Fall-out from a secret war

Trial backlash: Killers 'not acting on specific orders but as part of long conflict against Kurds'

The hit-team whose Berlin murder trial has caused a diplomatic rupture between Europe and Iran were acting under a "green light" from an Iranian Revolutionary Guard intelligence committee which decided more than 10 years ago that all members of armed groups opposed to the Iranian regime must be "neutralised". There was, according to a man closely associated with the thinking of the Iranian state on such matters, no personal decision taken by individual members of the Iranian leadership, as the judges in the Berlin trial suggested.

European ambassadors are being withdrawn from Tehran - and Bonn and Tehran have each expelled four diplomats - after judges at the trial of an Iranian and three Lebanese found guilty of murdering four Kurdish opposition figures in 1992 blamed Iran's leadership for ordering the deaths. "It's a misunderstanding of how these things happen," the very well-connected source told the Independent in Beirut yesterday. "These liquidations are not carried out on the specific orders of President Rafsanjani or the spiritual guide Ali Khamenei - there are long-standing orders to neutralise all armed opposition wherever it is, even in Europe. They come from the Pasdar (Revolutionary Guard) committee and they are not going to change, whatever Europe does."

The Iranians regard their war with the Kurds as an undercover campaign in which dozens of deaths go unrecorded by both sides. "I was in Oroumieh (in Iranian Kurdistan) and my Iranian guide told me we could go no further because six Pasdars had been murdered by armed Kurds the previous week," the man told me. "I said I hadn't heard this news. He said that five or six Iranian Pasdars were killed every week or so, maybe a hundred in a year - the Kurds come across from Iraq. It's a secret war, you see - the Iranians don't give their own casualty figures for security reasons."

As for the Iranian leadership, the source said, they would hear news of assassinations and "make inquiries as to what had been happening and they would be told why such-and-such an event took place. These liquidations will carry on - they don't care. Their most important aim is the security of the regime. Maybe methods will change but the regime's security will always come first and that means killing opponents who use violence."

In the early days of the Islamic Republic, the regime's enemies might be targeted by individuals who sought the leadership's support for their actions. This was the case in the first assassination attempt against the Shah's last prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar. The idea to kill him in Paris was first suggested by a pro-Iranian Lebanese and it now transpires that Ayatollah Khomeini himself expressed scepticism as to whether the assassins could be successful. Assured that they could - although they subsequently failed in their attempt - Khomeini did personally agree to let the hit-team try to kill Bakhtiar. No such decisions were any longer taken by the leadership.

The man closely associated with Iran in these matters was deeply cynical about Europe's reaction to the Berlin murders. "What about Greenpeace when the French sunk the ship in New Zealand and killed a man?" he asked. "Was that a 'green light' from the French defence ministry or the Elysee? What about the Israeli assassination of Ali Ayash, the Hamas activist (and bomber) by the Israeli intelligence last year? Did the green light to murder him come from Israeli intelligence or from (then prime minister) Shimon Peres? It must have come from Peres - but you didn't debate that. What we do is to neutralise our armed enemies. The Israelis were neutralising their armed enemies."

In northern Lebanon, a mysterious murder in Tripoli has still not been forgotten by those involved in the ruthless intelligence war. Anxious to kill a Lebanese close to the pro-Iranian Hizbollah called Hassan Moussawi, the source claims that a French DGSE (intelligence) team - anxious to eliminate those who were killing French troops of the multinational force in Beirut in the early 1980s - was sent to kill Moussawi as he lay in a hospital bed in Tripoli. Hassan Moussawi was indeed assassinated - but he was a peasant who happened to have the same name as the Hizbollah associate, who is still alive today. Those close to Iran believe that Moussawi's murder was sanctioned by the Elysee Palace.

"This diplomatic crisis will last three or four months," the source said, reflecting an Iranian view of the affair which will change if Europe decides to isolate Iran to the degree President Bill Clinton has been demanding. "Maybe the Iranians will think about the fact that Europe is showing that it all stands together. But I don't think it means anything in the long term. It will blow over. In the end, the regime's security remains first and foremost. The CIA openly states that it has $20m to destabilise Iran and Iraq - and it supports the armed Kurds who want to destroy the Tehran regime. So why shouldn't Iran fight back?"

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