Portrait of a veteran Iranian revolutionary

For the past half century, Zabihollah Bakhshi – a religious militant – has been center stage in nearly every Iranian fight or street protest.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Dressed for a demo: When the camera comes out, Zabihollah Bakhshi dons a his protest "uniform."

The white-bearded Iranian zealot knows the power of theater. For more than half a century, Zabihollah Bakhshi has been front and center in nearly every revolutionary action or pro-regime rally.

In Iran, he's an institution, a political cheerleader and professional militant. His battle scars include multiple wounds received in the Iraq-Iran war. His enduring and high-profile persona is a useful tool for hard-liners in Iran. It's also a window into the total commitment that remains – in some quarters, at least – for the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"In war, propaganda and spirit are the most important things," says Haji Bakhshi, as he is known here. "If they tell me right now that we must go for a protest, I will take off these slippers and run bare-footed! Because it's our revolution. Because it's our country. A person who does not love his country, who does not love his nation, is not human."

Bakhshi is proud of his decades of activism, even to the point of killing, he says, in the name of national pride and religious conviction. He's also been a vigilante. A 1996 report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, described Mr. Bakhshi as a "strong-arm leader" who took part in the "violent activities of groups of religious zealots" that "targeted government critics and free-thinkers of all kinds, burning property, beating individuals and disrupting gatherings."

Today, his focus is the threat from Washington, where the Bush administration has not ruled out military strikes to stop progress of Iran's nuclear programs.

"Let Mr. Bush know this ... if they attack, we shall attack them from land and sky," says Bakhshi. "When there are people like me – and 20 million other [volunteers] – who are ready to tie explosives to ourselves and go with fast-moving boats toward the American military ships, the people of the US do not like such a thing."

While certainly a vast overestimate of the number of suicide-ready devotees, Bakhshi's defiant worldview is not uncommon. It's rooted in Iran's history of victimization and "war stories" common to many devout Iranians.

Trusted by the regime, Bakhshi became active along the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, driving a vehicle with large speakers to boost morale of the soldiers with nationalist and religious chants. A well-known photo shows Bakhshi racing with a blanket to put out flames engulfing his vehicle after it was hit with an Iraqi tank shell, killing Bakhshi's passengers.

"He played nationalist songs of honor and power, to make people feel better," says Ali Rajabi, the Iranian photographer to took the famous shot. He recalls feeling the heat of the burning car, but says that Bakhshi ignored it as he repeatedly rushed in to try to save his two passengers.

"They were men of action, not just men of words ... [who] sit far back from the front lines," recounts Mr. Rajabi. "Near the border, the Iraqis knew this car."

Portraits of those who died in the car – along with those of Bakhshi's son and brother lost in the war – hang today in Bakhshi's house, in what he calls the "room of love." But two days after that incident, Bakhshi was back at the front to disprove reports that he also had perished in the fire.

"The guys [Iranian soldiers] had lost their spirit.... Radio Baghdad had announced that they had killed Haji Bakhshi," he recalls. "I went to the other world," Bakhshi says he told Saddam Hussein, "and now I have come back to take you with me again!"

The septuagenarian greets a visitor to his farm in Karaj, 30 miles west of Tehran, wearing a cast on his left hand that is held in place with a sling made of the distinctive scarf of the Basiji militia, the ideological "volunteer" force formed after the revolution to fight Iraq in the 1980s.

Bakhshi broke his hand when he fell off his truck during a major Tehran rally to mark the 29th anniversary of the revolution last month. Security guards for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked that his vehicle be moved, and the driver panicked and hit the brake hard, causing Bakhshi to tumble.

But the injured hand is only the latest "battle scar" in a life of defiance – and violence – that began during World War II. When he was just 9, he says, he saw a British military officer kill one of his friends. Incensed, the boy told his local ayatollah: "I am going to kill him."

Bakhshi figured out how he would avenge his friend after seeing American troops using dynamite to kill fish in the river. He dove in and threw the fish out to them, eventually making friends with the soldiers. After a month, he had won their trust enough to steal two sticks of dynamite – which he says he then stuck beneath the vehicle of the British officer.

The explosion killed two men, recounts Bakhshi, the first of many acts of violent resistance. He joined an underground Islamic group and spent a day in prison for riots surrounding a CIA-engineered coup in 1953. Years later, when he tried to deliver explosives to fellow loyalists of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 revolution, Bakhshi found his car being chased in Tehran by agents of Shah Reza Pahlavi's SAVAK secret police.

Bakhshi got away, after throwing a brick of cash out the window, which created a swarm of people that slowed his SAVAK pursuers. "Who put this in my mind? God," says Bakhshi, relishing the story and its implication of divine protection.

He was protected again in 1987, he says, when he helped spark a pro-Khomeini riot during the hajj (pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia. Pretending to be a blind beggar, Bakhshi illegally hid a flag under his clothes, and images of Khomeini in a canister meant to spray scented water. More than 400 died in the riot, including, a Saudi soldier he says he bludgeoned to death with chunks of concrete because soldiers "were killing people."

"They wanted to shoot me here in the head, but God made the bullet come here," says Bakhshi, pointing to the scar on his right thigh.

Violence in Iran has dissipated in recent years as hard-liners have taken control. But Bakhshi and militants like him still find plenty to get angry about. Bakhshi can be seen in photos of a violent protest outside the Denmark Embassy in Tehran in February 2006. The protest was against cartoons published in a Danish newspaper that were widely seen as an insult to Islam. Bakhshi can be seen with hands covered in blood, making prints on a wall.

"We won the [Iran-Iraq] war with faith and spirit, not weapons. I killed, captured [soldiers] and was active with the morale [boosting] thing," says Bakhshi.

"Nothing is more important than spirit in the field of war. Because if there is not spirit in the front line, everyone will retreat."

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