It is July 13 -- the day we come together to honor the life and vision of a much-loved and respected Kurdish leader. We gather to remember Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou and commemorate the passing of this great man whose legacy does live on in the emerging Kurdistan nation -- a Kurdistan that is moving into the modern world and growing ever stronger, more determined and more prosperous.
In fact, this October, I will be attending the Second World Kurdish Congress in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. This symposium is a think-tank of Kurds from around the globe whose goal is to move forward the culture and nation Ghassemlou gave his life for.
During this 4-day event, Kurdish scientists and professionals from many nations will gather to paint a new picture for Kurdistan. Both the concept and the manifestation of this Congress would have brought great delight to Ghassemlou. For he held a clear and firm vision for his people —though his own life came to an untimely end 23 years ago.
Today I am here to speak about Ghassemlou, and in speaking about him -- to rekindle the hope and promise he held for the Kurdish nation.
How did a bright light like Ghassemlou fall prey to the actions of political miscreants in Vienna, Austria?
His assassination in Vienna left a clear trail that led to the Iranian embassy in that country.
When did it all begin? In 1980, one year after Khomeini rose to power, he created a list of 500 of Iran’s political and intellectual elite considered “enemies of Islam.” Enemies of Islam simply meant overt opposition against the regime. Many had fled abroad and the regime would hunt them down, one by one.
Thanks to the trial for the murder of Sadegh Sharafkandi and his 3 colleagues in Berlin known as the Mykonos Trial, we learned that assassinations of political dissidents within Iran and abroad were ordered directly by Khomeini. After his death, a small group of elite members, the Committee for Special Operations took over including the Supreme Leader, the president, the foreign and intelligence ministers and the head of the Revolutionary Guards. This sinister group met regularly in one of the former Shah’s residences called the Turquoise Palace.
Their plan to eliminate dissidents through terror expanded over the years, becoming part of the regime’s internal and foreign policy. A telling sign of the value that the regime gave to these operations was that once the killers returned to Iran, they were rewarded with high government positions as ministers and legislators.
These secret operations were perpetrated by the Quds Force, but they also recruited henchmen from around the world to do their dirty work.
Exiles were murdered throughout Europe. Dissidents were executed or killed in staged accidents in Paris, Vienna, Geneva, Bonn, London, Istanbul, Sulemania, Karachi, Larnaca, Manila, Bombay, Tokyo, New Jersey and Maryland.
As the assassins escaped and returned safely to Iran, Europeans were rewarded by Tehran with the release of European hostages held captive somewhere in Lebanon or any other unruly country.
No culprits were punished for the assassinations in Europe. Iranian dissidents had become dispensable to the many European governments and politicians with business interests in Iran.
Why was Ghassemlou considered such an enormous threat to the regime?
First of all, Khomeini had demanded that the Kurds choose between being Muslims following the orders of Allah (which meant the Ayatollah’s will) and their Kurdish nationalism.
Ghassemlou represented Kurdish nationalism. He was the quintessential symbol of this political persuasion. Because of the power of his vision and his personal charisma, Ghassemlou was immensely popular among millions of Kurds and non-Kurds.
In addition, persecuted Iranians found a safe haven in Kurdistan where Ghassemlou and his party protected and helped them flee. His people loved him and were ready to give their lives for the cause he championed. He was also popular abroad where he endlessly lobbied in favor of democracy for Iran and autonomy for the Kurds. Ghassemlou represented resistance and was the embodiment of hope for millions.
Throughout his ten years as the leader of the Iranian Kurds, following the 1979 Revolution, Ghassemlou sought dialogue with the authorities. War, he said, had been imposed on the Kurds who had no option but to resist and defend themselves. He firmly believed the only real solution was at the negotiation table. This resolute belief was to be his undoing.
In 1988, the war between Iran-Iraq was over and Ghassemlou believed that if the regime in Iran was willing to sit down with the arch enemy Saddam, why not with Kurds? At the same time Ghassemlou feared that both governments in Tehran and Bagdad would agree to crush the Kurdish rebellion in their respective countries, as had happened in 1975 after the Algiers Accord.
