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President Mohammad Khatami, who announced shortly after November'sbrutal murder of dissident political leaders Darioush and ParvanehForouhar that he would bring the killers to justice, has been warnedby Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i and other top regime officialsto abandon the investigation and to slow the pace of reforms, theIran Brief has learned from sources inside Iran. If not, he was toldhe would be removed from office and possibly put on trial, for"failing to safeguard the independence and security of the nation,"the sources said.
The warning was issued during an extraordinary two day session atAyatollah Khamene'i's Tehran house which began after Friday prayerson January 15. Khatami was presented with a letter vowing to removehis government from office that was signed by 86 members of the270-seat Parliament, with pledges from another 108 members to jointhe letter if he resisted their demands. In a separate meeting,Khatami advisor Abdallah Nouri, a former minister of Interior, urgedhim to face up to the hard-liners and call their bluff, a move aimedat provoking a public showdown. On the second evening, noting thepresence of many members of the security forces at Khamene'i'sprivate compound, Khatami chose instead to back down.
The extraordinary factional fighting taking place within theruling clergy was sparked by the brutal murder of the Forouhars onNovember 22. On January 5, the Intelligence Ministry acknowledgedthat its own operatives had carried out the killings, withoutauthorization. (See "MOIS admits to killing Forouhar," TIB 1/11/99).Two days later, the pro-Khatami daily Salam reported that Khatami hadtold supporters he planned to sack Intelligence Minister QorbanaliDori Najafabadi and assume direct control over the IntelligenceMinistry himself. And then another Khatami supporter dropped abombshell, saying Khatami intended to re-open political murder casesdating back several years. "A committee will soon be set up toinvestigate the mystery murders," said Saeed Leylaz.
That sparked an outraged public reaction from the hard-liners, andfear that Khatami would end up shaking the regime to its veryfoundations. On January 8 the hard-line daily Jomhouri Eslami blastedKhatami supporters: "Any move aimed at weakening the morale of thedevoted intelligence forces [is part of] the same plot thedesigners of the recent murders had been following." AyatollahKhamene'i blamed "foreign elements" of being behind the Forouharmurders. "These murders aimed to damage the system and thegovernment," he said. Khamene'i stepped in to block a request by theUN Human Rights Commission to send a team of investigators to Iran tolook into the Forouhar murders, apparently fearing they woulddiscover embarrassing facts about the regime's security apparatus andmethods of suppressing internal and external dissent.
On January 11 Iran's leading dissident cleric, Ayatollah HosseinAli Montazeri, joined the fray, calling for a "deep and completepurge of [MOIS] personnel." His statement appeared inKhordad, a pro-reform daily run by Abdallah Nouri that beganpublishing in December and has angered hard-liners for its calls fordemocracy and respect for human rights.
On the 15th, only hours before the meeting at Khamene'i's housewas scheduled to begin, Ansar-e Hezbollah thugs disrupted a massprayer service in Isfahan led by Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, apopular Montazeri supporter and the Friday prayer leader in Isfahan.Thousands of Montazeri supporters had gathered to listen to Taheri,who openly backs Khatami in the factional struggle, when hard-linersthrew an iron bar at him and cut the wires to the public addresssystem, forcing him off the stage. He addressed some 70,000 followersat the Eid-e Fitr celebrations three days later.
Not to be bettered in the spin battle, a former deputyintelligence minister, Ruhollah Hosseinian, appeared on a state-runIslamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting television program, accusingpro-Khatami elements within MOIS of having carried out the killings.That prompted an outraged reply from Khatami supporters, who demandedthat IRIB Director Ali Larijani, a well-known hard-liner, step downor at the very least be banned from attending Cabinet sessions.
This stepped-up pace of open confrontation between hard-liners andadvocates of reform set the stage for the extraordinary summons sentto Khatami on January 14, to join Supreme Leader Khamene'i and othertop clerics for the iftar dinner the next day. The hard-linersconsider MOIS the cornerstone of their grip on power; Khatami'sassault on the Ministry is seen as a direct challenge to their ownauthority.
Thirteen people attended the meeting, which began at 3:30 PM afterFriday prayers on January 15. Ayatollah Khamene'i was accompanied byfour of his closest advisors and by Hojj. Mohammadi-Golpayegani, thehead of his office and a key figure in operational decisionsregarding anti-dissident operations. Also attending were formerPresident Rafsanjani, Majlis speaker Nateq-Nouri, Ayatollah MahdaviKani (who was ill and would miss the second day's session), the headof the Judiciary branch, Ayatollah Yazdi, Intelligence MinisterDori-Najafabadi, and the head of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj.Gen. Rahim Safavi.
