Washington, DC - Iran's new president, Mohammad Khatemi, is facing hisfirst real challenge, even before he takes office on August 3. He was electedby an overwhelming majority of Iranians on May 23 on campaign promisesthat he would grant more freedom to Iranians, loosen press restrictions,and perhaps even allow political parties to be formed, Mr. Khatemi maysoon face a fait accompli by the regime's Intelligence Ministry, whichhas abducted and secretly tried Iranian writer Faraj Sarkuhi and is nowthreatening to execute him before the new president takes office.
Since Mr.Sarkuhi disappeared on November 3, 1996, his wife, FaridehZebarjad, has been touring Western capitals, pleading with parliamentarians,journalists, and human rights groups to speak out in defense of her husband'slife. In an open letter sent to European foreign ministers on April 28,1997, Mrs. Sarkuhi begged them not to allow her husband "to pay withhis life for the political mistakes the Europeans commit in dealing withIslamic Iran."
The publisher of a monthly cultural magazine, Adineh, Sarkuhi was oneof 134 Iranian writers and intellectuals who signed a 1994 appeal callingon the authorities to abolish censorship. The appeal appeared to have beenprompted by the death of fellow writer Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani, who diedin prison earlier that year - allegedly under torture. Since then, fourother writers who signed the appeal have died, either in prison or undermysterious circumstances, while others have gone into exile. All have receivedanonymous death threats.
On the night of July 25, 1996, Mr. Sarkuhi and five other writers werearrested and interrogated by Intelligence Ministry agents, who burst intotheir dinner party at the Tehran home of German Cultural attachéJens Gust. The intelligence agents tied up the diplomat and locked himin the closet while they spread incriminating documents on the dinner table,videotaping the writers in a stage-managed "conspiratorial" meeting,according to Sarkuhi and a second participant, Kameran Bozorgnia, who nowlives in Germany. The German government protested vigorously, but neveruttered a word about the incident publicly. On Sept. 8, 1996, Sarkuhi wasarrested along with twelve others while meeting in a private house to discussestablishing a writers association. They were detained for three days.
Sarkuhi was abducted on Nov. 3 while attempting to board an Iran Airflight bound for Germany, where he intended to visit the wife and childrenhe had sent out of the country earlier that year for safety. His abductioncame only days after damaging testimony in a Berlin court by a former seniorIntelligence Ministry official, Abdolhassan Mesbahi, that Iran's top leadershad ordered the gangland-style assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin'sMykonos restaurant in September 1992.
In a fourteen page hand-written letter smuggled out of Iran to his wife,which she has circulated to human rights groups, Mr. Sarkuhi describedhis Kafkaesque arrest and torture and the fake videotaped confessions extractedfrom him while he was in jail. Among the many extraordinary details containedin Mr. Sarkuhi's letter is a description of how Intelligence Ministry officialsdoctored his passport to send one of their own agents to Germany usinghis name, so they could disguise Mr. Sarkuhi's arrest, murder him, andblame it on the Germans. "I believe I was the victim of a plot hatchedby the [Intelligence] Ministry of Iran," Mr. Sarkuhi wrote. "Irealized that their objective was to use me and some others to counterthe Mykonos case."
Mr. Sarkuhi said Intelligence Ministry officials told him he had beendeclared a missing person. "You will spend sometime here in jail andthen be killed, your body dumped either here or in Germany after properinterrogation, interviews and inquiries are carried out," he recallsthem telling him.
Stung by mounting protests from human rights groups and from the unusualmobilization of Iranian intellectuals in exile on Mr. Sarkuhi's behalf,the regime stage-managed his "reappearance" at a press conferenceat Tehran airport on Dec. 20. In front of Iranian and foreign reporters,Mr. Sarkuhi pretended that he had travelled to Germany in cognito, withoutvisiting his wife, because of "family tensions." When asked byone reporter to show the German entry stamp on his passport, Mr. Sarkuhistated improbably that he had lost his passport in Turkmenistan on thereturn trip from Germany, while applying for a visa to Canada. The Germanygovernment denied that Mr. Sarkuhi had ever reached Germany and accusedTehran of having abducted him. On Jan. 28, Mr. Sarkuhi was abducted again,this time apparently for good. On June 24, the head of Iran's JudicialBranch, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, told a Tehran press conference that Mr.Sarkuhi would be tried in secret on espionage charges, apparently stemmingfrom his ill-fated dinner with the German cultural attaché in Tehran.
Senior advisors to the Iranian President say that Mr. Sarkuhi has becomea pawn in the factional struggle between Mr. Khatemi, who professess allegianceto freer (if not free) speech, and the dour, conservative faction he trouncedin the May 23 election. The cultural "conservatives," who advocatesegregation of the sexes at Iran's universities and over the past eighteenmonths have conducted a widely unpopular crackdown on so-called "unIslamic"behavior and dress, are powerful partisans of the Supreme Leader of theIslamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "They intend to show Mr.Khatemi that they will resist any attempt to create a "kinder, gentler"Islamic Republic in Iran," another well-connected source said. Underlyingtheir opposition to any cultural liberalization is a fear, which one hearsregularly in the Iranian press, of a "Gorbachev" syndrome, wherebythe first steps toward liberalization would generate an uncontrollablepopular explosion that would end by sweeping away their regime. If Khatemi'sastonishing 70% landslide victory is any measure, they are probably justifiedin their fears.
While factional politics among Tehran's ruling elite are hard to predict,one thing is clear: when the regime's legitimacy or its very existenceare challenged, all the factions hang together as one - including Mr. Khatemi's.This augurs poorly for Mr. Sarkuhi's chances, as his courageous wife, Farideh,admits. Unless overwhelming pressure is brought to bear from the outside,Mr. Khatemi will see nothing to gain by intervening on Mr. Sarkuhi's behalf.On the contrary, such intervention could be risky.
The European Union has long pretended that its "critical dialogue"with Iran has had positive results on specific human rights cases, despitethe dramatic worsening of the human rights situation in Iran over the past18 months. Mr. Sarkuhi is no less a prisoner of conscience than were Sovietwriters who disappearanced into the gulag during during the dark days ofthe Cold War. And he is no less of a hostage than the American, French,Swiss, and German citizens who were seized by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanonas bargaining chips on behalf of Tehran. For all of its pretentions, theEuropean Union has voiced only a mealy demand that Mr. Sarkuhi receivea fair and open trial. Instead, Europe should demand he be released unconditionally,and back that up with a threat to curtail Iran's access to European markets,since that is language Tehran's rulers understand. Furthermore, Europeshould hold Mr. Khatemi responsible for Mr. Sarkuhi's fate. It would betoo convenient to allow the incoming president to blame internal repressionon a rival faction.
Mr. Sarkuhi's execution will mean that the medieval anti-Western elementsof the ruling elite are still firmly entrenched, and that Mr. Khatemi isunder their thumb. His release from jail, on the contrary, would send ahopeful signal from Tehran that the new President is sensitive to accusationsof human rights abuse and is not as powerless as some fear. The answerswill be intriguing - except for the fact that a man's life hangs in thebalance. Unfortunately, politics in Iran is truly a blood sport.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is the publisher of The Iran Brief, a monthlyinvestigative newsletter on strategy and trade, and serves as ExecutiveDirector of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, a non-profit human rightsadvocacy group based in Washington, DC