In 1988 Rafsanjani reached out to Ghassemlou through Jalal Talabani and proposed a dialogue with the PDKI. The party accepted it and Ghassemlou traveled to Vienna to meet the Iranian representatives in December 1988 and January 1989.
Little did Ghassemlou know that he was on the list of “500 enemies of Islam” and that Rafsanajni was a member of the Committee for Special Operations. According to former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani Sadr, in 1988, it was Rafsanajni who ordered the Qud’s Force to prepare teams to eliminate Ghassemlou.
Jalal Talabani organized the first set of meetings in Vienna under extreme security measures. These negotiations were supposed to continue in 1989, but the Iranians interrupted them and Talabani was deftly sidelined.
At the time, Talabani thought that the Iranians were abandoning the negotiations due to changes in the internal political situation in Iran: Khomeini’s health was declining and the fight for succession had intensified.
The Iranians sought a dispensable intermediary, who contacted Ghassemlou and invited him to meet with the Iranian delegation once more in Vienna in July, 1989. Ghassemlou accepted but did not inform the PDKI. The party had come to believe that peace negotiations with Tehran were futile.
The first meetings were meant to assuage Ghassemlou’s suspicions, making him feel confident about the negotiations. They were the bait leading to the fatal second round of meetings – without Talabani and no security.
Why did Ghassemlou agree to this meeting? He mistakenly believed that Iran, weakened by eight years of war with Iraq, sought to resolve the Kurdish problem after Khomeini’s death. He also felt that Rafsanjani, who had presented himself as a pragmatic candidate for the Iranian presidency, would be the man to take on the Kurdish issue.
Unbelievably, Ghassemlou took the bait 100%.
He was actually confident and happy following the first meeting on July 12th,. It was during the second meeting, July 13, 1989 that Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was killed along with his assistant, Abdullah Ghaderi and the intermediary.
During the shooting a stray bullet wounded one of the emissaries. Because of this stray bullet, the Iranian plot was not the perfect murder. Two of the three Iranian emissaries negotiating with Ghassemlou were taken into custody. The wounded man, Sahraroudi was taken to the hospital. The alleged bodyguard, Bouzorguian, was interrogated by the police and once released, he took refuge in the Iranian Embassy.
At the crime scene, the head of the Austrian anti-terrorism unit was overheard saying: “We’ve got dead Kurds and surviving Iranians. The matter is clear. The rest will be politics.”
During those days, a political scandal, the Noricum Prozess, which implicated high-level Austrian officials in the sale of weapons to Iran and Iraq violating Austria’s neutrality, had hit the fan.
It was because of this commercial exchange of weapons with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Austria’s fear of retaliation from the Iranian regime that this democratic European state released the witnesses and suspects of the crime. Not only did they cover up a state murder —but they blocked any investigation— thus becoming, by omission, the accomplices to a terrorist act.
On July 22, nine days later, regardless of the evidence the police had, Sahraroudi, the wounded Iranian, took an Iran Air flight back to Tehran.
Five days after, on July 27, the Austrian minister of internal affairs, pronounced himself in favor of an order of extradition of Sahraroudi. In Iran he had been received like a hero and immediately promoted. He would later become head of the Quds Forces Intelligence Directory.
Though the autopsy had been done quickly, the forensic and ballistic reports were not finished until November – five months after the crime. On the 28th, the Austrian judiciary finally issued three international warrants of arrest for the 3 Iranian emissaries who had fled the country.
In 1991 Helene Krulich, Ghassemlou’s widow, initiated a legal proceeding against the state of Austria for the murder of her husband. She said, “For us and for all the Kurdish people, the question of why Austrian justice is silent in the face of this crime is still pending.”
A year and a half later, the Austrian high court ruled that “there had been no deficiencies in the proceedings, because the respective and relevant facts had not been clear to the authorities in time.” The case was dismissed.