Rafsanjani's tirade: Opening the meeting, Khamene'i said that thesituation in the country had reached a critical stage, and that hehad called the meeting in response to a request presented to him thenight before by Rafsanjani and IRGC commander Safavi. Turning toRafsanjani, he asked him to present his analysis. Rafsanjani launchedinto a tirade against Khatami, accusing him of throwing into jeopardythe very existence of the regime. "An ocean of stability has beenchanged during the last 14 months into a stormy sea," he said.Khatami had done more damage to the Islamic Republic than Gorbachevdid to the Soviet Union, he added. "During the past 20 years, thepolicies of Imam Khomeini and the revolutionary forces have succeededin creating a well-knotted rope to serve as a life line of securityand stability for the Islamic Republic," he said. "The policies ofthe President are unraveling that rope."
Rafsanjani went on to complain that Khatami's liberalizingpolicies had the effect of fostering open defiance of the regime."People are not afraid any longer of openly stating their oppositionto the regime," he said. "Opposition elements inside and outside thecountry have recovered new energy and life and are mobilized againstus.
"For twenty years, we have not hesitated to deal in arevolutionary way with our enemies in Iran and abroad, and thiswithout facing at any time the demand of an internationalinvestigation committee coming to this country. The policies of thepresident are resulting in the interference of foreign forces in ouraffairs," Rafsanjani said.
"When I was in charge during 10 to 12 years, I succeeded insilencing all opposition. In spite of the ruthless way it was done,protests were not only negligible but on the contrary we had the vastsupport of foreign countries and their economic assistance.
"The ministry of intelligence, which is the backbone of theregime, has suffered irreparable damage. This development isaffecting the moral of all revolutionary forces. I have been informedby the head of the revolutionary guards that even within theguardians of the revolution anxiety is spreading that after theMinistry of Intelligence similar investigations can happen there aswell.
Addressing Khatami directly, he said: "What you have done is worsethan the actions of the late Shah. He arrested politicians who hadworked with him, but he never jailed members of the security forcesas you have started to do. How dare you put on trial members of thesecurity forces and highly-placed members of the intelligenceministry! For long years they have worked for us and under ourleadership. What would be their answers in court? That they haveexecuted our orders? If so, all of us will have to pay the price andthere should be no illusions, if this happens: all of us with ourreligious dress shall have no say anymore in this society. If theinvestigations are continued on the lines decided on by thePresident, this will lead to the condemnation of the regime as awhole and its ultimate collapse."
Rafsanjani then said that he had discussed these developments withRevolutionary Guards commander Safavi, and obliquely warned that thetwo agreed that "no development can be excluded, even if it involvesactions outside of the system."
After Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi told the group that theinvestigation into the Forouhar murders had led to an "unbearablesituation," and that the Judiciary was completely at a loss how tohandle the case. Given that the Minister of Intelligence is a memberof the religious establishment with a long background in Parliament,"his indictment would be a blow to the whole establishment. For thatreason, we must close the file now, without wasting any more time,"Yazdi argued.
Khatami replies: Khatami took almost an entire hour to respond tothe criticism, making the following points, according to sourcesfamiliar with the meeting:
- the government as a whole is responsible for all aspects of thepeople's security;
- the government is obliged to answer questions raised by thepopulation relating to the killings;
- the people are entitled to know those responsible for theseactions. The truth will come out in any case;
- only by stating the truth can the government can gain theconfidence of the population.
Khatami then demanded the resignation of the Ministry ofIntelligence and a complete reorganization of the Ministry, "withclear terms of reference and the appointment of professionals."
As it was getting late, Ayatollah Khamene'i then asked theparticipants to return the next day for iftar to make final decisionson what to do.
The ultimatum: When Khatami arrived at Ayatollah Khamene'i'sresidence the following afternoon, January 16, the compound was fullof people, including a large number of security forces. The crowd andthe mood of unease were very different from the day before.
The second day's meeting began with Khatami reiterating his demandfor the resignation of the Minister of Intelligence, and for theremoval of Ayatollah Khamene'i's personal representative to the MOIS,Pour Mohammadi.
After hearing him, Khamene'i asked Majlis speaker Nateq-Nouri toshow Khatami the letter he had brought with him. Nateq Nouri took outa petition signed by 86 members of Parliament requesting that heconvene a special session of Parliament for a vote of no confidencethat would remove the government "for deteriorating economicconditions and for its inability to safeguard the independence andsecurity of the country."
Nateq-Nouri added that a further 106 members of Parliament hadindicated they would sign the petition the following day, if therewas no resolution at that night's meeting. Rafsanjani said thatpublishing the letter or convening the Parliament to remove thegovernment would provoke an open crisis, which had to be avoided atall costs. Instead, they should try to work together to find a jointsolution.
Khamene'i then asked Ayatollah Yazdi to read two statements ofpolicy that had been prepared. Khatami was asked to choose which hepreferred.
Option 1: Following the removal of the government by theParliament, a state of emergency would be declared by AyatollahKhamene'i, and under his leadership the National Security Councilwould handle the affairs of State.
Option 2: The investigative committee set up by the presidentwould issue a statement declaring that the killings had been the workof a small renegade group within the Ministry of Intelligence andSecurity, absolving the Ministry itself and the security forces.
