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Issue Number 49, dated 8/3/98

Exclusive: Khamene'i ordered Khobar Towers bombing, defector says (Serial 4901)

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i personally gave the order to bomb the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in June 1996, the son of former Pasdaran commander Mohsen Rezai told The Iran Brief in an interview.

Ahmad Rezai, speaking in Los Angeles with Iran Brief publisher Kenneth R. Timmerman recently, said his father gave him a detailed account of how the Khobar Towers bombing and other terrorist attacks were plotted in Tehran by the leadership of the Islamic Republic. "Three persons sign off on every order to commit a foreign terrorist action: Ayatollah Khamene'i, Rafsanjani, and Khamene'i's chief of staff, Hojjat-ol eslam Mohammadi-Golpayegani," he said.

The younger Rezai, who comes across as far more mature and politically aware than his 22 years, said his father gave him these details in a series of private talks over a two year period before he left Iran to defect to the United States in March. "My father said he knew he might not survive, and wanted the world to know about the crimes of the regime's leaders. He thought that one day I would get out of Iran and be able to tell others."

Although Rezai said he was no longer in contact with his father, since that would put him at risk, "everything I say is in a way my father's message, my father's voice."

Among the revelations he made during the two-hour interview:

• Ayatollah Khamene'i ordered the Khobar Towers bombing, as a means of pressuring the United States to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Persian Gulf;
• Former President Rafsanjani conspired with Khamene'i to murder Ahmad Khomeini, the son of Ayatollah Khomeini, who was said to have died of a "sudden" brain tumor;
• President Khatami was planning to name Mohsen Rezai as First Deputy President in August 1997, but was warned by Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i not to form a political alliance with the Pasdaran leader;
• Khamene'i retains direct, personal control over Iran's intelligence apparatus, the Qods Force, and certain units of the Pasdaran, circumventing the legal chain of command.
• Many rank-and-file Pasdaran and officers secretly support Khatami, and will refuse to take part in any attempt to remove him from the presidency by force.

Early years at the front: Ahmad Rezai is a child of the revolution and of the Iran-Iraq war. Born in 1976, he said his father first took him to the war front when he was five years old in 1981. After high school, his father began grooming him for a senior position in the Revolutionary Guards. "When I turned 19, I was Inspector General of the Pasdaran, as my father's emissary," Ahmad said. "I would inspect units in the field and report back to five or six different intelligence organizations." The early experience at the warfront and with the troops has given him a maturity beyond his years.

When asked if he expected his father would become a target of the regime as a result of his revelations, he said his father was "very popular among Pasdaran officers, the military, and the people, because he has been honest. A popular man cannot be removed so easily."

He said his father had attempted to resign as head of the IRGC on six separate occasions in the 1980s, because he disapproved of the way the war with Iraq was being handled by the political leadership, with their emphasis on murderous "human wave" attacks by the bassij. "All that was being done under his name, and he believed it was wrong. But Khomeini wouldn't let him resign."

When Khatami won the May 1997 election, Ayatollah Khamene'i initially sought to use Mohsen Rezai and the Pasdaran "as a buffer to frustrate Khatami's plans," Ahmad said. But Khamene'i hadn't realized the close personal bonds between Rezai and Khatami, which came out in the open when Khatami announced his intention to appoint Rezai as Deputy President. "When Khamene'i's plan to use my father didn't work, he ordered my father's removal" as head of the IRGC. "My father and Khatami will change the situation in Iran. They will change the type of government in Iran." The two were "close political allies," he saidKhatami's long-range plans were to work toward better relations with the United States, in an effort to ease economic sanctions against Iran. He was also working at "changing the political, economic, and cultural conditions" inside Iran. "Khatami and my father prefer gradual changes, and this is the line they will pursue. But if they see at the last moment that they are going to be arrested, or that a coup is being prepared against them, they will step in with all the popular forces and the Pasdaran troops and officers who are loyal to them, and there will be bloodshed."

