Making of a 'martyr': Why would a young Iranian fight and die in Syria?

Almost a year ago, a 20-year-old Iranian's quest for martyrdom was realized in Syria, in battle with the so-called Islamic State. Today Iran trumpets his sacrifice as proof of passing the ideological torch to a new generation.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Ali Dehghan-Amiri and Fatemeh Toosi stand beside banners and portraits of their son, Mohammad-Reza Dehghan-Amiri, who volunteered to fight and was killed in Syria last November, aged 20, in their home in Tehran on Sept. 14.

The day Fatemeh Toosi saw her son off to the Syrian war, on a quest for martyrdom, she did not cry.

At the door of their middle-class apartment, the Iranian mother held aloft a Quran as her son passed underneath, a traditional drill for true believers of the Islamic Republic bound for the front line.

The mother kept her nerve, but expected she would never see her 20-year-old son, Mohammad-Reza Dehghan-Amiri, alive again.

He was determined to fight the so-called Islamic State because they “insult humanity,” she says he told her, and because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of two venerated uncles who died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Mr. Dehghan-Amiri made clear he might not return, and asked why there were no tears.

“I told him, ‘I am not sad at all, because you have found the path of righteousness. You are going to a good place. Why should I cry?’ ” recalls Mrs. Toosi, teary-eyed and shrouded in the black abaya favored by Iran’s most devout Shiite Muslims.

“The moment he was leaving, if I had cried, that could have affected his morale and made him tremble, and he might not have volunteered,” she says. “But at the same time, I can’t deny my motherly feelings and love. When he was in Syria, so many times I started crying...”

Forty-eight days later Dehghan-Amiri’s dream came true: He was killed by rounds from a 23mm anti-aircraft cannon last November with three others – now often called the “Four Martyrs of Aleppo” –  and joined the pantheon of Iranian martyrs who are held up by the revolutionary regime as heroes to be revered and followed.

It is not clear if Dehghan-Amiri fought alongside Syrian government forces, or Hezbollah, or even some of the few thousand, at most, Iranian volunteers or officers. The family was notified of his death by officials of the Qods Force – the branch of the Revolutionary Guard that conducts operations abroad – and was told that he died in combat with IS.

The night he was killed, his mother “wept in my loneliness,” she says, proud she had raised a son willing to sacrifice his life for a cause. “What I believe is our children are God’s trust to us – they are ours temporarily and go back to God,” she says.

'Fresh-breathing heroes'

Dehghan-Amiri’s story provides a rare glimpse into the world of the Islamic Republic’s true believers, whose private religious piety and moral creed are sometimes used to create very public, lionized examples aimed at reinvigorating martyr culture, as Iran – officially and unofficially – engages in wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Likewise, the regime has trumpeted cases like Dehghan-Amiri’s to illustrate how the ideological torch of the 1979 Islamic revolution has been successfully passed from one generation to the next. The propaganda aims to revitalize Shiite warrior iconography that decades ago inspired recruits for the Iran-Iraq war and consolidated bedrock support for the regime.

“Khomeini’s fresh-breathing heroes have joined the battle,” headlined the website Badriyoon just days after the death, saying that “martyr” Dehghan-Amiri’s young generation – often criticized by hard-liners as weak and Western-oriented liberals – is still devoted to the ideals of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“Once our front lines used to be defined within the borders of our country, but they are now beyond the borders,” wrote Badriyoon, which focuses on POW issues and spreading martyr culture. “The new generation has shown that they’re not sissies and kids, they are real men.”

Singled out was Dehghan-Amiri, who the story noted was 15 when the Syria war began. “But now … he goes right into the front line to tell the terrorists that they’ll never see Iran’s borders, not even in their dreams.”

A rarity in modern Iran

Such devotees are a minority in divided Iran, where a Westernized and secular portion of society is often more interested in acquiring an iPhone7, defeating internet restrictions, and breaking the alcohol ban, rather than in any reinvigorated revolutionary discourse.

And while Iran has marshaled thousands of fellow Shiites from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Pakistan to defend the regime of its key ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and fight IS in Syria and Iraq, it has deployed far fewer of its own citizens such as Qods Force advisers and volunteer fighters like Dehghan-Amiri.

Still, a dozen or so Iranian generals have been killed among more than 400 Revolutionary Guard “martyrs” in Syria and Iraq. Early official sensitivity about disclosing Iran’s military actions abroad has now given way to celebrating them and the scale of Iran's sacrifice.

The central-west Tehran alley where Dehghan-Amiri’s family still lives has been renamed after the fallen fighter, for example. Videos of memorial services glorify his exploits and beliefs, and even a book of memories of him is in its third printing. In some circles, his family have become mini-celebrities, presiding over multiple memorial ceremonies and asked to speak at universities.

“It was astonishing to people that a person at such a young age volunteered for war, and at the same time he looked like a very modern young person … stylish and up-to-date,” says Toosi. His sincerity, she says, has also “captivated the minds of many people.”

His uncles' war stories

Such fervent religious beliefs did not grow in a vacuum. For Dehghan-Amiri, the values of the noble Shiite warrior and martyrdom in the name of religion and justice were imbibed like mother’s milk, in a family where role models include two uncles killed in the Iran-Iraq war.

“Even when he was a child, I used to tell him about those brothers of mine, and how they lived, and the Sacred Defense,” says Toosi, using the official term in Iran for the war that left at least 385,000 dead. Her older brother graduated from a military academy and died a Special Forces officer at the age of 21.

Her younger brother – Mohammad-Reza Toosi, whom she named her son after – volunteered to fight when he was 13. He falsified the date on his birth certificate to qualify, without telling family members, and was killed when he was 16 in an Iranian offensive in northern Iraq in 1987.

Dehghan-Amiri became obsessed with the war stories – his father was also a veteran – and the family made 17 visits to the former battlefields. Dehghan-Amiri also volunteered several times to be a “servant of the martyrs” during such trips organized for students, called rahian-e nour – Followers of the Light Path. And he joined the basiji, an ideological paramilitary force known for its religious training.

“My son did not witness the war, but he studied it so much he knew more details about it than me,” says Dehghan-Amiri’s father, Ali Dehghan-Amiri, a retired policeman whose forehead bears the smudged scar of frequent prayer.

He notes the difference between the Iran-Iraq war, when “we were defending Iranian soil,” and the more complex motivations behind his son’s choice to fight in Syria, where President Assad and his Russian backers have been accused of “barbarism” in a relentless war that has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people.

'Fight on the path of God'

Dehghan-Amiri’s parents say their young son’s “target” was three-fold: “supporting humanity” by fighting IS; defending the Shiite shrine of Zeynab, granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad, near Damascus; and even repaying a debt to Assad, whose father, Hafez, was the only Arab leader to side with Iran in the 1980s.

“I was proud of the fact that in this modern world, my son has come to the understanding that for religious and political beliefs, he should do this,” says his mother, sitting beneath a large framed yellow flag from the shrine in Syria, a gift from her son’s fellow fighters.

Dehghan-Amiri’s death prompted a “revolution” among his friends to begin training, to join the war in Syria, says his mother. In his will he called upon his younger brother to embrace martyrdom and “fight on the path of God,” and quoted a Shiite saint saying that, if Islam required his death to survive, then “let the swords encircle me.”

“There might be some people outside of Iran, who wrongly believe that the new generation – because of the cultural invasion [from the West] – are disappointed with the political system in Iran and the values of the revolution,” says Toosi.

“But Mohammad-Reza served as an example to disprove that, to say that even the new generation are sticking to those principles,” she says.

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