Since 1979, more than a dozen Iranian clerics have been killed in bombings, shootings and stabbings by a variety of attackers, including opposition groups. The biggest single attack was shortly after the revolution when a bomb went off at the Islamic Republican Party headquarters. More than 70 officials, including Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Beheshti and at least three other clerics, were killed. Beheshti, the judiciary chief, was widely regarded as the most powerful official after the supreme leader.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was targeted twice before becoming supreme leader. The first attempt was in 1981 when a tape recorder bomb went off as he was giving the Friday prayer sermon in Tehran. He lost use of his right arm. The second attempt was a suicide bombing in 1985, also during Friday prayers in Tehran. But Khamenei was unharmed.
Among other targets were:
- Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, a leading theologian and political activist who was close to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1979.
- Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Beheshti, the judiciary chief and second-most powerful person in Iran, in 1981.
- Ayatollah Seyyed Madani, Friday prayer leader of Tabriz and a member of the powerful Assembly of Experts, in 1981.
- Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleimani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, in 2023.
The following is a timeline of key assassination attempts on clerics since the revolution.
May 1, 1979: Ayatollah Morteza Motahari was gunned down in the streets of Tehran after leaving Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s home. An anonymous phone caller claimed that Forqan, a Marxist Islamist group, was responsible. The theologian had a close relationship with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became the supreme leader.
Nov. 2, 1979: Mohammad Ali Qazi Tabatabaei, a representative of the supreme leader in East Azerbaijan province, was assassinated by the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) in Tabriz.
Dec. 27, 1979: Sarkar Agha Abdolreza Ebrahimi, leader of the Sheikhiyeh branch of Shiism, was shot in his car while leaving a mosque. He later died in the hospital.
May 2, 1980: Sheik Hassan Shirazi was shot and killed by gunmen in Beirut, Lebanon.
June 27, 1981: A bomb in a tape recorder seriously injured Ali Khamenei, an influential aide to the supreme leader and a member of Parliament, during a Friday prayer sermon. Khamenei, who later became president and then supreme leader, permanently lost use of his right arm.
June 28, 1981: A bombing at the Islamic Republican Party headquarters killed at least 74 officials, including Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Beheshti, the head of the judiciary. At least three other clerics were killed, including Mohammad Kazem Danesh, Fakhruddin Rahimi and Seyyed Mohammad Taghi Hosseini Tabatabai. Four cabinet ministers and 27 lawmakers were killed. The government initially blamed the attack on the communist Tudeh party and “American elements.” It later claimed that the MEK was responsible.
Sept. 4, 1981: Ayatollah Hossein Bagheri was shot dead by attackers in the western city of Sanandaj. State radio blamed “American mercenaries.”
Sept. 5, 1981: Ayatollah Ali Qoddousi was killed in a bombing of the military’s headquarters in Tehran.
Sept. 11, 1981: Ayatollah Seyyed Madani was assassinated in a suicide bombing carried out by the MEK in Tabriz, where he was the city’s Friday prayer leader. The explosion killed six others and wounded 12. Madani was a member of the Assembly of Experts, a group of 88 clerics and scholars charged with appointing and overseeing the supreme leader.
Feb. 14, 1984: Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, Iran’s ambassador to Syria, lost his right hand in a book bombing attributed to Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. The cleric had played a key role in the formation of Hezbollah, a Lebanese political movement and militia.
March 15, 1985: A suicide bomber targeted a Friday prayer service at Tehran University led by President Ali Khamenei. He was not injured, but others were.
June 1998: Molavi Imam Bakhsh Narouie, a Sunni prayer leader, was killed in Miyankang, Sistan and Baluchistan province.
Sept. 12, 2009: Borhan Aali, a Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader in Sanandaj, Kurdistan province, was shot and killed at his residence. He had supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s unpopular 2009 reelection. The governor of Sanandaj blamed extremist Sunnis.
Nov. 27, 2018: Abdolghafour Jamalzai, a Friday prayer leader of Reza Abad, Golestan province, was shot and killed while leaving the mosque.
April 27, 2019: Mostafa Ghasemi, a 46-year-old cleric, was shot and killed in the city of Hamadan while leaving the seminary.
April 5, 2022: A 21 year-old Uzbek from Afghanistan stabbed three clerics at the Imam Reza Shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad. One cleric died at the scene, and two others were injured. A second cleric died of his wounds days later.
June 6, 2022: An assailant attacked and stabbed Yousef Tabatabaei-Nejad, the supreme leader’s representative in the central city of Isfahan. Tabatabaei-Nejad survived the attack.
July 2, 2022: Mohsen Akhavan, an imam at Isfahan’s Baqiyatallah Mosque, was shot while leaving the mosque. He was hospitalized but survived the attack.
July 28, 2022: Cleric Mojtaba Hosseini was stabbed multiple times in the back while delivering a sermon in the city of Karaj, near Tehran. Hosseini survived the attack.
August 31, 2022: Two clerics were hospitalized in the holy city of Qom after being beaten by assailants with metal pipes.
Nov. 11, 2022: Sajjad Shahraki, a cleric at a mosque in Zahedan, the capital of southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province, was shot and killed by an attacker.
Dec. 9, 2022: Molavi Abdulwahid Rigi, a Sunni cleric, was kidnapped and killed by unknown assailants in the town of Khash, Sistan and Baluchistan province.
April 26, 2023: Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleimani was gunned down by a security guard in a bank in the city of Babolsar. The senior cleric was a member of the Assembly of Experts.
This article includes information from a previous article by Andrew Billingsley. Aaron Boehm, a research analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace, contributed to this report.
Photo Credits: Beheshti via public domain; Motahari via Mehr News Agency; Khamenei via khamenei.ir; Tabatabaei-Nejad via Mehr News Agency CC BY 4.0;