tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

The Chain Murders: Killing Dissidents and Intellectuals, 1988-1998

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

05 Jan 2011 18:03Comments

309e3071c9cb189d2129ae79566cfb94-300x204.jpg[ feature ] January 6 is the 11th anniversary of the statement by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence in which it admitted that its agents had killed several dissidents and intellectuals in what became known as the Chain Murders. Although the hardliners tried to restrict the subsequent investigation to only four killings, the scope of the Chain Murders was much broader. The following is an updated and expanded version of an article originally published by Tehran Bureau on December 14, 2009.


The history of political assassinations in Iran is almost as old as the nation itself: Xerxes (519-465 B.C.) was killed by his guards; Xerxes II ruled for only 45 days before he was murdered in 424 by his brother Secydianus; and even Nader Shah (1688-1747) of the Afsharid dynasty met his demise at the hands of an assassin. In fact, the root of the very word "assassin" is generally attributed to Hassan Sabbah (1050s-1124) and his followers, the political dissidents of their era, although linguists debate whether it derives from the words meaning "user of hashish" (Sabbah's followers were sometimes called the hashshashin), "follower of Hassan," or "rowdy people."

The Qajar Dynasty

In the modern era, the first political assassination in Iran occurred on April 30, 1896, when Mirza Reza Kermani assassinated Nassereddin Shah (1831-1896) of the Qajar dynasty in Rey, a town south of Tehran. Kermani was a follower of Sayyed Jamaladdin Asadabadi (1838-1897), who was also known as "Afghani," one of the earliest proponents of Islamic modernism. The assassination and the subsequent execution of Kermani on August 12, 1896, represented a watershed moment in Iran's history that ultimately led to the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1908), the first democratic movement in the modern era of the Middle East.

Kermani said of Nassereddin Shah, "I could have killed him earlier, but I did not do it because the Jews were celebrating their picnic after the eighth day of Passover, and I did not want the Jews to be accused of killing the Shah."

It was after the Constitutional Revolution that the murder of intellectuals began to be used routinely as a weapon of state for silencing the opposition. Mirza Jahangir-Khan Shirazi (1875-1908), better known as Mirza Jahangir-Khan Sur-e Esrafil, a journalist, intellectual, revolutionary, and founder and editor of the progressive weekly Sur-e Esrafil, was executed after Mohammad-Ali Shah Qajar's coup against the Constitutionalists. Mohammad-Ali Shah hated Sur-e Esrafil so much that he personally attended his hanging. It is said that right before his execution, Sur-e Esrafil declared, "Long live the Constitutional government!" and that he pointed to the ground and said, "O Land, we are murdered for the sake of your preservation."

Executed along with Sur-e Esrafil was fellow revolutionary Mirza Nasrollah Beheshti, known as Malek al-Motakallemin (1860-1908), an intellectual who was so impressed by the Japanese model of progress that he advocated a more rational use of natural resources for industrialization of Iran. Author and literary critic Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani (1853-1908) was beheaded on the order of Mohammad Ali Shah.

Sheikh Mohammad Khiabani (1880-1920) was also killed in the twilight years of the Qajar dynasty. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Khiabani, a leftist revolutionary who reestablished the Democrat Party of Tabriz after it had been banned for five years, published the daily Tajaddod (Modernity) as the party's mouthpiece. He was killed by government forces, although it was claimed that he had committed suicide.

The Pahlavi Dynasty

Political killings of intellectuals and dissidents persisted under the Pahlavi dynasty. The British-sponsored coup of 1921 made Reza Khan Sardar Sepah (1878-1944) Iran's strongman. He later founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 and was crowned as Reza Shah. He suppressed progressive movements in various parts of Iran, and killed their leaders, some of whom were intellectuals: Haydar Amu-Oghlu, a leftist intellectual revolutionary, was killed in 1921 and Col. Mohammad Taghi Khan Pesyan, a military man and author, in 1921. The latter was trained as a pilot in the German Air Force and fought in WWI. He translated many works from Persian to French, French to Persian, as well as from German and English to Persian as well. He authored two books in Persian, Sargozasht-e yek javan-e vatandoust (The Life of a Young Patriot) and Jang-e moqaddas az Baghdad ta Iran (The Holy War from Baghdad to Iran). He was beheaded on the order of Iran's premier Ahmad Qavam (1876-1955) and his minister of war, Reza Khan.

Mohammad Farrokhi Yazdi (1887-1939), the great poet and journalist who had been jailed in 1909 during the Qajar dynasty, died in Reza Shah's prison. While incarcerated, his lips were sewn together to make an example of the fate that awaited dissidents. Sayyed Mohammad Reza Kordestani, known as Mohammad Reza Mirzadeh Eshghi (1893-1924), an eminent political poet, was assassinated by the security forces of Reza Khan Sardar Sepah, then prime minister. Sayyed Hassan Modarres (1870-1937), cleric founder of one of the first pro-reform political parties in Iran, Hezb Eslaahtalab (Reformist Party), who was called "brave and incorruptible," and "perhaps the most fervent cleric supporter of true constitutional government," was also killed in Reza Shah's prison. It is interesting to note that Modarres was opposed to Reza Shah's plans for abolishing monarchy in Iran, and wanted him to be a benevolent king. Dr. Taghi Arani (1905-1940), a distinguished leftist intellectual, died in captivity under Reza Shah, after he was deliberately infected with typhus.

Ali Akbar Davar (1888-1937), one of Reza Shah's most faithful servants and the architect of Iran's modern judiciary, committed suicide because he thought that Reza Shah was going to murder him. Mohsen Jansouz (1915-1940), a political activist who supported Adolf Hitler and translated his memoir, Mein Kampf, into Persian, but opposed Pahlavi rule, was killed on the king's order.