In 2005, the Austrian parliamentary Peter Pilz brought forth new evidence regarding the participation of the Iranian regime in the murder and allegedly implicating the then president Hashemi Rafsanjani and the newly elected president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were involved in the assassination planning.
According to this new evidence there were two Iranian teams involved in the murder – a negotiations team and an execution team. Pilz demanded the case be reopened and there be a parliamentary inquiry. The request was denied.
In 2009, Peter Pilz once again accused Ahmadinejad, according to a confession of a German arms dealer to the Italian police. This man affirmed having delivered the weapons that killed the Kurds to the Iranian Embassy in Vienna. He also said: “A certain Mahmoud who later became president had been present.”
Yet the lengths to which the Austrian government has gone to keeping a lid on the murder since 1989 have been astounding – included withdrawing the chief investigator Oswald Kessler from the front and sending him to another department where he was hidden from public perception. Kessler was convinced the Iranians had murdered the Kurds and that it was the politicians who set the guilty free. The government’s position on the murder and not supporting any future investigation was cynically displayed last year on July 12th when Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger received his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi, the eve of the 22nd anniversary of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou’s assassination in Vienna.
Has anything changed within the Islamic regime of Iran since Ghassemlou’s murder in 1989?
The Iranian regime stopped killing dissidents in Western cities due to the exposure and diplomatic pressure brought forth by the Mykonos Trial. Yet the elimination of dissidents continued in Iraq, Turkey and of course in Iran.
As long as the Iranian regime only eliminated Iranian dissidents in European cities, European governments specifically France, Germany, Austria would overlook these operations that were organized within the Iranian embassies.
The effect of this decision has had terrible repercussions not only for the “dispensable” Iranians but also for the West, as an emboldened regime spread its malignant seeds across Europe.
As Roya Hakakian writes, “Allowing these groups to grow and murder hundreds of expatriates under the oblivious Europeans, created a blueprint for the next, more ambitious generation of terror networks that would later on strike Western targets.”
The recent plans to attack Israeli and Saudi embassies within America, India, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Thailand and Kenya carry the Iranian footprint. A number of the operatives detained in these attacks “were trained in Iranian military camps and armed by its intelligence agency.”
These recent plots represent an important increase in Iran’s state sponsored terrorism carried out primarily by the Revolutionary Guards; namely the Quds Force which continues to be at the forefront of Iranian state terrorism and is a threat to international peace, security and Middle East stability. Not only are they supporting the brutal repression in Syria but continue to spread their tentacles across the continents.
In 2009, according to Wikileaks, there was a plot to assassinate Iranian dissidents in California and London. The goal of intimidating its critics abroad, especially in the West, is a chilling reminder of the regimes modus operandi from 1979-1992.
So today, we speak out in hope that Ghassemlou’s murder and that of hundreds of dissidents remind the world that, should the U.S. and Europe continue to tolerate these actions, we may once again see an emboldened regime opening up the gates for future assassinations and proxy wars.
Action still needs to be taken by the international community to open up the investigation of all the murders committed by the Iranian regime. As the Mykonos Trial in Berlin showed us, holding the regime accountable for its state sanctioned terrorism does have an effect. In the same way the international community has been imposing punishing sanctions upon the Islamic Republic of Iran for its nuclear programs, the same thing must happen with regards to Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism and the gross violation of its peoples’ rights.
Above all else, as we remember Ghassemlou and the violence that day in 1989 when he was negotiating for his people, let us keep in the forefront of our awareness, that Ghassemlou was a peacemaker. His goal was to achieve a non-violent resolution for his people – who numbered in the millions – making the violence perpetrated upon him all the more dreadful.
One day, may justice be served upon this crime.
One day, too, may Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou’s vision of self-determination and peace for his people come to pass.
Today were he alive, resolving the uncertainty and conflict his people have endured, would be his most fervent wish.