Special to WorldTribune
Robert Morton, January 29, 1999
During the next two months, a series of prominent dissidents and writers in Iran have 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 advisors resides in the White House. It was during the Carter administration that Teheran and Washington severed ties after Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, and took hostages, including 52 Americans.
The first response made by the radical clerics to the high-profile murders bears an eerie resemblance to the multi-faceted reaction by our current southern governor in chief when he was caught in a web of his own design. That is, they lied, claiming that 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, VOA and the reliable exile press including the authoritative Paris monthly Mihan and L.A.’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 Dec. 14, judicial spokesman Nasiri Savadkuhi announced that the perpetrators – no longer foreigners but Iranians – would be brought to justice. Specifically he charged the People’s Mojahedin with the killings.
The People’s Mojahedin, the nation’s only armed opposition group, promptly denied responsibility, saying the Khamenei regime was to blame. Mr. Foruhar’s Iran Nation Party accused hard-liners in the intelligence services of planning and executing the killings.
Under pressure, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi on Jan. 2 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 Jan. 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 Jan. 18, the story took yet another turn. Khatami’s three-man investigation produced their report 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 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 this month, 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 600 leading voices of dissent in Iran in the past few years.
President Clinton devoted very little of his State of the Union address to foreign affairs and none of it to international terrorism and the proliferation of strategic weapons. On the other hand, the administration is responding positively to Khamenei’s surprise request last week for $500 million in U.S. grain and sugar. What prompted that action by Teheran? Call it pragmatism.
“The regime is in trouble politically and financially and so wants to experiment with rapprochement with the United States,” Homayoun says.
In fact, the government in Teheran has been conducting itself like a totalitarian dictatorship that is either in the throes of dissolution or on the verge of reckless aggression.
It has spent the past several years rapidly beefing up its strategic weapons with the help of China and Russia as documented by The Washington Times’ intrepid reporter Bill Gertz. The Israelis have become so nervous about intelligence estimates that the 1,200-mile range Shabab-4 missile will be ready by 2002 that Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon flew to Moscow last week to attempt to address the issue in a way the Americans have not.
Last year President Khatami was used to extend an olive branch to the West when he called for cultural exchanges with the United States. With their death squad’s excesses backfiring politically, the ayatollahs may have decided this was no time to poison the well with the Americans yet again. Jimmy Carter might be inclined to turn the other cheek for his enemies, but Bill Clinton has shown no qualms about sacrificing anyone, including ayatollahs, if such action could change the subject now dominating discussion in the U.S. Senate.
What an ironic idea: An American president so unpredictable that he strikes terror even in the inner sanctum of state-sponsored terrorism.
Meanwhile the Iranian people await a new dawn to end the long dark night of their despair.
Robert Morton is managing editor of the National Weekly Edition of The Washington Times in which this column was first published in the Jan. 24-31, 1999 edition. He is also a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.