Other intellectuals and dissidents either went into exile or fell completely silent, including the poet Abolghassem Aref Ghazvini (1879-1934), who died in forced exile in Hamadan; Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh (1882-1967); Soleiman Mirza Eskandari (1863-1944), a leftist intellectual and founding member of the communist Tudeh (Masses) Party; and Mohammad Ali Foroughi (1877-1943), who in 1907 had became director of the Tehran School of Political Science and was instrumental in the rise of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the throne, later serving as the first prime minister during his reign.

After the Allied forces invaded and occupied Iran, deposed Reza Shah, and put his son Mohammad Reza on the throne, political assassinations of intellectuals, dissidents and government officials continued. Ahmad Kasravi (1890-1946), the distinguished historian who fought against Shiism and even introduced a new religion with himself as the prophet, was killed by Islamic zealots. On March 11, 1946, while on trial for "slander against Islam," Kasravi was attacked by a knife-wielding follower of Navab Safavi (1924-1955), the Shiite fundamentalist cleric who founded Fadayan Islam (Devotees of Islam).

Fadayan Islam also assassinated members of the Shah's government. First, they assassinated Abdolhosein Hazhir (1899-1949), who served as a minister ten times. He was serving as minister to the royal court when he was assassinated on November 5, 1949, by Sayyed Hossein Emami Esfahani, a member of Navab Safavi's organization. General Haj Ali Razmara (1901-1951), the Shah's premier, was assassinated by 26-year-old Khalil Tahmasebi of Fadayan Islam. He was the first Iranian prime minister to be assassinated.

The Shah himself was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt. He was attending a ceremony on February 4, 1949, to celebrate the founding of Tehran University when Nasser Fakhr Arai fired five shots at him, only one of which hit the Shah. Fakhr Arai was killed by security officers. Although it was claimed that he was a member of the then-illegal communist Tudeh Party, there is evidence that he may have been a religious fundamentalist. This evidence is set forth by Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter, in his outstanding 2003 book, All The Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. In his memoirs, written right before his death, the Shah himself stated that Fakhr Arai was a fundamentalist (he also claimed that Fakhr Arai was a British agent). Eventually, Fadayan Islam turned against Mosaddegh as well.

After the CIA/MI6 coup of 1953, Dr. Hossein Fatemi (1919-1954), a prominent journalist who served as foreign minister in Mosaddegh's cabinet, was carried on a stretcher to the firing squad. Karim Pourshirazi, editor of the daily Shouresh (Uprising), and a fiery critic of the Shah and his twin sister, Ashraf, was burned alive in a military prison after undergoing severe torture.

Khosro Ruzbeh (1915-1958), who was executed by the Shah's government, was chief of the Tudeh Party's military branch, as well as the author of a number of pamphlets on chess, artillery warfare, and, together with Ardeshir Ovanessian, the coauthor of the country's first political lexicon, Dictionary of Political and Social Terms.

Journalist Khosro Golsorkhi (1944-1974), filmmaker and teacher Keramatollah Daneshian (1944-1974), leftist intellectual Bijan Jazani (1938-1975), author Hamid Momeni (who published under the pseudonym M. Bidsorkhi), and dozens of other intellectuals were all murdered simply because they opposed the Pahlavi regime. Hundreds of secular and Islamic leftists were killed by the Shah's security forces in the 1960s and 1970s.

For an excellent account of the history and fate of many Iranian intellectuals, read "The Condition of Intellectuals in Iran," an article by Bagher Momeni.

Murder of Dissidents in the Islamic Republic

In terms of politically motivated killing of dissidents, intellectuals, and opposition members, 1980-1998 represents the darkest and bloodiest period in the last 150 years of Iran's history. Thousands of political prisoners were executed in that decade, as I described in a previous article.

The focus of this article is the period 1988-1998, during which dozens of prominent dissidents and intellectuals were secretly or openly murdered. The full extent of these murders is still unknown. Not only do we not know the exact number of people murdered, we do not really know who ordered them, as the killings are still shrouded in secrecy.

It was only during the fall of 1998, during the second year of the first term of Mohammad Khatami's presidency that the serial murders of dissidents and intellectuals of the preceding decade came to light. This was made possible by the "Tehran Spring" (named after the Prague Spring) of 1998-2000, a brief period when the Iranian press enjoyed relative freedom and began publishing exposés of these events.

In 1998, between late summer and fall, six dissidents and intellectuals were murdered in what came to be known as the "Chain Murders" (ghatl-haye zanjireh-i). Iranians soon learned, however, that the number of people killed far exceeded that number.

The assassination of members of the opposition outside Iran began as early as December 1979, when Shahryar Shafiq (1945-1979), the son of Ashraf Pahlavi, the Shah's twin sister, was gunned down on a Paris street.

In July 1980, Ali Tabatabaei (1930-1980) was murdered at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, by Dawud Salahuddin, an American sympathetic to the 1979 Revolution. Tabatabaei, press attaché in Iran's embassy in the United States under the Shah, had joined the opposition after the 1979 Revolution. Salahuddin, who was paid $5,000 to kill Tabatabaei, currently lives in Iran.

On February 7,1984, General Gholam-Ali Oveissi (1920-1984), a hard-line army commander and military governor of Tehran under the Shah, and his brother Gholam-Hossein, were assassinated in Paris.

On January 16, 1987, Ali Akbar Mohammadi, who was a former pilot for Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was assassinated by two men in Hamburg, Germany.

On May 19, 1987, Hamidreza Chitgar (1949-1987), first secretary of Hezb Kaar (Labor Party), was assassinated in an apartment in Vienna. His body was discovered a week later. It was said that a man named Ali Amiztab had corresponded with Chitgar from Iran for about two years and had lured him from Paris, where he lived, to Vienna.

In 1989, Abdulrahman Ghassemlou, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) since 1973, had gone to Vienna to negotiate with representatives of the Iranian government. On July 13, he and his aides Abdollah Ghaderi, Fadal Mala and Mamoud Rassoul, met with Iranian representatives Mohammad Jafari Sahraroudi, Amir Bozorgnia and Kurdistan provincial governor Mostafa Ajoudi. Shots were fired at the apartment where the meeting took place, killing Ghassemlou and his aides. The shooting was reported to the police by the Iranian delegation who, however, denied any responsibility. The Austrian police, after taking statements, released the Iranian representatives, but concluded later that they were probably the culprits. By then, however, the Iranian delegation had been expelled from Austria.

