Prague, 17 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The mysterious killings of five opposition intellectuals in Iran over the last four weeks are raising fears that "death squads" may be targeting moderate proponents of greater political reform.
Yesterday, several thousands people attended the funeral of writer and poet Mohammad Mokhtari. He had been kidnapped and then found dead in Tehran last week with what relatives say were signs of having been strangled.
Attending the funeral were the relatives of another intellectual, writer and translator Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, who had been found dead on Sunday. His family says he, too, was strangled to death after being abducted.
These deaths followed shortly after those of Javad Sharif, a kidnapped dissident found dead of a heart attack, and Dariush Foruhar, a veteran secular politician and human rights activist, found stabbed to death along with his wife.
Maryam Mokhtari, the wife of slain poet Mohammad Mokhtari, told RFE/RL's Persian Service this week that the killings have shocked Tehran intellectuals, who fear they may also be targeted in an apparent wave of terror.
"All of our people are asking why this happened, because it has not been like this before. Everybody is asking why should these killings happen. And why have the killers not yet been found and identified, when in other cases they are found very fast? It is very interesting for us that people are asking these questions, because Mohammad (Mokhtari) himself only wanted to hear people asking such questions."
And there are signs that abductions continue. Another politically moderate writer, Piruz Davani, is said to be missing. There are fears that he may be dead. Already many other writers are reported to have gone into hiding.
The killings have put reformist President Mohammad Khatami under pressure to protect dissidents who criticize the regime. Khatami has advocated a more open society in Iran.
About 50 Iranian writers appealed to Khatami this week to ensure their safety, saying in an open letter published in newspapers that "the murders are proof of unbridled violence which is out to eradicate freedom."
Iranian officials, from Khatami to conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have called the murders a threat to the public order. Yesterday, the judiciary announced it had made initial arrests and more would follow.
But even as security agencies pursue the case, strong disagreements have surfaced between conservative and moderate officials over where to look for the culprits.
A statement by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is controlled by Khatami loyalists, suggested last week that the killers come from domestic groups trying to undermine the liberalization underway in Iran since the president took office in 1997. Khatami himself was reported to have said that the killings were prompted by "enemy plots."
But the conservative-led judiciary said the killings were organized by foreign elements. It is an opinion supported by Khamenei, who this week said "world arrogance," political shorthand for Washington, "directly or indirectly commits crimes like the recent murders." As the two ends of Iran's political spectrum square off with opposing theories for the murderers' motives, many analysts say the larger aim of the killings may have been to weaken the president by fanning just such a confrontation.
Khatami was elected in a landslide in May 1997 on promises of greater individual freedom and political openness. But during the past year, conservatives have pushed back with efforts to defend their own more rigid interpretation of Iran's theocracy.
In September, Iran's revolutionary court jailed four senior journalists and closed a leading newspaper, Tous, for allegedly questioning the authority of the supreme leader. Earlier, conservatives successfully removed a key Khatami ally, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, from his post as mayor of Tehran.
One of Khatami's supporters, Deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Tajzadeh, recently described the danger the killings pose to the reformers' hopes in stark terms in an interview with the Iranian newspaper Zan.
He told the paper that, in his words, "anarchy will make society thirsty for security, and people will pay any price to get that security, even if they lose their legitimate rights and freedom."