Midnight in Tehran

Friday, July 30, 1999

Very late Saturday night, November 21, 1998, several dark figures approached a home just north of central Tehran and were admitted by prominent Iranian opposition leader Daruosh Forohar. During the remaining hours of darkness, the visitors apparently tortured their host and his wife, Parvaneh, before brutally killing them. The next day their bodies were discovered by other visitors, who had an appointment. Forohar, the leader of the Iran Nation Party, had fourteen stab wounds, five of which were in the heart. This was just the beginning.

During the next two months, a series of prominent dissidents and writers in Iran paid for their courage with their lives—Majid Sharif, Mohammed Mokhtari, Mohammad Pouyandeh, Mr. and Mrs. Javad Emami, and Mrs. Fatemeh Eslami.

Trouble seems to flair up in Iran—strategically located north of the Persian Gulf, west of Pakistan and Afghanistan, south of Russia, and east of Iraq—whenever a southern Democratic governor with left-wing foreign policy advisers resides in the White House. It was during the Carter administration that Tehran and Washington severed ties after Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in November 1980 and took hostages, including fifty-two Americans. The first response made by the radical clerics to the high-profile murders bears an eerie resemblance to the multifaceted reaction by our current southern governor in chief when he was caught in a web of his own design. That is, they lied, claiming a foreign crime network (hint: the Great Satan) was responsible for stilling those brave voices.

This did not go down well with the long-suffering Iranian people, who were hearing reports from BBC, Voice of America, and the reliable exile press, including the authoritative Paris monthly Mihan and Los Angeles’s Radio Sedaye Iran, that the assassinations were an inside job. Furthermore, they all knew that such executions could never be carried out without a fatwah, or blessing, from the ayatollahs presiding over Iran’s hellish theocracy.

Complicating things further was the prominent role played by “moderate” President Mohammed Khatami, elected in August 1997, and presumably locked in a power struggle with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over liberal reforms he advocates.

This good cop–bad cop setup has served to encourage, not neutralize, protests and demonstrations. The regime quickly found itself in the position of having to explain the unexplainable. On December 14, 1998, judicial spokesman Nasiri Savaduhi announced that the perpetrators—no longer foreigners but Iranians—would be brought to justice. Specifically, he charged the People’s Mujahideen with the killings.

The People’s Mujahideen, the nation’s only armed opposition group, promptly denied responsibility, saying the Khamenei regime was to blame. Forohar’s Iran Nation Party accused hard-liners in the intelligence services of planning and carrying out the killings.

Under pressure, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi on January 2, 1999, announced that several arrests had been made and promised that results of his investigation would be made public soon. Then President Khatami announced he had appointed a three-man investigative team to examine the role of the intelligence services in the killings.

In a stunning development on January 5, the Intelligence Ministry announced that the regime’s own intelligence agents—not the Great Satan—had participated in the assassinations. The statement said, “These crimes are not only an act of betrayal against the Intelligence Ministry, but have also greatly damaged the prestige of the sacred Islamic regime.”

After the foreign press saw in this news a decisive victory for Khatami and the forces of moderation, on January 18 the story took yet another turn. Khatami’s three-man investigation produced its work, which exonerated the intelligence services and concluded the killings were the work of unimportant other “elements,” who had been in prison and are now awaiting trial.

“Khamenei and the radicals, with the consent of Khatami, tried to whitewash these crimes,” said Assad Homayoun of the International Strategic Studies Association. He called the report “yet another concession Khatami has made to the supreme leader.” Homayoun, the minister in charge of the Iranian embassy in Washington, D.C., when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized control of the government in 1980, writes and is frequently interviewed about Iran as an advocate of freedom and human rights for the Iranian people.

How has the U.S. government responded to this disaster? Well there hasn’t been any real response other than disapproving comments at the State Department’s daily press briefing.

In a speech at the Asia Society in New York in January, Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, called on President Clinton and the Ayatollah Khamenei to improve bilateral relations. He had nothing to say about the vicious acts of repression that according to exile sources have claimed the lives of as many as six hundred leading voices of dissent in Iran in the past few years.