In August 1989, Gholam Keshavarz, a communist opponent of the Islamic Republic, was assassinated in Cyprus by unknown assailants.

Dr. Kazem Rajavi (1934-1990), the elder brother of Massoud Rajavi, leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), was assassinated on April 24, 1990, in a village near Geneva. He was Iran's first ambassador to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva after the 1979 Revolution, but resigned his post and was active in the National Council of Resistance, MKO's political arm.

In July 1990, Ali Kashefpour, a member of the central committee of the KDPI, was killed in Turkey. He had apparently been kidnapped and severely tortured. The case remains unsolved.

In September 1990, Effat Qazi, daughter of Gazi Mohammed, the Kurdish leader and president of the Mahabad Republic -- a breakaway state formed in 1946 and soon crushed by government forces -- was killed in Sweden. A letter bomb intended for her husband, Amir Qazi, a Kurdish activist, went off and killed her instead.

In October 1990, Cyrus Elahi, who was a member of the opposition monarchist group Derafsh-e Kaviani (Flag of Freedom), was assassinated at his home in Paris.

In April 1991, Abdolrahman Boroumand was stabbed to death in a street in Paris. He was a member of the executive committee of the National Resistance Movement of Iran that Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar (1915-1991), the last prime minister under the Shah, had founded in France.

Bakhtiar himself was assassinated a short time later, on August 7, 1991. He had already escaped an assassination attempt at his home in Paris in July 1980, which killed a policeman and a neighbor. Stabbed to death along with Bakhtiar was his secretary, Soroush Katibeh. Three assassins were involved in the murders: two of them, Nasser Ghasemi Nejad and Gholam Hossein Shoorideh Shirazi, fled to Iran; but the third, Ali Vakili Rad, was apprehended in Switzerland, extradited to France, and after a trial was sentenced in December 1994 to life in prison. A French court granted him parole in May 2010 and sent him back to Iran two days after Iran released a French academic accused of spying.

In September 1991, Saeed Yazdanpanah, a member of the Revolutionary Union of Kurdish People, was stabbed to death in his home in Iraq along with his secretary, Cyrus Katibeh.

In August 1992, Fereydoun Farrokhzad, a popular Iranian singer, was killed at his home in Bonn. He was beheaded, and his tongue had been cut off.

On September 17, 1992, Dr. Sadegh Sharafkandi, leader of the KDPI, and three Kurdish aides, Homayoun Ardalan, Fattah Abdollahi, and Nouri Dehkordi, were assassinated in the Greek restaurant Mykonos in Berlin, Germany. The affair is thus known as the Mykonos Incident. In April 1997, a German court found Kazem Darabi, an Iranian who worked as a grocer in Berlin, and a Lebanese citizen, Abbas Rhayel, guilty of murder and sentenced them to life in prison. As part of its ruling, the court issued an international arrest warrant for Ali Fallahian, then Iran's minister of intelligence. The court also held that the assassination had been ordered by Fallahian with knowledge of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and then President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Darabi and Rhayel were deported to their home countries in December 2007.

In March 1993, two chiefs of the Narou'i tribe of Baluchistan province, Heybatollah Narou'i and Delaviz Narou'i, were shot dead outside their home in Karachi, Pakistan. On August 25, 1993, Mohammad Ghaderi, a former member of the KDPI, was abducted from his house in Kirshahir, Turkey. About ten days later, his mutilated body was discovered. Three days later, Bahram Azadifar, another member of the KDPI, was killed in his house in Ankara, by two men disguised as Turkish policemen.

In May 1996, Reza Mazlouman (also known as Kourosh Aryamanesh), who taught criminology at the University of Tehran before the 1979 Revolution and was deputy minister of education under the Shah, was shot dead in his apartment in Paris. He was active in the opposition. A friend opened the door to the assassin, who was known to Mazlouman and had declared himself as an opponent of the Islamic Republic.

Those named above are dissidents and opposition figures who were assassinated outside of Iran. In all likelihood, Dr. Kazem Sami Kermani (1934-1988) was the first victim of the Chain Murders in Iran. He was an Islamic nationalist and physician who before the Revolution had founded Jonbesh-e Enghelabi Mardom Iran (Revolutionary Movement of the Iranian People, known by its Persian acronym, JAMA) and was active against the Shah. Right after the Revolution, Sami became minister of health in the provisional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. After the U.S. embassy was seized by leftist students on November 4, 1979, and Bazargan resigned, Sami also left the government. But he remained active in politics and was elected to the First Majles (parliament), where he openly and frequently criticized the Islamic Republic.

On May 24, 1982, Iranian armed forces liberated Khorramshahr, Iran's most important port on the Persian Gulf, which had been occupied by Iraqi forces since the initial days of the war. While the nation had expected a ceasefire, the war raged on. The continuation of war was strongly protested by the Nationalist-Religious Frontand other groups, including the Freedom Movement of Bazargan and JAMA. Sami wrote an open letter to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran's Supreme Leader, in which he strongly criticized him for not ending the war. Perhaps the letter sealed his fate.

On November 23, 1988, Sami was attacked in his medical clinic in Tehran. The assailant, posing as a patient, used an ax to strike him in the head, chest, and arms. Sami's murder kicked off a string of killings of other intellectuals and dissidents in Iran. A man who claimed to have been the murderer supposedly committed suicide in a public bath in Ahvaz in the southern province of Khuzestan, after which the case was declared closed.

Sayyed Khosro Besharati was a religious intellectual who was critical of certain beliefs in Shiism. He was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence in autumn 1990 for questioning, but was never heard from again. His corpse was found on a rural road with a bullet in the head.

