The IranianUnique Travel


email us

US Transcom
US Transcom

Shahin & Sepehr

Sehaty Foreign Exchange

Advertise with The Iranian

    News & views

Frightening Reassurances in Iran

The New Yor Times
January 10, 1999

WASHINGTON -- "Be suspicious, the better to escape another's trickery," the Persian maxim goes. Indeed, Iran, with its high walls, veiled women and mirror-mosaics, is a country that never was accustomed to revealing its secrets, whether its leader wore a turban or a crown.

So last week's official admission that a death squad operating inside its secretive intelligence service was responsible for a series of killings of the regime's critics was startling, to say the least.

By American standards, the statement from a spokesman (unnamed) of the Ministry of Information (as it is called) did not reveal all that much. It did not identify the "irresponsible, misguided and unruly personnel" who it said had been arrested. It did not say who ordered the murders. It did not promise a wholesale purge of the super-secret ministry, which is believed to have carried out scores of assassinations abroad, sanctioned rogue operations and is larger and more intrusive in the lives of its own citizenry than its predecessor, SAVAK, the shah's secret police.

But why, after all, should anyone have expected a full and frank explanation? Mysterious disappearances, fatal heart attacks in prison and outright murders have long been part of the political landscape of Iran's Islamic Republic.

In 1994, for example, after 134 members of a writers' association signed a letter calling for an end to censorship in Iran, five of the signatories were killed or died soon afterward in suspicious circumstances. The next summer, the driver of a bus carrying 30 members of the group to a poetry conference in Armenia twice tried to run the bus off a mountain, both times jumping out of the bus to save himself first. Both times a passenger grabbed the wheel and steered the bus back onto the road.

But these incidents were always talked about in hushed tones around dinner tables, not spread across the front pages of the newspapers. This time things are different.

The confession of criminality in the heart of the Islamic regime was made only after the murders had already unleashed a remarkably open public debate, in which people who suddenly felt more vulnerable complained of the specter of official terror, and Islamic purists blamed anti-Islamic elements and outsiders for the killings. "American and Israeli spies" were behind the murders, the Minister of Information, Ghorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, had declared.

So the official announcement was something of an answer, intended to calm the country while still casting suspicion on outsiders.

In fact, a critical change in the atmosphere had taken place a year and half ago, when Mohammed Khatami was unexpectedly elected president, a post in which he shares power with Iran's more autocratic spiritual guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In the public debate, which can be followed even overseas in Iranian publications these days, President Khatami has argued that the goal of the murders was to undermine his campaign to create a civil society and impose the rule of law in Iran. This amounted to a public acknowledgment that the country's intelligentsia was at risk, and it created tremendous public pressure to hold the government accountable to its people.

Even Khamenei, who has effective authority over the intelligence and security apparatus, eventually called the murders crimes "against the country's national security." What is unclear, however, is just how much reassurance this semi-openness has provided for the writers and others who have come to fear for their lives.

After the Ministry of Information's announcement that it had uncovered rogues in its ranks, Khatami made it sound as if the committee had finished its work and the case was closed. "What happened in recent days shows that the Ministry of Intelligence is alert and alive and its strong body has the capability to eradicate fast and forcefully any sick cell or strange limb that might appear," he said.

But instead of stanching protest and closing the books, the disclosure elicited calls for more action.

A newly founded party that supports Khatami is calling on the Government to revamp the entire structure of the intelligence apparatus, especially its managers. An editorial in Zan, a newspaper run by Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, called for the investigatory committee to look into other mysterious matters, including assaults against two ministers and violent acts against legal meetings and newspapers. Others are demanding more openness in the judicial process, or the resignation of the Information Minister.

But in an address at Friday prayers last week, Ayatollah Khamenei called for an end to the public debate. "I am surprised by what some of our own press is doing," he said. "They are acting like the enemy, like a foolish child who would ridicule his father for being in a verbal fight with someone." Personally, he added, "I can not believe that there was not a foreign scenario or plot behind the recent murders that harmed this system, the government and the people."

And an editorial in the Islamic hardline daily, Qods, blamed the intelligence agency for talking too much in revealing its shortcomings, saying, "The Ministry of Information could have informed higher officials instead of informing the people."

Even as part of a remarkably public debate, that kind of thought doesn't reassure the intellectuals and dissenters. "Writers," said the novelist Houshang Golshiri in an interview with the daily newspaper Arya. "still feel the threat of murder."


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form