Almost a month after law enforcement officials announced they had foiled a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in the American capital, there’s still some doubt in many U.S. policy circles that the Iranians could’ve been involved. According to a number of Iran experts and analysts, the details suggest a recklessness and incompetence that is at odds with the Tehran regime’s standard method.
Nonsense, says Iranian-American author Roya Hakakian. “Experts look at this plot as if there are no reference points,” says Hakakian, “no other incidents to look at and be guided by, or nothing else that can inform current case.” In fact, Hakakian’s recently published book, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, is about just such a precedent.
In September 1992, four Iranian-Kurdish dissidents were gunned down in the Berlin restaurant the Mykonos. The assassins included an Iranian national who worked as a grocer in Berlin (which is hardly more distinguished than the used car salesman Mansoor Arbabsiar, indicted in the most recent plot to kill the Saudi ambassador). The Mykonos killers had been sent by Tehran as part of a larger campaign of international terrorism to liquidate opponents of the regime. Hakakian’s account of the murder, investigation, and subsequent trial, which implicated Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, will come as something of a revelation to readers unfamiliar with the regime’s thirty-year history of murder and repression.
Even now, as the IAEA has released its latest report clarifying the nature and intent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the debate over the regime and the likelihood of deterring a nuclear Iran has tended to obscure the key issues. Whether or not the regime’s rulers are “rational” is finally irrelevant. Instead, the focus should be on what is knowable and known—the pattern that the regime has painted in blood across several continents over three decades. Like the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Jewish community center there two years later, the Mykonos murders are a central chapter in the Islamic regime’s violent career.
“This story has been totally buried,” Hakakian told me. The contemporary history of Iran, she says, “has been written by the regime, and this is probably the most important force that drove me to write this book. More and more with passing of time, since I left Iran, a version of history is replacing the version I know. I feel pressed by the notion that conquerors are writing their own records. In order for our account to exist, we have to take charge of our own history.”
Hakakian explained that while she was encouraged to write a follow-up to her critically acclaimed memoir of an Iranian Jewish childhood, Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, she “wanted to create a narrative space for a different class of books about Iran.” In the first category, Hakakian explains, are the policy-driven books about Iran. And then there’s the first-person narrative, which she had already explored. “As a people, we have a collective tale to tell. This story is an effort in creating a third possibility.”
We sat and spoke recently with Hakakian about her book, the Iranian exile community in the United States, and the Green movement.
TWS: What was appealing about this particular story?
Hakakian: I wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn to writing a book about murder. My idea was to deal with the murders in the first few pages in order to tell a much bigger story. The trial and judgment were huge. It’s the only instance since the revolutionary regime came to power that the international community has spoken in one voice about Iran. This is one of the most important trials in the second half of century. And it was the first time since the Nuremberg trials that a ruler was implicated in a crime.
TWS: So why do Iran experts and Middle East analysts describe Rafsanjani, a man who plotted a campaign of international terror, as a moderate pragmatist?
Hakakian: I’m astounded by how much Americans don’t know about what has happened in Iran, Also I’m surprised that the exile community has failed to communicate basic information. Iranian exiles in the U.S. have been so humiliated by the regime that we’ve put up a front—we keep saying we belong to a glorious civilization, which makes us wrongly busy about who we are and where we come from, which means we’ve not communicated enough about what we’ve suffered. This Persian nationalism has gotten in the way of communicating what the Islamic Republic has done.
Let’s get over the idea that as Iranians we have to tell Americans we come from a great civilization. In a way we are disowning the most contemporary and relevant fact about what we suffered. Part of the reason why we haven’t told these stories is that we are ashamed of them. These stories are ugly things that you don’t show strangers. We are afraid of looking bad. The dislike for Ahmadinejad, for instance, is so strong that we find ourselves defending our own image. We worry about fixing our image without worrying about how to get rid of him.
TWS: Does the Green movement in Iran suffer from the same issues as the exile community?
Hakakian: One thing yet to happen is for everyone to reject regime on every front, in every sense. A part of why we are stuck with the regime is that we have been unable to create our own narrative, our own independent version of history. That leaves the protest movement capable of presenting itself as political opposition, but not as cultural and historical opposition.
With the opposition to the Shah, the Pahlavi regime was rejected in every possible way— its penchant for modernity, its affiliation with the U.S., everything that the Shah’s regime represented was rejected. Everyone knew about what happened under the Savak, the Shah’s secret police. Leftists/Marxists could agree with the mullahs about the narrative.
But the current protest movement has not yet articulated a position as widespread as the revolution’s. It’s not enough to say women are against the veil. Movement against theocracy is of such magnitude that it needs a historical and cultural context. We don’t have that yet. The protest movement doesn’t even have its own vocabulary yet. The green movement shouted “Allahu akbar,” but this what they shouted against the Shah. Granted, this other narrative is harder to construct because now it is going against the people who say they represent God. But if you look at Egypt and others now toying with theocracy, it’s the narrative the Middle East as a region needs to construct. Until we turn the narrative upside down, we will not have what it takes to fight the regime.