On June 24, 1994, Father Mehdi Dibadj (1935-1994), a Muslim who had converted to Christianity before the 1979 Revolution, was abducted. In December 1993, he had been condemned by a court to death on a charge of apostasy. After much international criticism, he was released from prison. His body was found in northern Iran on July 5, 1994.

Father T. Mikaeilian, who disappeared in early 1994, appears to have been another victim of the Chain Murders. That July, a bomb exploded in the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam, in the holy city of Mashhad. Three female MKO members were arrested. In a nationally televised program, the three "confessed" that they had slain Father Mikaeilian and put his body in a freezer. It is hard, however, to believe the confession. Why would the MKO want to murder a Christian priest?

Another priest, Father Husepian Mehr, was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant in August 1994 in the town of Karaj, west of Tehran.

In 1994, 134 writers published an open letter, "We Are the Writers!", on October 15. They demanded the abolition of censorship and called for the establishment of an autonomous writers' association.

The hardliners' reaction was immediate and angry. In an article -- "We Are the Dead!" -- that appeared in their mouthpiece, the daily Kayhan, Hassan Khorasani lashed out at the authors as "the excrement of the monarchical period who have always been the source of moral and intellectual corruption, and whose circles are not different from a fly's nest." Many of those who had signed the letter all died under mysterious circumstances.

Dr. Shamseddin Amir-Alaei, a nationalist opposition figure, died in a car accident in Tehran on August 11, 1994. It was widely believed that the crash was deliberate, and that he was in fact murdered.

Zohreh Izadi, a political activist, was murdered in Tehran in May 1994, falling to her death from the upper story of a building. Originally from Abadan in southern Iran, she was a medical student at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University.

The best-known victim was Ali Akbar Saidi Sirjani (1931-1994), the distinguished writer, poet and journalist, and one of the signatories of the open letter. He supported the 1979 Revolution, but then turned against it and used satire to criticize the political establishment. When his book of essays, stories, and parables, You of Shortened Sleeves, was published in 1989, it sold out in days. That worried the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which consequently banned not only the second printing of the book, but all books by Saidi Sirjani. He wrote a letter to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demanding that the second printing of his book be allowed. But Khamenei told Sirjani through emissaries to stop writing and protesting. He refused and directly attacked the Islamic Republic in an open letter.

Aware that his epistle would anger the ayatollah and others, he wrote, "Let the future generations know that there were people in the catastrophe-striken land of Iran who courageously greeted death." Before his arrest, he had guessed that he might be accused of spying for foreign powers. He thus offered the following satirical self- description:

The reporter of these poem is one of those animals that, on the one hand, collaborated at the age of 13 with Pishehvari to disintegrate Iran and, on the other hand, planned with Dr. Baqaei Kermani in the founding of the Workers Party, while he was also a member of the Tudeh Party, as well as a member of the SAVAK.

Jafar Pishehvari (1893-1947) was the leader of a short-lived Azerbaijan People's Government in Iran's northwestern province that was supported by the Soviet Union after World War II. Mozaffar Baqaei Kermani was a controversial political figure and a supporter of the Shah during the CIA-sponsored 1953 coup.

Sirjani was arrested on March 14, 1994. After eight months in custody, it was announced that he had died of a heart attack. It is, however, widely believed that he was murdered by Saeed Emami, the notorious agent of the Ministry of Intelligence. Emad Baghi, the distinguished investigative journalist and human rights advocate revealed that a potassium suppository had been inserted into Saidi Sirjani's rectum, which quickly triggered the heart attack.

Even the family of the revolution's founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, did not escape the Chain Murders unscathed. Ahmad Khomeini (1945-1995), the Ayatollah's younger son and the link between him and the political establishment, died of an apparent heart attack on March 17, 1995, a month after giving a speech in which he strongly criticized regime hardliners. It is said that Saeed Emami, the notorious agent of the Ministry of Intelligence, had killed him by cyanide poisoning because he considered him a liability for the Islamic Republic. Mohammad Niazi, the military prosecutor who handled Saeed Emami's case in 1999, reportedly told Hassan Khomeini, Ahmad's son, that Emami had killed his father.

Dr. Abdolaziz Bajd, a professor at Zahedan University in Sistan and Baluchistan province, delivered a speech critical of the TV series Imam Ali in 1995. He was kidnapped and his body was later found in the desert outside Zahedan.

Fakhrossadat Borghei (1964-1995) was a high school teacher in the city of Qom. She had a religious education and achieved the status of ejtehad (Islamic scholar), which is very rare for a woman. She was strangled to death, and her corpse had been burned when it was found.

Hossein Barazandeh (1943-1995), an engineer and a close aide to Dr. Ali Shariati, the distinguished sociologist and Islamic scholar, was another victim. On the evening of January 3, 1995, he left a Qu'ran recitation session in the northeastern city of Mashhad to go home, but never arrived. His body was found the next morning. The cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Ahmad Mir Alaei (1942-1995), a writer, translator, intellectual, and signatory of the writers' open letter, died in Isfahan under mysterious circumstances. He had left home on October 24, 1995, at 7:45 a.m., to meet someone at a bookstore, but never arrived there. Later that day, he was to give a speech at the medical school in Isfahan. Mysteriously, someone had announced to the students that the 2:00 p.m. lecture had been canceled. His dead body was found at 8:00 that night. The cause of death: cardiac arrest.

"Cardiac arrest" kept claiming other victims. In the winter of 1996, Dr. Ghaffar Husseini (1935-1996), a poet, translator, and theater critic, was found dead at his home. He had not appeared in public for several days. He had told some friends that at one point he had been taken to a room in a hotel in Tehran and threatened. Again, he had apparently died as the result of a cardiac arrest.

Ahmad Moftizadeh (1934-1993) was a Sunni scholar and activist in Kurdistan province. Molla Farough Farsad was a Sunni cleric in the Kurdistan provincial capital of Sanandaj and a politically active follower of Moftizadeh. He was exiled to Ardabil in 1989. On February 16, 1995, his body was found in Ardabil. He had been tortured.

