Published in The Middle East Journal, spring issue 2011, pp. 337-38
The Passion and Death of Rahman the Kurd: Dreaming Kurdistan, by Carol Prunhuber
New York and Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, Inc., 2009.
Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter
On July 13, 1989, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou —the urbane, preeminent Iranian Kurdish
leader since the execution of Qazi Mohammed, the president of the Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan in Iran in 1947 — was assassinated by Iranian agents in Vienna, Austria while negotiating with them. More than 20 years later, we still do not know for sure who these Iranian agents were, why the Austrian authorities failed to follow up on the case, and how it was possible for such an intelligent and experienced person as Ghassemlou to be so naively led to his death.
Carol Prunhuber —a Venezuelan journalist who knew Ghassemlou well and spent some time with his Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) guerrillas in the Kurdish mountains —has written a fast-paced, stirring account of what we do know and suspect. Her investigative journalism is largely based on interviews with numerous knowledgeable figures, including the famous Iraqi Kurdish leader and current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, and the former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani Sadr, among numerous others. She also uses as sources police reports, reputed tapes of Ghassemlou’s fatal meeting with the Iranians, and various books and articles.
“Kak Doctor” (p. 14) —as he was affectionately known to his close associates— was born in Urmia, Iran in 1930, the same year that Ismail Agha Simko, a famous earlier Iranian Kurdish leader, was also assassinated by the Iranian authorities under false pretensions of negotiation, an event Ghassemlou frequently mentioned. Ghassemlou earned a PhD in economics and political science from the university in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1962, taught at two different universities, and later published his doctoral dissertation as Kurdistan and the Kurds (1965). He “spoke eight languages with ease” (p. xxv), lived for many years in France and Czechoslovakia, but also spent several years fighting against Iranian forces in the mountains during the early 1980s. Revealingly, Ghassemlou once vouched that “there is nothing harder than organizing the Kurds” (p. 45).
Ghassemlou knew Saddam Husayn and once even acted as a mediator between him and
Jalal Talabani. Ghassemlou was allowed to come and go through Baghdad, which “revealed his secret relations with the Iraqi regime” (p. 90). No wonder the Iranians
“believed that Ghassemlou was a foreign agent” (p. 80). On the other hand, Ghassemlou
also met twice with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first time in March 1979 when Ghassemlou was not even searched and “it would have been very easy to kill him [Ghassemlou]” (p. 62).
“Ghassemlou’s murder [on July 13, 1989] was the culmination of a long hunt for the Kurdish leader by the Islamic Republic” (p. 217). Indeed, “Khomeini had condemned
… Ghassemlou to death ten years before” (p. 33). Ironically, Jalal Talabani, a longtime friend of Ghassemlou, had participated in some of the first round of negotiations several months earlier. For this earlier round the Kurds had taken better precautions, making sure that things were “under our control and mediation” (p. 219), as Talabani later explained. “I had a gun and so did Ghassemlou … We did not tell the Iranians where the meetings would be held” (p. 219). However, the Iranians were able to omit Talabani from the final fatal meeting by falsely blaming his party for leaks which they themselves purposely had committed in order to isolate Ghassemlou.
Years later, Peter Pilz, an Austrian MP, learned indirectly from exiled former Iranian president Bani Sadr that the current Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad supposedly
had been involved in Ghassemlou’s assassination by being “responsible for picking up the weapons from the Iranian embassy [in Vienna] and passing them to [the two actual assassins] Taghepour and Asgari” (p. 286). Ahmadinejad also reportedly headed the second assassination team which “would have moved into action … if the first team had not succeeded” (p. 286). Hadji Mostafawi, one of the Iranians negotiating with Ghassemlou, “opened the [apartment] door [for the two assassins]. Ghassemlou had no time to react” (p. 286). Mostafawi disappeared after the crime, leaving no trace. Mohamed Jafari Sahrarudi, another Iranian supposedly negotiating with Ghassemlou, was accidentally wounded during the shooting, detained by the police, but then released by the “pusillanimous Austrian government” (p. xxiii).
Three years later, the Iranians also assassinated Sadegh Sharafkandi, Ghassemlou’s successor, at the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin. This time, however, a German court convicted the four assassins and “also implicated Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani” (p. 278) as well as “Ali Fallahian, the head of the Iranian intelligence agency, for ordering the [Sharafkandi] assassination” (p. xxiii).
Why had Ghassemlou been so naïve as to enter the death trap set for him by the Iranians? According to Helene Krulich, his former wife with whom he was still close, Ghassemlou “was convinced that … the Iranian government would not dare to harm him. He was certain that the government needed an agreement with him and the Kurds” (p. 207). “He was convinced that the death of Khomeini [a month earlier] had weakened the regime” (p.
7). Jalal Talabani stated that Ghassemlou fell into the trap because “he was still anxious to
seal an agreement with Tehran before Iran and Iraq made a final deal … and there … [would] be no concession from either side” (p. 221). Carol Prunhuber speculates that “he badly needed a triumph after so many years of fighting and adversity” (p. 11).
Although there are several million more Kurds living in Iran than in Iraq, the former are
much less known to scholars and others. This alone would make Prunhuber’s study useful. In addition, despite her narrative being light on its broader analysis of the Iranian
Kurds, it is important for its details about Ghassemlou and how they illustrate the
methods used by Iran in its handling of the Kurds. While the book lacks a needed index,
it does contain detailed notes, a bibliography, photographs, and four appendices, including
a useful chronology of events in Ghassemlou’s life, another chronology of historical events, a list of dramatis personae, and further testimony from Bani Sadr. To this English-reading reviewer, a less sentimental sounding title for the book might have been simply “The Life and Death of the Iranian Kurdish Leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou: Iran’s Role Exposed.”
Michael M. Gunter, Professor of Political Science at Tennessee Technological University and The International University in Vienna, Austria, is the author of Historical Dictionary of the Kurds, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011).