The Consortium

Iran's Ex-President Blows the Whistle

By Martin Kilian

His word didn't mean a thing to the U.S. investigators examining the so-called October Surprise case four years ago. But in Germany, Iran's ex-president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr has become a hot witness in a politically super-charged criminal case that implicates Tehran's intelligence chief Ali Fallahyan.

A court in Berlin indicted Fallahyan for his role in the murder of four Kurdish opposition figures at a Berlin discotheque in September 1992. The German government alleges that the four Kurds were gunned down by Fallahyan's agents, the ones actually facing the charges since Tehran has refused to extradite Fallahyan.

In late August of this year, Bani-Sadr appeared as a witness and stated that Iranian President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani and Iran's "spiritual leader" Ali Khameini were also involved in the plot. Bani-Sadr testified that both signed off on the murders, an accusation that outraged Tehran.

Iran's Islamic government tried until the last minute to block Bani-Sadr's testimony. Tehran even demanded that the Germans extradite the ex-president back to Iran for the hijacking of an Iranian military plane that Bani-Sadr used to flee into exile in 1981. The Germans refused to comply with that demand, but German officials also fear that the public confrontation over the Kurdish assassinations could damage the lucrative Iran-Germany relationship.

To soften the blow to Iran, German officials publicly cast doubt on Bani-Sadr's knowledge about the assassination plot. The officials noted that Bani-Sadr's high-level contacts in Tehran had long ago dried up. The former president just had an axe to grind and sought revenge, some German officials said.

But German investigators were not willing to dismiss Bani-Sadr's assertions. The investigators were convinced that Bani-Sadr maintained very good contacts within Iran to a variety of opposition figures as well as to disgruntled government employees and well-connected intellectuals. Bani-Sadr defenders noted that the ex-president apparently was tipped off weeks before the Kurdish assassinations in Berlin, because he warned the Kurdish Democratic Party that Fallahyan's agents were poised to strike. But his warning went unheeded.

In a similar case earlier this year, Bani-Sadr learned that Tehran's operatives planned to murder exiled Iranian businessman Resa Masluman in Paris. Friends warned Masluman, but he was assassinated nonetheless on May 28 in his Paris apartment.

U.S. Skepticism

But the official German skepticism to Bani-Sadr's testimony is not the first time the scholarly Iranian leader with the thin mustache has found his information met with disbelief from Western officials. In 1992, Bani-Sadr volunteered testimony to a U.S. House task force examining allegations that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign gained political advantage by disrupting President Carter's Iran hostage talks.

Bani-Sadr, who was Iran's president in 1980, said Republican emissaries secretly contacted radical Iranian mullahs behind Carter's back and sabotaged the president's negotiations to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran. In that "October Surprise" case, however, Bani-Sadr insisted that he had direct evidence because of his role as the constitutional head of the Iranian state.

In a Dec. 17, 1992, letter to the House task force, Bani-Sadr said he first learned of the Republican "secret deal" with the radical mullahs in July 1980. Reza Passendideh, the nephew of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had attended a July 2 meeting in Madrid, Spain, ostensibly with two emissaries representing the Carter administration: former Nixon administration official Stanley Pottinger and exiled Iranian banker Cyrus Hashemi.

But Bani-Sadr wrote that Passendideh returned from that meeting with an arms-for-hostage proposal from the Reagan campaign, not from the Carter administration. "He told me that he met with Reagan representatives and the proposal he gave me was from Reagan camp," Bani-Sadr stated in the letter. "He insisted that if I disclose that he was the intermediary of Reagan camp's proposal about hostages, his life would be in danger. ...

"Passendideh told me that if I do not accept this proposal, they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my rivals. He further said that they have enormous influence in the CIA and they are of the opinion that you will not come to terms with them. Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination."

Khomeini-Reagan Deal?

Bani-Sadr told the House task force that he resisted the Republican threats and continued to favor an immediate release of the American hostages. But the ex-president said Khomeini was playing both sides of the street in the U.S. elections, seeking the best deal for Iran.

"The truth is that Passendideh was authorized by Khomeini to negotiate with Reagan group," Bani-Sadr wrote. "It must have been upon Khomeini's instruction that Passendideh came to see me to both enroll me in the deal, and to threaten me if I did not accept. And if I had not strongly objected, the deal with Reagan group would have been made as soon as possible."

Bani-Sadr added that Khomeini considered these contacts with the Reagan campaign one of Iran's most sensitive secrets. "Since the hostage problem started <[>in November 1979], the only secret that Khomeini objected to be revealed was this secret meeting with the Reagan group," Bani-Sadr wrote. "The first time I threatened to tell the public the truth was right after my meeting with Passendideh."

The dispute sharpened the power struggle between the more moderate Bani-Sadr and the radical mullahs, as the mullahs sought to impose their hand-picked candidates at the Central Bank and as prime minister, Bani-Sadr recalled. In response, "I decided to expose the Secret Deal with Republicans in a public speech," Bani-Sadr claimed. "I wrote in the Column <[>Bani-Sadr's daily report to the public], 'If these efforts continue, I would have no choice but ... to tell the public what must be said and ask them to tell me what to do'."

But Khomeini dispatched his son, Ahmad, to ask Bani-Sadr "to hold on for a while," an entreaty that prompted another entry in the Column on July 18, 1980. "I was going to describe the facts for people," Bani-Sadr wrote cryptically then. "But just before the meeting, Mr. Ahmad Khomeini talked with me and we decided that these problems may be resolved in some other ways."

Through summer 1980, "Khomeini kept on promising to do something about it on the one hand, and at the same time kept on breaking those promises," Bani-Sadr continued in his letter to the task force. "On Sept. 8, 1980, I invited the people of Tehran to gather in the Martyrs Square so that I can tell them the truth. Khomeini insisted that I must not do so at this time. ...

"Two days later, again, I decided to expose everything. Ahmad Khomeini ... came to see me and told me, 'Imam [Khomeini] absolutely promises. [And] after this meeting, Khomeini authorized Sadegh Tabatabai to contact the Carter administration through the German foreign minister."

A Second Channel

In September 1980, Tabatabai did meet with Carter's emissaries in West Germany and the talks quickly led to a tentative agreement for the release of the 52 American hostages. But the Tabatabai plan was derailed by radical mullahs in the Iranian parliament who boycotted sessions to prevent a quorum that was needed for a vote to approve the hostages' release. They remained in Iranian custody until Ronald Reagan completed his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1981.

Despite Bani-Sadr's detailed account, the House task force dismissed his conclusion about a Republican-Iranian deal as mere speculation reached "by a circuitous route." Without including any of the direct information that Bani-Sadr relayed in his letter, the task force stated that Bani-Sadr's thinking was based on "the fact that Tabatabai replaced Passendideh as Khomeini's emissary [which supposedly] proved that Passendideh's earlier Madrid contacts with the Americans must have been with Reagan surrogates."

The report then concluded that "Bani-Sadr's analysis demonstrates how some Iranians may have mistakenly misled themselves to believe that Khomeini representatives met with Reagan campaign officials." Having brushed off Bani-Sadr's letter, the task force could stick to its findings that there was "no credible evidence" to support allegations of a Republican-Iranian deal.

In Germany, however, Bani-Sadr's credibility is not so easily dismissed these days.

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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