In October 1995, Father Mohammad Bagher Yusefi was found dead in a jungle near Sari, a city in northern Iran. He had been hanged. Again, the circumstances surrounding his death were totally mysterious.

In August of 1996, 21 writers decided to participate in a conference on literature in Armenia. They decided to take a bus and travel together from Tehran to Armenia. On August 8, 1996, the driver of the bus attempted to drive it off the Astara-Ardabil road in the northwestern Hayrun Pass and into a ravine. He jumped out of the bus to escape, but several alert passengers quickly took control of the bus and veered it off its deadly path. The driver turned out to be none other than Khosrow Barati, who played an important role in the Chain Murders in autumn 1998, and actually confessed to his role in the bus incident.

Zahra Eftekhari, a political prisoner in the early years after the 1979 Revolution, was abducted in the city of Mashhad and murdered in December 1996. Several other former political prisoners from that era met the same fate in Mashhad. Javad Saffar and Jalal Mobinzadeh were also abducted in Mashhad and apparently murdered on the same day, January 1, 1996. Morteza Olian Najafabadi, a political prisoner between 1985 and 1993, was also murdered in Mashhad on January 19, 1997. Another former political prisoner, Abbas Navaei, was also killed under mysterious circumstances.

Other former political prisoners who were murdered in 1996 included Amir Ghafouri and his brother-in-law Sayyed Mahmoud Milani. Sayyed Mahmoud Maydani, a political prisoner from 1981-1991, was abducted on April 12, 1997, in Mashhad and murdered. Three years earlier, another former political prisoner, Dr. T. Tafti, his wife, and their two children were murdered in Tehran in 1993.

Novelist Ghazaleh Alizadeh was strangled to death on May 11, 1996, at her home in northern Iran. The official cause of death was suicide, but many believe that she was murdered because of her militant writing.

Abdolaziz Kazemi, a Ph.D. student, a lecturer at the University of Sistan and Baluchestan, and a Sunni cleric, was abducted on November 5, 1996, as he was leaving his office in the evening. Two days later, his bullet-ridden body was found on a road near the city of Zahedan, capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province. He was a political activist who advocated respect for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in Iran.

In the same year, other Sunni clerics were also assassinated, some in Iran and others in Pakistan. They included Molavi Abdul-Malek Mollahzadeh, who was gunned down along with an aide outside his Karachi home on March 4, 1996; Molavi Jamshid Zehi who was killed around the same time, and Dr. Ahmad Sayyad, whose mutilated body was found on the outskirts of the port city of Bandar Abbas on February 2, 1996. His family claimed he had been abducted at the Bandar Abbas airport, when he returned from a trip to Dubai. Mollahzadeh had been imprisoned for sometime before going to Pakistan.

On November 30, 1996, Molla Mohammad Rabiei (also known as Mamousta Rabiei), Friday Prayer leader of the Sunnis of Kermanshah in western Iran, was murdered. Officially, he died of cardiac arrest. It turned out years later that he had been murdered via the injection of an air bubble that caused the heart attack.

Siamak Sanjari (1968-1996) was murdered in November 1996 a few days before he was to be wed. He was reportedly well-informed about some of the crimes that former Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian had allegedly committed. Concerning the killing and the involvement of Saeed Emami, who turned out to be the leader of the assassination ring, investigative journalist Akbar Ganji (pictured) wrote,

Saeed Emami took Siamak Sanjari to a safe house with several agents. He spoke to him for several hours, and then ordered the agents to murder him by stabbing him with a knife. Sanjari began crying and told Emami that he was going to get married in a few days and had brought invitation cards for them. Emami called the master key [then Minister of Intelligence Fallahian] and told him that Sanjari was crying, that he was getting married in a few days, and that he has his invitation cards ready. The master key ordered Emami to murder Sanjari. They killed him with 15 knife stabs and then set on fire his Mercedes-Benz near Tehran.

Dr. Ahmad Tafazzoli (1937-1997) was a prominent scholar of ancient Iranian literature, language and culture, and a faculty member at Tehran University. He was known to have contacts with many Iranian academics working abroad. On January 15, 1997, Tafazzoli was found dead in a suburb northwest of Tehran. His skull and bones had been crushed, and his lifeless, bloody body had been left in the trunk of his car.

Hossein Sarshar was an opera singer and actor who was supposedly close to Saidi Sirjani. He was reportedly tortured and then declared dead in a fake car accident on February 14, 1997.

A couple, Manouchehr Sanei and his wife, Firouzeh Kalantari, appear to have been the next victims on the chain. Sanei was a history scholar. He and his wife had returned to Iran in 1995 after living abroad for many years. They went missing on February 17, 1997. Their bodies were found on February 22 in eastern Tehran and identified a month later. The coroner's office announced that they had been stabbed to death on February 19, but that Sanei had died of a heart attack before being stabbed. Kalantari had died due to head injuries. Before his death, Sanei had been summoned by the Ministry of Intelligence several times and threatened.

On February 24, one week after Sanei and Kalantari's disappearance, Ebrahim Zalzadeh, editor of the monthly literary magazine Me'yaar (Criterion), and owner of the Ebtekar publishing house, was arrested by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and taken to a "safe house." He had written a letter to then President Rafsanjani in which he had said, "Mr. President, no Iranian regime is stable, and you know well that if the regime does not learn from history and move according to people's demands, it will be overthrown." His family was ordered not to reveal his arrest, or he would be killed. On March 29, his body was found half buried outside Tehran.

On December 25, 1997, Mrs. Fatemeh Ghaem-Maghami, 42, a senior stewardess with Iran Air and then Aseman Air, was murdered by a single bullet to her head. Her corpse was found in a car on Tehran's Pasdaran Avenue short distance from a Ministry of Intelligence building. There was subsequent speculation that she might had been forced into a relationship with Ali Fallahian and that she had extensive information about his activities and those of Saeed Emami. Akbar Ganji stated that Ghaem-Maghami knew much about their illegal trafficking of both narcotics and weapons to Europe. He held Fallahian directly responsible for her murder.

