Fighting Words

What Will They Think of Next?

Why the crazy Iranian plot to pay Mexicans to kill the Saudi ambassador isn’t so implausible.

Gedenktafel for the victims citizens of Berlin of the Mykonos assassination attempt.
Plaque for the victims of the Mykonos assassination attempt

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.

The phenomenon—of governments keeping special departments for criminal activity—is not confined to Iran. In the Financial Times, Mansoor Ijaz recently revealed the existence of “Section S” of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. The purpose of this office, sometimes known as “S-Wing,” is to maintain relations to the Taliban and Haqqani network, writes Ijaz, a Pakistani-American who once negotiated with Sudan for the Clinton administration. Shortly after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May, he was approached by a representative of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, seeking a meeting with the White House. At this meeting Pakistan, having hitherto denied the existence of Section S, would offer to shut it down in return for concessions! It was by this means among others that Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was able to determine that the ISI was shopping on both sides of the Afghan street, and that the United States was helping finance the murder and sabotage of its own troops and allies.

Again, it is the sheer absence of embarrassment that takes the breath away. We have been betraying you, and now wish to be further bribed to stop doing so. (Didn’t Flaubert have a banker who was so corrupt that he would willingly have paid for the pleasure of selling himself?)

I notice that reporting of Pakistani double-dealing has improved since Zardari came clean in this way. We can even read first-hand accounts of Pakistani shelling of American and Afghan forces, launched directly across the border in broad daylight. We also have the impossibly arrogant Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayhani, Pakistan’s uniformed satrap, saying that he will need to keep the Haqqani network armed and on his official payroll even as coalition forces try to mount an orderly handover and withdrawal.

Finally, since mentioning Bernard-Henri Levy’s celebrated timeline of Pakistani perfidy from May 2005 I have received several requests to make it easier to find. It can be read here. It is the record of an extraordinarily successful effort to deceive Congress, and to manipulate American aid and strategy, over a distressingly long period of time. Again, the principal method was the horse-trading in Taliban and al-Qaida figures against whom Islamabad only claimed to be fighting.

There is a common lesson in all these examples: Never assume that the totalitarian or terrorist enemy is smart enough to conceal his traces. Indeed, don’t always assume that he is even interested in doing so. The utter nerve of it is often part of the strategy in the first place.