The younger Rezai said that Khamene'i and Rafsanjani have come to fear the Khatami-Mohsen Rezai alliance, and have put both leaders under surveillance by the intelligence services, including wiretaps on their telephones. "That is why I chose to leave Iran, because we cannot speak out. I have come to the United States to speak on behalf of 30 million young Iranians. We want a country whose leader is not like Hitler. We want a government that is not aggressive, that looks after the interests of the people, not just an elite," he said.

Khamene'i was now having second thoughts about having allowed Khatami to assume the presidency, Rezai said, which is why he expects Khamene'i to increase pressure on Khatami in the months to come. Khamene'i and his supporters "do not have deep roots, but they know their power and what will happen to them if they lose power. If they feel they are going to loose out, they will fight to the last drops of their blood to keep what they have. So we cannot expect that they will simply go away on their own. At some point, some force will be needed to drive them from power."

In the end, however, Rezai downplayed the scenarios of violent change, "because the Iran of today is not the Iran of 1979. People are not going to take orders from one or two persons and pour into the streets to protest, because the younger generation has gone through tremendous hardships during the war and now the economic collapse. And their own experience has shown them that they must be afraid of the regime. They fear that a new revolution would only make things worse for them."

Inside the Pasdaran: Critics of the younger Rezai have suggested that he is seeking to whitewash his father's long career as commander of the Pasdaran. But the story he told was consistent, and belied the complexities and ambiguities of life under the Islamic Republic.

His father had no military training when he was appointed Pasdaran commander by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1981; rather, he had a Ph.D. in Economics from Tehran University. After his attempts to resign as Pasdaran commander in the mid-1980s, certain responsibilities were taken away from him. "Ayatollah Khomeini appointed deputies under him who in effect were there to keep an eye on him and prevent him from building his own power base," Ahmad said. "Pasdaran intelligence, the Ghods Force, the Law Enforcement Forces, and the bassij were all under the direct control of the Leader, and my father had no influence over what they did. Morteza Rezai, who was in charge of the intelligence and counter-intelligence department of the Pasdaran, took his orders directly from Khomeini, and today from Khamene'i, even though he was nominally under my father's command."

Terrorist apparatus: Ahmad Rezai was careful to speak in the present tense about his father's condemnation of international terrorism supported by the Islamic Republic. "Both my father and Khatami are against any support being given to foreign terrorist groups. They want to cut support for groups in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon, in the Palestinian Authority areas, in Israel - all of them. But for as long as Khamene'i and his majority in the Majlis are still in power, this won't happen."

"All the foreign terrorist attacks and support for foreign terrorist groups are known and planned personally by Khamene'i and Rafsanjani," Ahmad said. "Plans for these attacks are developed by the Pasdaran intelligence organization and by the Ministry of Information and Security, then they are brought to Khamene'i, Rafsanjani, and Khamene'i's personal secretary Golpayegani for operational approval."

He said his father told him the story of the Khobar Towers bombing; and while he was sketchy on the details of how the attack was planned and carried, Ahmad stated unequivocally that "Khobar was the job of Iran, and my father was very upset when he learned about it."

"My father told me to say in public that the U.S. was blaming Iran for this attack, but in private he told me that the regime was behind it. They used a group known as the Hezbollah of the Gulf." This appears to be a generic term used by the Iranian government to denote their supporters in other parts of the world. A wide variety of front names are used by pro-Iranian organizations in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Ahmad's point appears to be that regardless of those names, they are Iranian agents, paid and trained by the Islamic Republic intelligence services.

"The goal of the regime in Iran was to make soldiers in the Gulf countries revolt against the U.S. presence. They wanted the Americans to realize that this type of attack would happen again and again until the U.S. withdrew its forces from the region.
"The Islamic Republic never carries out this type of attack directly. They always use others - mainly, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Egyptians. But they are just the foot soldiers. It is Khamene'i who is behind it all, giving the orders. He and Rafsanjani."

Once specific plans for a terrorist attack are developed by the intelligence agencies, they must be approved by Khamene'i, Rafsanjani, and Golpayegani, he said. "All meetings with the operatives who will actually carry out the attack take place in Syria. They discuss nothing over the phone."

Asked whether those who carried out the Khobar attack were Sunnis or Shiites, Rezai hesitated. "Those who did this did not know why they did it. They just took orders from the next level up in their chain of command. But it was Khamene'i who gave the ultimate orders. This I know."