On April 5, 1998, Masoumeh Mosaddegh, the 49-year-old daughter of Dr. Gholam-Hossein Mosaddegh and granddaughter of Mohammad Mosaddegh, was murdered in her villa in northern Tehran. Jame'eh, Tehran's leading reformist daily of the time, reported that she died from multiple knife stab wounds. A U.S. resident, she had returned temporarily to Tehran to sell her assets. Was her murder politically motivated? No one knows. In October 2002, Iran, then a reformist daily, reported the arrest of a man who might have been involved in the murder, with robbery the motivation. Like much else in the Islamic Republic, her murder remains shrouded in secrecy.

On September 22, 1998, the corpse of Hamid Hajizadeh, a poet, scholar, and high school teacher, was found in a bed at his home in Kerman in south-central Iran. He had been stabbed 38 times. The murderer(s) had no mercy even on his nine-year-old son Karoon, who was killed while sleeping in his father's arms.

Even if their murders were not politically motivated, the circumstances surrounding their deaths were so mysterious that they gave rise to a strong suspicion that they were. Even so, most of these murders would not have come to light but for the Chain Murders in autumn 1998. The event that may have triggered them was an angry speech by Khamenei on September 15, in which he called on the judiciary to deal with newspapers and other publications that "abused" freedom. The next day, a revolutionary court shut down the popular reformist daily Tous, and issued arrest warrants for its editor, Mahmoud Shamsolvaezin; the publishing manager, Hamidreza Jalaipour; leading columnist and satirist Ebrahim Nabavi; and journalist Mohammad Sadegh Javadi-Hesar. They were to be tried as "enemies of God."

These actions worried the writers, who began to organize an association. A provisional committee comprising Mohammad Mokhtari, Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, Hooshang Golshiri, Ali Ashraf Darvishian, Kazem Kordavani, and Mansour Koushan oversaw efforts to plan the first general assembly of the Iranian Writers' Association. Before the assembly took place, however, they were summoned to the office of the Tehran public prosecutor in October 1998 and interrogated about their activities. They were released only after they signed a letter promising that they would not organize the association's general assembly.

The first shocking news arrived the evening of Sunday, November 22, 1998. IRNA, the official news agency, reported, and the 9:00 p.m. news program of national television channel 1 confirmed that Dariush Forouhar and his wife, Parvaneh Majd Eskandari, had been murdered by unidentified assailants at their home on Hedayat Street in central Tehran the night before. They had been stabbed to death, Forouhar 26 times, his wife 25 times.

Forouhar (1928-1998) had already been abducted by security agents on August 12, 1994, after he had attended the funeral of Dr. Shamseddin Amir-Alaei, but had been released. He was the leader of the Mellat (Nation) Party since 1951, a small party that was part of the National Front, Mosaddegh's political coalition. He served as minister of labor in the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan immediately after the 1979 Revolution, and had spent 54 years engaged in political activities. He was detained by the Shah's government several times.

Parvaneh Majd Eskandari (1938-1998) became a member of the Mellat Party when she was a student at the University of Tehran in the 1950s and, together with her future husband, was active in the anti-Shah struggle. Before her death, she had told Human Right Watch in New York, "We are living with the fear of being killed. Every night when we go to bed we thank God the Almighty for His blessing of living another day."

The next piece of shocking news on these murders came on November 25, 1998. That day, the body of Dr. Majid Sharif (1950-1998), a writer and translator, was identified at a Tehran morgue. He had disappeared a few days earlier, in the early morning of November 19, when he left the house for a jog. He was an only child of a religious and clerical family, a great grandson of Ayatollah Habib Sharif Kashani. After obtaining his B.S. degree in mathematics from Aryamehr University (now called Sharif University), he moved to California and received an M.S. in physics, and later a Ph.D. in sociology.

I had the honor of knowing him, having been introduced to him through a mutual friend in the spring of 1978. We had several lively discussions regarding the thinking of Ali Shariati, and Khomeini's criticisms of him before the 1979 Revolution. He had returned to Iran in November 1995. The coroner's office declared that he had died of a cardiac arrest, but it turned out that it had been induced, as Saidi Sirjani's had been.

At the time of his murder, Sharif was involved in the efforts to reorganize and republish Shariati's work. He had published close to 100 articles, and had written or translated 20 books, including The True Islam is Born Again and Islam Minus Democracy. For three years prior to his death, he was under constant pressure by the Ministry of Intelligence to write against the opposition, but he never obliged. He was married and had one child.

On the evening of December 3, 1998, Mohammad Mokhtari (1942-1998) -- writer, mythologist, journalist, and a member of the Iranian Writers Association organizing committee -- left his home in northern Tehran to do some shopping, but never returned. His body turned up in Ray, a town on the southern edge of Tehran, on December 9. He had been strangled. His son, Siavash, identified his father's body at the morgue.

In the evening of the same day, writer and translator Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh went missing as well. His body was found in the Shahriar district of Karaj, west of Tehran, and was identified by his family at the morgue in Tehran on December 11, 1998. He too had been strangled.

The string of five murders helped solve some of the mysteries surrounding the disappearance of another writer and political activist. On August 29, 1998, Pirouz Davani (1961-1998), a leftist and an ex-political prisoner, went missing. His body has never been recovered. Davani supported the 1979 Revolution against the Shah, but was arrested in 1981 for his alleged links to the communist opposition and imprisoned for seven months. Following the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, Davani began a campaign against the government. He was arrested again in the winter of 1991 and spent six months of his four-year-sentence in solitary confinement. He was released in 1995. After Khatami's election in May 1997, Davani founded a cultural institute to publish and promote new interpretations on the left's struggle for democracy in Iran, which led to the establishment of the Organisation of Unity for Democracy in Iran. He was also the editor and publisher of the newspaper Pirooz.

