Prague, 24 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The political fallout in Tehran over the murders of four liberal dissidents last year has taken a surprising turn, as parliament has approved a hard-liner to head the country's intelligence services.
Iranian media report that the conservative-dominated parliament yesterday overwhelmingly approved Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi to take over the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) after the ministry made a shock admission last month that its own "rogue agents" murdered the four intellectuals.
The assassinations targeted nationalist dissident Dariush Foruhar and his wife, as well as the poet Mohammad Mokhtari and writer-translator Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh.
The intelligence ministry's admission led to the resignation earlier this month of its former head -- Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi -- after weeks of mounting pressure from supporters of Iran's moderate President Mohammad Khatami.
But in an ironic twist to events, the incoming intelligence minister probably will be far more hard-line toward reformists and dissidents than the man he replaces.
Therefore, the demands of moderate Iranians that the intelligence ministry carry out a general house-cleaning of radical conservative officials may now be stymied. The change of leaders at the intelligence ministry may be a sign the parliament has decided that the moderate backlash over the killings has gone far enough and that conservatives now are determined to reassert their strong control over the security arena.
Moderate parliamentary deputy Seyyed Ahmad Rasuli-Nejad last week told the Tehran Times (one of Iran's official English-language newspapers) that the outgoing intelligence chief was being used as a scapegoat and that there will be no changes in the MOIS because the old cadre is still there.
Iran's daily Khordad -- a voice for moderates -- also wrote in an editorial early this month that the departure of the head of the intelligence services is not enough, saying that what is needed is a thorough purge of the ministry.
The naming of the 43-year-old Yunesi to head the MOIS comes as the investigation into the killing of the dissidents has slowed in recent weeks after getting off to an initially strong start. Immediately after the murders, Khatami set up a special commission of inquiry to find the suspects, and Tehran's military prosecutor vowed the case would be tried in public.
Since then, the authorities have announced the arrest of 10 suspects, but their names were never released and some have since been reported to have been freed.
The uneven progress of the investigation continued this week as military prosecutor Mohammad Niazi said four more suspects have been arrested with assistance from Turkish authorities. He did not say whether they were members of the intelligence services. Iran's official news agency IRNA reported that Ankara had handed over the suspects after they fled to Turkey on false visas.
Iran's moderate and conservative camps are deeply divided over the dissidents' killings in November and December, which many observers have said recall the brutal political assassinations of the Islamic Republic's formative years in the early 1980s. Foruhar and his wife were stabbed to death at home, and the two writers were kidnapped and strangled. A fifth dissident, Javad Sharif, was also kidnapped at the end of the year and found dead of an apparent heart attack.
Moderates fear that the killers belong to radical domestic factions trying to undermine the liberalization under way in Iran since Khatami was elected in 1997 on a promise of greater political freedom. But conservative leaders have said that the killings were organized by foreign elements.
Dori-Najafabadi was welcomed as a relatively liberal and pragmatic cleric when Khatami selected him to head the intelligence services in August 1997. He had previously been a deputy in parliament and was backed in his legislative race a year earlier by the same party which later supported Khatami's election bid.
The outgoing intelligence minister is the first member of Khatami's cabinet to resign. He told Iranian media that he was stepping down because the murders had -- in his words -- provoked Iran's internal and external enemies to attack the MOIS and its devoted and hard-working personnel.
The incoming intelligence chief comes from a much harder-line background. Yunesi underwent training in terrorism at Palestinian and Lebanese camps prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Afterwards, he held a number of judiciary positions and worked in military intelligence. Most recently, he headed Khatami's special commission of inquiry into the assassinations of the four dissidents.
Khatami is said to have been reluctant to move Yunesi up to the top intelligence services' position. The Iranian daily Arya quoted a moderate parliamentarian as saying last week that the president agreed to nominate Yunesi only if he would replace some lower-ranking members of the MOIS.
One other thing is significant about the new head of the intelligence services. He is a protege of one of Khatami's leading conservative rivals -- Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri -- who came in a distant third in the presidential race in 1997.
Yunesi's appointment puts Reyshahri back in indirect control of the ministry, which he has strongly influenced since its inception in 1979. The Islamic Republic's first intelligence minister -- Ali-Akbar Fallahian -- was also a Reyshahri protege, and Reyshahri himself later served as the ministry's head. The only intelligence minister not associated with Reyshahri is the outgoing Dori-Najafabadi.
The Yunesi appointment may now mark the ascendancy of Reyshahri as a newly strengthened challenger to Khatami in the president's ongoing battle with conservatives to achieve a more open society. Khatami was elected in a landslide in May 1997 on that promise, but ever since conservatives have repeatedly struck back with efforts to defend their own more rigid interpretation of Iran's theocracy.