Faced with the ultimatum, Khatami asked for time to consult withhis closest advisors, who were not present at the meeting.
Returning briefly to his own residence, Khatami met with formerInterior Minister Abdollah Nouri, whom he said was just returning toTehran from Isfahan, and with Mir Hossein Moussavi, a former leftistPrime Minister. Nouri was in favor of allowing the Parliament toremove the government, since this would bring things to a head;Moussavi argued against it. He feared that the mood would turn nastyat Khamene'i's residence, and that Khatami's refusal to go along withthe plan to close the investigation would prompt the security forcesto arrest him on the spot, and perhaps put him on trial. AbdallahNouri argued they wouldn't dare take such a move against apopularly-elected president, but it was Moussavi who prevailed.
When Khatami returned to the meeting at Khamene'i's residence, heaccepted the proposed statement of the investigating committee(Option 2). As a concession, Khamene'i and the others agreed that theIntelligence Minister would resign after two months. They also agreedthat factions within the government should avoid unilateraldecisions, and that Khamene'i would play the arbiter's role betweenthem.
Late that evening, the investigating committee released itsfindings, which were read aloud on state-run radio and television. Itsaid that "none of the [regime's] political groups orfactions are in any way involved" in the murders. Knowing that MOIS"could not accept such a hateful, dirty crime, they acted on theirown, without referring to their superiors." The committee instructedthe police to quietly release the killers. The eight persons whoremain in custody are said by sources familiar with the investigationto be "common criminals." (The sources said Rafsanjani tried toconvince Khatami on the eve of the committee's first report, onJanuary 4, to blame the murders on the criminals and to execute themafter extracting confessions from them under torture, a proposalKhatami rejected as "absurd.")
On Monday evening, the 18th, Khamene'i took part in prayers forthe Eid-e Fitr celebrations marking the end of Ramadan, and publiclycalled on all factions to end their dispute over the Forouhar murderinvestigation. He also let slip a cryptic reference to the tumultuousweekend meetings. "During the past 14 months," he said, "destructiveforces were at work trying to undermine the might of the IslamicRepublic."
Al Hayat in London reported that leaflets had been distributed inIsfahan in the days before the weekend meetings, asserting that fivehard-line clerics, including Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a closeconfidant of Khamene'i, had signed fatwas calling for the murder ofdissidents. It also claimed Jannati was trying to get Qom clerics tosign a petition declaring Khatami unfit for office. At Fridayprayers, only hours before the secret meetings at Khamene'i'sresidence began, Rafsanjani told worshippers: "Debating in aquarrelsome manner and speaking to one another through the press andvarious platforms is not right. All these personalities know oneanother. They can sit together and talk."
It's not over until it's over: But the hard-liners weren't readyto back down so fast. On Monday January 20, two motorcyclists threw astun grenade into the Tehran offices of Abdallah Nouri's Khordadnewspaper, shattering windows and slightly injuring two reporters. Afew minutes later, an unidentified caller warned the newspaper that abomb would be used in the next attack, unless the paper changed itseditorial line.
Also on Monday, the hard-line Hezbollah of Isfahan groupthreatened to "carry out its political, revolutionary and religiousduty, even to the point of martyrdom" against Ayatollah JalaledinTaheri, in comments published in the daily Asr-e-Azadegan newspaper.
On Tuesday, the state prosecutor charged with the Forouhar murderinvestigation, Mohammad Niazi, announced that the killers had beenlet in to the Forouhar house by a "trusted friend" of the family, andhad presented themselves as film-makers who sought to portray themodest life-style of the dissidents. The killers followed Mrs.Forouhar upstairs, where she had gone to change, and killed herthere, Niazi said. They killed her husband at his desk where they hadset up cameras for the fake photo shoot, leaving knives thrust inboth victims' hearts. This method of killing, including the use of aconfidant to betray the victim, has been frequently used by MOIS tokill other dissidents, mainly in Europe. (A lawyer for the family,Dr. Karim Lahiji, disputed the existence of a collaborator. "Our owninvestigations show that the murderers, all agents of the InformationMinistry, had entered the house under their own names and without anyTrojan Horse.")
One indication that Khatami was holding up his end of the bargainstruck during the weekend meeting at Khamene'i's residence was aspeech he gave to a massive youth rally at Tehran's Azadi stadium onFebruary 2, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the return to Iranof Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. After urging young people to vote inupcoming elections, but warned: ''poisonous winds are blowing insideand outside the country and enemies are attempting to separate youfrom the Islamic revolution and the system.''
President Khatami, who is described by close associates as"weak-willed," "indecisive," and "non-confrontational," appearsfundamentally unsuited for the tough confrontations of the weeks andmonths ahead. If his decision to retreat from a confrontation lastmonth is any indication, the much-heralded "Prague spring" in Tehranis over, with violence and bloodshed to come.