Clumsy Assassins

-By Emanuele Ottolenghi- When, last October, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the FBI and DEA had thwarted a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States by planting a bomb in a Washington, DC restaurant, he blamed “factions in the Iran government” for authorizing the attacks.
Since then, pundits have been con­ducting a strange but entirely predict­able ballet. Nobody is willing to point the finger of blame at Iran’s top dog, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It may instead have been “a rogue faction” of the Revolutionary Guards, as Newsday pointed out in an editorial. Or it could have been other elements in the regime, since, as many experts have suggested, the plot was too clumsy and amateur­ish to have been approved by what some consider to be the A-team of terrorism.
Had any of them bothered to judge Iran by its own track record, however, they would conclude otherwise. As Roya Hakakian has brilliantly documented in her masterful book on the 1992 “Myko­nos” massacre, orders to carry out such terrorist outrages come from the high­est echelons of Iran’s regime. Dissidents Iran murdered over the years were on a list drawn up by the late founder of the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; the decision to go after them was taken by a special affairs commit­tee made of top government officials. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, in turn, approved the committee’s decisions before the Intelligence Ministry and the Pasdaran worked out the logistics of each operation.
The same goes with other terrorist operations, such as the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, or the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Marine and French paratroopers barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Hakakian’s book shows how, when Iran dispatched agents to kill eight Kurdish and Iranian opponents of the Iranian regime as they gathered for dinner at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in September 1992, incompetence marred the plot and ultimately led to the arrest and trial of the culprits.
That the orders come from above does not preclude incompetence down below, once orders are carried out. Indeed, in the plot to murder the Saudi Ambassador, pundits dismissed a direct link with Tehran because the ringleader was a used car dealer from Texas. Yet, the Mykonos ringleader was a grocer with Hezbollah connections who lent a hand to the Iranian regime’s money laun­dering activities in Germany in exchange for his own profit.
Nor were his picks professional characters from a James Bond movie. After the hit, the team drove off and split up, but the driver inadvertently parked the car in front of a private garage entry—ensuring it was towed away and identified within 48 hours of the murder. Tasked with disposing of the weapons used in the attack, he threw the bag containing them under a nearby car in a car dealership on the same street where he had parked the car. They were quickly found. One of the assassins forgot to wear gloves during the shoot­ing rampage—leaving his fingerprints on the weapons. He was just as quickly identified. As it turns out, he and the hit team’s watchman did not leave Ger­many immediately. News of police find­ings made their presence in Germany a liability; yet, Iran’s supposedly-efficient terror machine failed to deliver them fake passports to escape quite on time. As for the ringleader, he returned to Germany the day after two of his squad had been arrested, and he was himself arrested at the airport.
This tale of incompetence, of course, does nothing to diminish the horror and the tragedy of the murders, or the regime’s ruthlessness in bankrolling it. Hakakian masterfully depicts both with a style, eloquence and rhythm that makes you sometimes wonder if this is not actually a gripping spy novel. Highly readable yet robustly documented, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace offers great insights into the way Iran runs its wars in the shadows. It also opens a window onto the civilized world of Western bystanders. For nothing is more astounding in the story of the Mykonos case than the efforts of German authori­ties to downplay the direct responsibility of Iran’s highest echelons of power, much like many now do in the case of the Saudi Ambassador plot. Hakakian weaves this aspect into the story of the trial and keeps the suspense going until the end, when it becomes clear that the Mykonos case is not just a telltale of the wickedness of the Iranian regime but also an instance in which only thanks to overwhelming evidence were Western decision makers forced to confront Iran for what it is and not what they wish it to be.
In the lengthy history of Western relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, this is a rare moment of clarity that still awaits repetition.
The Mykonos case led not only to convictions at the highest levels of Iran’s intelligence and political power struc­ture—it also triggered an unprecedented withdrawal of European ambassadors from Tehran and a severing of diplo­matic relations to protest the murder of innocents on European soil at the hands of Iranian assassins. This sort of outrage was something Europe could not bring itself to muster after the 2009 elections or the trashing of the British Embassy in Tehran in November 2011. Hakak­ian’s book then reveals another impor­tant truth for policymakers who wish to break the riddle of negotiations with Iran: namely, that pressure sometimes works.
If there is a flaw in Hakakian’s book, then, it is her overly-optimistic con­clusion that such gestures (short-lived as they were, since European ambassadors returned to Tehran six months later) prove that Iran can be brought to act rea­sonably without “a bomb” being “dropped over Tehran and no blood [being] shed.”
The truth, however, is more com­plicated. That Tehran stopped its cam­paign of assassinations after Mykonos is more evidence of the shocking cowardice and indifference of European govern­ments, up to that point, vis-à-vis Iran’s reckless and ruthless manhunt in the streets, squares, and cafés of Europe. Had a cover-up been possible, or had Iran’s assassins been more professional, Europe might have continued to turn the other way. Besides, at the first whiff of cosmetic change inside Iran—Moham­mad Khatami’s electoral victory in the 1997 presidential elections, and the ambiguous retraction of the fatwa levied by Khomeini against Salman Rushdie— Europeans rushed to restore relations and promote trade. The dead were soon forgotten, and Iran’s intelligence opera­tives roam European streets anew. The moral clarity made inevitable by the Mykonos trial was an exception to an otherwise smug pattern of engagement and cooperation with Iran—a pattern which, to some extent, continues even to this day.
Iran bends eventually, as it did in the Iran-Iraq war. But the price it must be made to pay is so high that there may be no courage for such action in the West. After all, the eight dead dissidents remain dead today, and as Hakakian painfully tells us in her epilogue, all the assassins eventually walked free. Still, The Assas­sins is a must-read, a reminder of Iranian evil in our time that should always be ref­erenced when Iran’s Western friends tell us the Islamic Republic isn’t so bad.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, and the author of The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Corps (FDD Press, 2011).

Source: The Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring/Summer 2012


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