Iranian Futures

Khatami’s doublespeak and a hot potato.

December 30, 2003

By Nir Boms

“What I say does not definitely reflect what I think. What I do does not necessary reflect what I say. Therefore, not everything that I do necessary contradicts everything that I think.” This explanation of “Middle Eastern Logic” issued by the British ambassador in Tehran two decades ago may help clarify the candor and transparency of recent statements coming from countries like Iran and Libya.

Last week, Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami voiced his opposition to the death penalty, stating that “he did not even wish for the execution of captive Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.” The very same day, in the northern town of Gonbad-e-Kavoos, an Iranian man convicted of murder was hanged in public, becoming the tenth execution in Iran reported by local press over the past week.

Earlier in December, Khatami also denied that his country ever sought to develop nuclear weapons. Speaking at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, the Iranian leader stated that the Islamic religion forbids the use of weapons which kill indiscriminately, saying that “We cannot go and seek a nuclear program because of our religious faith.” Once again, it was a good timing for such a statement, just one day following the arrest of nuclear scientists, Dr. Farooq Mehmood and Yasin Chohan by Pakistani authorities, for possible links to the transfer of nuclear-related information to Iran. Dr. Farooq is the director of Pakistan’s prestigious nuclear facility, Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL), which developed the country’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The irony and falsities of Khatami’s statements are remarkable, as we learned from recent court testimony given by former FBI director Louis Freeh. Freeh said the FBI had “overwhelming evidence” that senior Iranian government officials financed and directed the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 Americans. Placing the responsibility “squarely on Tehran,” he said that “two Iranian government security agencies and senior members of the Iranian government itself provided funding, training, and logistical help to terrorists who carried out the attack.”

Iranian president Khatami has accumulated a long list of public lies and deceptions since he became the president in 1997. “The biggest lie,” says Reza Bulorchi, the executive director of the U.S. Alliance for a Democratic Iran, “was Khatami himself, the so-called ‘moderate reformer.'” During the week-long anti-government student demonstrations in Tehran last June, the most popular slogan was “Khatami resign, resign.” In this context, Khatami’s recent comments about “amnesty” and “pardons” for members of the Iranian opposition are as unlikely as his “opposition” to the death penalty. The Iranian human-rights abuses and executions of political opponents are well documented. Last November, the United Nations condemned Iran’s continuing and systematic violations of human rights and the use of torturous, inhuman, and degrading punishments. According to the U.S. State Department’s human-rights report for 2002, “supporters of outlawed political organizations, such as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq organization, were believed to make up a large number of those executed each year” in Iran.

This brings us to a pending issue that has less to do with Khatami and more to do with Iraq and the U.S. In another report from Tehran last week, the AFP news agency quoted Khatami as saying that “Iran was ready to pardon most members of the People’s Mujahedeen,” a prominent Iranian opposition group which “seeks a secular government to replace Iran’s clerical regime.” The Mujahedeen have been fighting against the Iranian mullahs for over 24 years – doing much more than writing articles and waving banners.

The Mujahedeen mounted attacks inside Iran from neighboring Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power. On more than one occasion, it joined Saddam Hussein in his war against their common Iranian enemy, and some of them even assisted him when he fought against the Kurds in northern Iraq. The Mujahedeen’s name can still be found on the list of terrorist organizations in Washington, despite the fact that it has some backers on Capitol Hill. But some things have changed for the Mujahedeen in the past few months. In May it initiated a disarmament agreement with the U.S-led Coalition and since then more than 3,800 of them have been under U.S. guard. Last week, Iraq’s Governing Council (IGC) issued a statement calling for the expulsion of these Iranian dissidents by the end of December. And a day later, in tandem with the Iranian regime, a member of the IGC told the AFP that it “is considering handing the People’s Mujahedeen back to the Iranian authorities.” On December 23, Mohammad Hasan Fadaie, a spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry, reiterated Khatami’s call for “amnesty” by rejecting Ambassador Bremer’s recent intent to release the 3,800 Iranian dissidents to a third country. Echoing that spirit, Iran’s Prosecutor General Abdolnabi Namazi last Sunday warned that the transfer of the Mujahedeen members to any country but Iran “will cost Europe and the U.S. dearly.” He went on to say that protection of the Mujahedeen members “by any system would entail political, economic and security consequences.”

But, does Iran want to lay hands on these men so badly just to bestow amnesty? Not really.

Some rational political considerations may help explain Khatami’s overnight interest in offering “amnesty” to the Mujahedeen. Iran’s clerical rulers are nearing the 25th anniversary of their Islamic revolution (February of 2004) under growing internal pressures. As domestic opposition to the regime expands, Tehran desperately needs a way to defuse the situation. The elimination of its “most effective opposition” would be a “significant political and security gain for Iran,” says Bulorchi.

As the U.S. finds itself holding a hot Mujahedeen potato, it will be wise to carefully consider the question of the Iranian extradition. President Bush must send a clear message to Tehran, saying that he will not allow the clerical regime to silence Iranians who are brave enough to speak out or act against brutality at home and terrorism abroad. The Mujahedeen role and presence in Iraq should be examined in the context of many open questions that still remain while Iraq is being reconstructed. However, appeasing Khatami by allowing thousands of Iranian dissidents to be sent to the gallows in Iran will not likely follow the president’s vision of “the regime in Tehran [who] must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people, or lose its last claim to legitimacy.”

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