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Iran: Arrests In Dissident Killings Leave Questions

Prague, 7 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian moderates yesterday welcomed the intelligence ministry's arrest of several of its agents in the killings of dissident intellectuals but say the question of who ordered the assassinations remains open.

The intelligence ministry announced (Jan. 5) that rogue elements in the security services killed five writers and opposition figures in Iran in November and December, including veteran secular politician Dariush Foruhar and his wife.

The ministry said the arrested agents had acted without orders and called the killings "treason" that had dealt "a serious blow" to Iran's system of government. It also said the rogue agents had been working for unspecified "foreign interests."

The killings have shocked intellectuals in Tehran who feared they were being targeted in a wave of terror. They also sharpened tensions between moderates seeking more political liberty under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and conservatives defending their own strict interpretation of Iran's theocracy.

Mina Baharmast of RFE/RL's Persian Service says moderates in Iran are calling the arrests a victory for their side. But they are skeptical of whether the judiciary will push the investigation far enough to identify who ordered the as-yet-unidentified agents to carry out the killings.

"The moderates and the pro-Khatami papers and the reformers are regarding this announcement as a victory for Mr. Khatami, and they say that it shows that Mr. Khatami is committed to his promises of upholding the rule of law in Iran. ... But there are still some questions to be answered as the intelligence ministry has announced that some of its people have been involved in the killings but it seems that there is no willingness to go behind these people and really to find out (whether they were) acting independently or were ordered by the top officials in the intelligence ministry."

Baharmast says one indication the intelligence ministry may be pursuing the case reluctantly is that its announcement yesterday came only after moderate newspapers had already broken news of the agents' arrests.

"(The moderate) Salaam paper yesterday morning had an article which said very openly and directly that (it had) information that these killings have been by the security forces and I think that after this declaration the intelligence ministry really had no choice but to come out with (its own) declaration."

As Iran now moves toward a trial of the suspected killers, the case confronts Khatami with a major challenge. He now faces the problem of addressing the moderates' demands to push the investigation further without risking a conservative counter-attack that could endanger the more open society he advocates.

Baharmast says:

"Up to this moment the conservatives... have condemned the killings and even (conservative parliamentary speaker) Mr. Nateq-Noori today praised the intelligence services for the work they have done and said the persons who committed the murders must be brought to justice.... Now (everything) depends really on how Mr. Khatami is going to play this. Mr. Khatami's supporters are from the left to the center, and the left-wing supporters will want him to push further and to reform the intelligence ministry and they are now calling for the resignation of the intelligence minister."

But Baharmast noted that Khatami, in his reaction today, praised the intelligence service for their work. She said he is "trying very hard to prevent the division from getting worse. She says that the president "does not have control of the security forces or the judiciary and many people believe that if he pushes very hard and goes too far there would be a danger of a backlash from the conservatives."