Investigative journalist Akbar Ganji looked into the matter and has written that he believes that Davani was murdered around September 20, 1998. Davani's family wrote an open letter to Khatami, asking him to help them find him or his body. After Davani's disappearance, his mother had a heart attack and passed away.

During the entire time that these murders were taking place, Khamenei insisted that Iran's enemies, and in particular Israel, had a hand in them. But on December 20, 1998, a statement was issued in Tehran by a shadowy, previously unknown group calling itself Fadayaan-e Islam-e Naab-e Mohammadi-ye Mostafa Navvab (Pure Mohammadan Islam Devotees of Mostafa Navvab) claiming responsibility for the killings. The statement said in part, "The revolutionary execution of Dariush Forouhar, Parvaneh Eskandari, Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh is a warning to all mercenary writers and their counter-value supporters who cherish the idea of spreading corruption and promiscuity in the country and bringing back foreign domination over Iran."

People were wondering who would be murdered next.

At the same time, there was a pamphlet by Hojatoleslam Parvazi, one of the founders of Ansaar-e Hezbollah (Supporters of the Party of God) that was in wide circulation. Parvazi had become disillusioned with the hardliners, and according to the pamphlet, in a speech he had warned that the Ansaar and Basij militia members might be used to murder dissidents and intellectuals on the basis of fatwas issued by hardline clerics. As a result, for some time many people thought that the Ansaar was behind the murders. Having angered the hardliners, Parvazi was banned from public speaking for five years.

President Khatami formed a committee of three to investigate the murders. Its members were Ali Yunesi, head of the armed forces judiciary organization; Ali Rabiei, an aide to the president with extensive connections in the intelligence community and editor of the daily Kaar va Kargar (Labor and Worker); and Ali Sarmadi, deputy minister of intelligence.

After the culprits behind the murders were eventually identified, Rabiei said that he and his committee had suspected that a gang of intelligence agents led by Saeed Emami (Eslami), a former deputy intelligence minister who was still an advisor to Minister Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi (a mid-ranking cleric), was behind the murders. The committee convened to consider the arrest of the gang, knowing that news of the deliberation would reach Emami and his confederates and might induce one of the weaker members to come forward and confess. That is indeed what took place: Mostafa Kazemi (Mousavi) contacted Rabiei and told him the entire story behind the murders.

The next shock came on January 6, 1999, when the Ministry of Intelligence issued a brief statement, admitting its own agents had committed the crimes. It said,

The despicable and abhorrent recent murders in Tehran are a sign of a chronic conspiracy and a threat to the national security. Based on its legal obligations and following clear directives issued by the Supreme Leader and the president, the Intelligence Ministry set as a priority discovering and uprooting this sinister and threatening event. With the cooperation of the specially-appointed investigatory committee of the president, the ministry has succeeded in identifying the group responsible for the killings, has made arrests and referred their cases to the judiciary. Unfortunately, a small number of irresponsible, misguided, headstrong and obstinate staff within the Ministry of Intelligence, who are no doubt under the influence of rogue undercover agents and acting towards the objectives of foreign and estranged sources when committing these criminal acts.

This was the first time in Iran's modern history that the security establishment had taken responsibility for the crimes it had committed. In the aftermath of the statement, Khatami made it clear to Minister of Intelligence Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi that he could either resign or be fired. He was never Khatami's first choice for the position. It was said at that time that Najafabadi had been imposed on the president by Khamenei. In February 1999, Najafabadi resigned. His successor, Ali Yunesi, was, in my opinion and relatively speaking, the best minister of intelligence during the past three decades.

The cases were referred to the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces (JOAF), headed by mid-ranking cleric Mohammad Niazi. He said that the Forouhars'murderers had benefited from the collaboration of a person known to the couple and perhaps a member of Dariush Forouhar's political group. They had gone to the Forouhars' house at 9:05 p.m. on November 21, 1999, and murdered them. As for Mokhtari and Pouyandeh, they were kidnapped and taken outside Tehran before they were killed. The JOAF announced that the original plan had called for the dissidents to be gunned down in a public place, but that had been altered.

Who were the leaders of the gang that was committing the crimes? The ring leader was Saeed Emami. Other important figures in the ring included Mostafa Kazemi, deputy minister of intelligence when the murders occurred; Mehrdad Alikhani, a senior official in the ministry; and Khosrow Barati, the driver who tried to kill 21 writers by driving a bus off a cliff. At least eleven other people were also involved (see below).

Emami was apparently of Jewish origin. He was born in 1969, and moved to the United States in 1978 with the help of his uncle, Soltan Mohammad Etemad, who was the military attaché at Iran's Embassy in Washington. After completing his higher education, he worked at Iran's interest section in the United States for one year and at the Iranian mission to the United Nations for another. He was then recruited by security agents. When he returned to Iran, he began working for the newly established Ministry of Intelligence, then headed by Mohammad Mohammadi Rayshahri. Saeed Hajjarian, Rayshahri's deputy, was opposed to appointing Emami to sensitive positions at the ministry due to his family record.

After Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president in 1989, he appointed Ali Fallahian as the new minister of intelligence, and he appointed Emami as his deputy for security affairs. Hajjarian had already left the ministry in 1988.

On June 20, 1999, it was announced that Saeed Emami had died in prison the night before. It was claimed that Emami had attempted to commit suicide by drinking a depilatory compound in the bathroom on June 16. He was taken to a hospital and treated, but died three days later. It was claimed that he died of a cardiac arrest and complications from respiratory problems. His family held a memorial service for him in which 400 people participated.

But the attorneys for the Forouhars, Mokhtari, and Pouyandeh rejected the claim. They said that the depilatory compound used in Iran does not contain enough arsenic to kill a person. Shirin Ebadi who was an attorney for the Forouhar family stated unequivocally, "It is impossible for Saeed Eslami to have killed himself with the compound." It is widely believed that Emami was killed in order to prevent him from revealing information on who had ordered the Chain Murders.