Rezai promised to give more details of the regime's terrorist activities in the future. "I must finish the first phase of my own action first," he said. "Then I will move onto the second phase of coordinated political action."

U.S. skepticism: Ahmad Rezai's family back in Tehran have accused the United States of having "kidnapped" him, but until now they have not specifically contradicted any of the statements he has made on Farsi-language radio programs, or suggested that he was making up stories about his father or the regime. One thing is certain: Rezai is not under U.S. government protection in California, where he now resides with family friends. He is careful about his own security, but the U.S. government has not considered his information serious enough or credible enough to place him in a witness protection program, as we initially reported last month.
This may be for the simple reason that Ahmad's message does not coincide with the policy of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic currently being pursued by the U.S. government. "We're aware of what he has to say, and we consider it to be dated information," one senior U.S. government Iran analyst told The Iran Brief.

Track record: Ahmad's main message - that his father has become a political ally of President Khatami, dedicated to changing the system of the Islamic Republic - could be written off as self-serving. Indeed, Mohsen Rezai's track record as Pasdaran commander affords few hints of opposition sentiments.

But as with much that has occurred within leadership circles of the Islamic Republic, the truth is probably hidden behind veils, false statements, half-truths, and outright lies.

In the late 1980s, Mohsen Rezai was put in charge of IRGC efforts to develop long-range ballistic missiles. In December 1989, he traveled to North Korea, where he announced that Iran had signed an agreement with Pyongyang involving "the transfer of military technology and weapons, and scientific cooperation."

In January 1993, he made a similar agreement with China to acquire missile technologies, en route for a return trip to North Korea. Not long after the North Korea trip, which appears to have ended in failure, the Majlis revealed that North Korea was canceling a deal to transfer No Dong missiles to Iran unless Iran paid arrears in excess of $2.4 billion for Silkworms, SCUD-B, and SCUD-C missiles purchased during the Iran-Iraq war.

In 1996, numerous reports circulated in the Tehran press and in Arabic publications, hinting at dissension within the ranks of the IRGC. In April, Rezai had launched a vehement attack against "liberals" in a speech only four days before the second round of the 1996 Majlis elections. He warned an assembly of anti-riot force commanders in Tehran that "the cancerous tumor of liberalism is spreading in some corners of our country." His remarks were seen as a scarcely veiled attack on Rafsanjani and the G-6 group, and set off a firestorm in both political and military circles in Tehran. ["Turmoil inside the Rev. Guards," TIB 6/3/96]. On May 18, Rezai reportedly chastised some Pasdaran commanders for failing to work closely with the Bassij force - which his son claims he never commanded. Tehran dailies quoted Rezai as hinting that the regime had begun to doubt the loyalty of some IRGC unit commanders, because of their opposition to the violent activities against "liberals" by the bassij force and Ansar-e Hezbollah. "If this dispute between the Revolutionary Guards and the Bassij Force continues," Rezai was quoted as saying, "the situation will be critical for the Islamic Republic. The duty of the Bassij Force is not only security and protection, but... will have a greater role in challenging the counter-revolutionary forces."

Rezai's speech drew sharp comments from his own deputy, General Rahim Safavi, who has now succeeded him as Pasdaran commander, as well as from Hussein Mosleh, a senior officer in the Qods Headquarters. Meanwhile, Rezai reportedly was negotiating with Majlis speaker Nateq-Nouri to remove President Rafsanjani from office prior to the May 1997 elections, which Nateq-Nouri was then expected to win.

Once Khatami announced his candidacy in early 1997, Rezai's public comments shifted toward nationalist statements, aimed at reasserting Iran's "national interests" in the Persian Gulf, and warning the United States not to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran to prevent Iran's missile development schemes.

The only clear line through all of these statements is Rezai's hostility toward Rafsanjani and toward his former deputy, Rahim Safavi. Because of this, Western analysts had always assumed that he was close to Khamene'i - until Khamene'i had him removed summarily in September 1997.

What this suggests is that Iran's domestic politics today are extraordinarily complex, with leaders often saying just the opposite of what they mean in order to gain the allegiance of a particular audience.