to panic and run. It wasn’t until later that Mohagheghi and five fellow conspirators managed to get on the bus.
It was 10:30p.m when the bus left Tehran for the Hamadan highway towards the Shahrokhi air base. Inside the bus the eight occupants had changed into air force uniforms and badly demoralised by the news of the arrest of one of their team members.
Once in Hamadan the bus made its way to the Shahrokhi air base where the conspirators had been told to await the green light before entering. From his window Mohagheghi noticed that the base was heavily guarded by revolutionary troops and vehicles were being searched. “Let’s turn back,” Mohageghi told his men but the driver, a certain Nemati, insisted on going as far as the gas station. The much-awaited green light never came and the conspirators were forced to turn back and drove non-stop to Tehran.
It was dawn when they reached the capital. Rokni and Mohagheghi agreed to rendezvous later in the day near the Modaress freeway. But when Mohagheghi arrived there at 10a.m. he did not see Rokni. Anxiously General Mohagheghi returned to his apartment.
“I must see you,” Mohagheghi told General Mehdiyoun. Several minutes later a car appeared in front of a public telephone booth and Mohagheghi got in. The two generals shook hands and went for a forty-five minutes drive. This was their fourth meeting since being introduced at Rokni’s house and as they struggled through the heavy Tehran traffic Mohagheghi told his fellow conspirator everything.
The two generals had known each other for twenty-eight years but since joining the conspiracy had kept a low profile in case they were being watched.
Beads of sweat trickled down their faces on that hot July morning as they negotiated the streets. By now neither of them was prepared to rule out the possibility that someone had leaked their plans.
There was now a real danger that the regime’s security forces would begin to hunt down their members. They could only hope that their fears were unjustified. When they parted it was with the understanding that they would not see or phone each other until further orders.
Throughout the planning stages every precaution had been taken to limit direct contact between the various groups especially the pilots that were to carry out the strategic bombing raids. Even Mohagheghi was unaware of their names and his closest collaborators did not exceed five names. Within two days the entire plot had failed and many of the leading conspirators with the exception of the mysterious businessman who escaped Iran were arrested.
Shortly after midnight on 20th July 1980 General Mohagheghi was marched out of his cell along with four other officers and taken to the stone courtyard in Evin Prison. When he faced the bullets it was not with the disappointment, still less the despair, of a thwarted man.
From one point of view, the events of 9th July 1980 and the circumstances surrounding them offer just another story of 20th century political conspiracy, and a failed conspiracy at that. It may have been well-intentioned, even noble and exalted, but it was also bungled.
Some would argue that it did not significantly alter the course of events, and may seem no more than a footnote to history. And yet even in failure, there can be no doubt of General Mohagheghi’s heroism.
He belonged to a small group of people who against terrible odds and in appalling circumstances kept the spirit of Iranian honour alive, and with it the elusive spirit of humanity. He deserves to be remembered.
Others will dispute that his execution was an honourable death and certainly not the story of a failure. In the footnote of human history General Ayat Mohagheghi ranks alongside others who like the anti-Nazi hero Claus Stauffenberg felt that resisting an evil regime was not a political move but a moral and spiritual necessity. At best he and all those men and women who perished after him stand as an atonement for all the horrible crimes committed under the Islamic republic.