What Will They Think of Next?
Why the crazy Iranian plot to pay Mexicans to kill the Saudi ambassador isn’t so implausible.
Photograph in the public domain, from Wikipedia.
There may conceivably be a reason to doubt the truth of the Obama administration’s claim that the “Quds Force” of the Islamic Republic of Iran went into the free market for murder in order to suborn the killing of the Saudi ambassador to the United States. But neither the apparently surreal nor the apparently flagrant nature of the thing would constitute such reasons. We have been here before, as a splendid recent book reminds us, and have learned that no allegation made against the goon squads in Tehran can be thought of as prima-facie implausible.
This unmissable book is called Assassins of the Turquoise Palace and is by the Iranian exile author Roya Hakakian (who, I am proud to say, I count as a friend). It details the fallout from a murder in Berlin on Sept. 17, 1992. On that date, a group of Iranian Kurdish exiles were in the city to attend a conference of the Socialist International, the umbrella body that links the parties of social democracy. Chief of the delegation was Sadegh Sharefkandi, a man of huge respect in the Kurdish diaspora. As he sat in a restaurant favored by exiles and émigrés, the Mykonos, he and his associates were machine-gunned in cold blood. The murderers vanished swiftly.
Arguments about motive, method, and opportunity soon began, all of them inevitably muddied in with the paranoias and internecine disputes of political factionalism. Though an obvious finger at first pointed toward Tehran, it was argued that relations between the regime and Germany were good and that it would be irrational for the mullahs to make trouble. It was also suggested that a Kurdish splinter group, the Turkish-based PKK or Kurdistan Workers Party, was responsible instead. (You may have noticed that Tehran is now also arguing for a similar red herring in the case of the Saudi ambassador, citing a shadowy figure who flits in and out of the Mujahedin Khalq and other circles opposed to the Khameini regime.)
However, it was not long before more serious forensic evidence began to emerge from the Mykonos affair. In the waning days of Ayatollah Khomeini’s life, a special department had been set up for the physical elimination of critics and opponents of his regime. These were to be targeted and taken off the chessboard, whether they lived in Iran or overseas. Money was available, as were weapons. Safe houses and false identities were provided for those willing to do the dirty work. Gradually, the German authorities came to realize that their own soil was being used for the settling of scores by a nightmare regime with which they were doing lucrative business.
Hakakian’s book has a number of heroes, many of them Kurdish and Iranian secularists who have risked everything to keep the idea of resistance alive. But one would have to give a special acknowledgement to Bruno Jost, the German prosecutor who ended up risking everything to expose the machinations of the death squads. Those of you who have seen Costa-Gavras’ Z will be entirely gripped by this tale, which unfolded at a time when trade and commercial relations between Germany and Iran were almost indecently warm. Iran’s former minister of intelligence, Ali Fallahian, thought this close relationship would head off any inconvenient inquiries. But in the end, a four-year trial managed to call 176 witnesses, to successfully protect from intimidation those willing to testify, and to hand down a series of deadly accurate indictments. The Islamic Republic of Iran was definitively shown to be in the business of state-supported murder, outside its own borders as well as within. Not only Germany but all European Union members recalled their ambassadors from Iran. And the streets outside the courthouse were filled with thousands of jubilant Iranian democrats, who just for once saw true justice done. It’s hard for the reader not to weep at this point, as I did. I must urge you to get hold of this book.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.