Among those present at the memorial was the cleric Ruhollah Hosseinian, who had worked for the Intelligence Ministry (he is currently a Majles deputy). He had claimed immediately after the revelations about the Chain Murders in January 1999 that Emami was innocent and that the crimes had been committed by the reformists around Khatami. He famously said, "We have been a murderer ourselves! Murder of dissidents is not carried out the way that it has been described!"

Earlier, on January 12, 1999, Hosseinian had participated in a TV program, Cheraq (Light), in which he not only justified the murders, but also claimed that the murderers were reformists. He said that those who were murdered were in the opposition. Some of them were apostate, he claimed, while others had insulted the Prophet, his family, and the Imams. He also said that the murderers had been Islamic leftists in the 1980s and had strongly supported Khatami in his presidential campaign for president. Later on, at the Haghani School -- run by the ultra-reactionary Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi -- Hosseinian said that Mostafa Kazemi had masterminded the murders to create fissures between Khatami and Khamenei, and allow the former to seize power. He also acknowledged, "The issue of the murders has captured us. Whatever we do to escape it, we find to way to escape."

The Fate of the Murderers

Saeed Emami passed away in jail, most likely murdered. Mostafa Kazemi and Mehrdad Alikhani received four consecutive life sentences. Mahmoud Jafarzadeh and Ali Mohseni, reportedly the ones who actually murdered the Forouhars by stabbing them repeatedly, were sentenced to death, but the Forouhar family declared that they did not want them to be hanged. Hamid Rasouli, Morteza Fallah, and Majid Azizi were each given two successive life sentences. Khosrow Barati was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Mostafa Hashemi and Abolfazl Moslemi were each sentenced to eight years, and Mohammad Asna Ashar and Ali Safaeipour were each sentenced to seven. Asghar Sayyah received a six-year sentence, and Ali Nazeri received a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Three others charged with involvement in the crimes, Morteza Haghani, Ali-Reza Akbarian, and Iraj Amouzgar, were acquitted. Various reports indicate that at least some of those who received life sentences have been released.

A video including the confessions of six of the accused murderers was shown to the deputies of the conservative-controlled Fifth Majles on January 25, 2000. The leftist minority rejected the validity of the confessions because they had been obtained under pressure. A video leaked in February 2007 showed that Fatemeh Dorri, Saeed Emami's wife, was beaten to make her "confess" that there was a link between him and foreign governments, in order to support Khamenei's claim that the murderers were agents of enemy powers. In a political system that claims that the Leader is the representative of God on Earth, the interrogators also feel the pressure to prove that everything that he says is correct, even if his words have no connection with reality.

The Fate of Those Who Revealed the Secrets

Investigative journalists Akbar Gangi and Emad Baghi, as well as many others, believed that the orders for the killings had come from the "above," meaning from at least the intelligence ministers themselves. Gangi and Baghi shed much light on the earlier killings, from 1988-1998, as listed above. Their reporting revealed that most, if not all, were probably part of a systematic program to eliminate dissidents and intellectuals opposed to repression in the Islamic Republic. Both were jailed for their excellent investigative journalism.

Dr. Nasser Zarafshan, a lawyer who represented the families of some of the slain dissidents, said in 2001, "Fallahian, who for years was the direct superior of Saeed Emami and, therefore, has had direct supervision over his work, says, 'I will give no explanation without my superior being present.' Thus, to avoid the circle of investigations to encompass him, he attaches himself to others. Therefore, people themselves guess what is wrong with the case. The problem is not to which faction the perpetrators of the murders belong, but to which faction the issuer of the fatwa belongs."

Baghi wrote The Tragedy of Democracy in Iran about the murders. The book sold out through six editions before it was banned. He was then jailed for nearly three years. He is currently in jail again for another "offense." Ganji published two books on the murders, and in 2000 was arrested and given a sentence of six years. After serving the full sentence, he left Iran and now lives in the United States.

Zarafshan was jailed for two years for supposedly revealing state secrets, whereas all he had done was talk about the details of the cases against the murderers. Shirin Ebadi, who also represented the Forouhar family, was onstructed from pursuing the case, aswell. According to her, after reading the case against the murderers, she was the next person to be murdered. She escaped because the ring was ordered to postpone her assassination until the fasting month of Ramadan was over, and in the meantime the murderers were arrested. Ebadi thus confirmed that Dorri Najafabadi was a main culprit, although he was never prosecuted and currently holds a high-ranking government position.

Three reformist newspapers -- Salaam, Khordad, and Sobh-e Emrooz -- played major roles in revealing many of the secrets of the Chain Murders. All three were banned. Abdollah Nouri, Khatami's first interior minister, was the managing editor of Khordad. He was later jailed for three years. During his trial, Nouri courageously declared,

Whatever Khordad revealed about the murders was a response to then Minister of Intelligence [Dorri Najafabadi] who had the power and apparently issued the fatwas. In our opinion, the minister must respond about the murders, because our national security has been endangered. Did they not attempt to make it look as if only a few intelligence agents were the culprits? Was it not the plan not to reveal the role of those who ordered the murders? Is it not true that every effort was made not to go beyond Saeed Emami and limit the murders to the four [the Forouhars, Mokhtari, and Pouyandeh]? There was silence in the past years about many suspicious murders. But, now that the press is revealing the truth about what has happened, some people are trying to erase the problem altogether.

There was an assassination attempt on Saeed Hajjarian, Sobh-e Emrooz's managing editor. Although he survived, he is now partially paralyzed. After the rigged 2009 election, he was imprisoned. Following a show trial, he received a suspended jail sentence.

In 2000, Mohammad Reza Khatami, then secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (the country's largest reformist group), addressed the hardliners' estimation that dissent can be eliminated by murdering dissidents. The younger brother of the former president warned, "The cancer tumor is still alive and could reemerge at any moment." Events in the wake of the rigged 2009 presidential election have proven Khatami's statement prophetic.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

SHAREtwitterfacebookSTUMBLEUPONbalatarin reddit digg del.icio.us
blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.