The Iranians know how to do these things.
Dr Masoud Ali Mohamedi's car is a shocking sight, its twisted Tehran registration plate – 53Y392 – still attached but the bodywork laced with shrapnel holes, punched through with steel, the driver's seat tossed over. Dr Mohamedi was one of Iran's most prestigious nuclear scientists when a motorcycle exploded beside his car as he left home for Tehran University.
Iran inevitably blamed Mossad; the Israelis predictably denied all responsibility. No proof ever emerged that Mohamedi worked on Iran's nuclear projects although he must have known he was a target. Only months earlier, his colleague Dr Majid Shahriari met a similar fate. And there was Mohamedi's shredded Peugeot this week, at the entrance to the Islamic Conference centre, providing a special "welcome" for delegates from 60 nations to the "anti-terrorism" get-together in Tehran.
Above the hall, there floated in the sulphurous air a white balloon with the logo "A World Without Terrorism". Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. The all-purpose hate-word was being used by the Ahmadinejads and the Muslim leaders at the podium with Bush-like frequency, the pledges to join the "global fight against terror" an echo chamber of Hillary Clinton's tirades.
Of course, this was not quite the same "terror" which the Bushes and the Obamas and the Clintons rage about. Resistance against oppression, a foundation of the Islamic revolution in Iran, was not "terror". State "terror" was. And, I suppose, uncontrolled (Sunni) "terror" of the Osama bin Laden variety. True, there were pictures of the burning World Trade Centre, but Israel inevitably came up trumps in the "terror" stakes, though not as frequently – and here's the rub – as the Mojahedin-e Qalq.
This cultish group waged war against the Shah, achieved considerable support in the immediate post-revolutionary Iran and then, deprived of any participation in its first elections, turned with venom on Ayatollah Ruhollah's Islamic Republic. The Iranian authorities, who, of course, have never – ever – practiced anything as sordid as "terrorism" (a great drawing-in of breath by your correspondent here), attribute 17,159 innocent deaths to their enemies; around 12,000 of these are blamed on the Mojahedin, the rest on assorted communist, leftist and royalist groups.
And 17,159 fatalities come to more than five times the total dead of the World Trade Centre attacks, as the various victims' groups point out to every foreigner who examines the gruesome exhibition at the back of the Islamic Conference Hall. The pulverised faces of the dead, the amputated legs and headless torsos – a speciality picture display first created after the 1979 revolution, and then developed into a fine art during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war – have become a kind of ghastly art form. The lists and photographs resemble a kind of pictorial mortuary, a vast volume, the pages turned each day like a Biblical text or a bloody Book of Kells, to reveal a three-year-old child torn to pieces by a car bomb.
But this room of death has a political message. In their heyday, the Mojahedin would go for the jugular, blowing up the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party in 1981, killing more than 70 of Khomeini's most faithful adherents, including his justice minister Ayatollah Mohamed Beheshti. The face of Saddam Hussein glowers down on us, shaking hands with the Mojahedin's leader, Masoud Rajavi, after he agreed to fight alongside Iraq against his own countrymen in the 1980-88 war.
Masoud's wife Maryam – for the Mojahedin, they are a kind of divine duo even though ordinary members were instructed to divorce their wives to ensure the "purity" of the organisation – stares from other photographs. We know she is still alive. Masoud Rajavi has not been seen since the Americans and Brits stormed into Iraq in 2003 and unwisely gave the Mojahedin prisoner-of-war status in their largest Iraqi barracks at Camp Ashraf, even though the US government was to put them on their "terrorist list".
A sign of just how much the Iranian government wants to nail the remnants of the Mojahedin comes when officials at the Islamic Conference hand me copies of a 2009 Rand Corporation report on the Mojahedin-e Qalq – the US Rand institution is, after all, hardly a handmaiden of the Islamic Republic – which lists its sins, its cult-like status and the American desire to wash their hands of the whole political mess by handing Ashraf over to the Iraq authorities. This they did a few months ago, Iraqi troops entering the camp and killing 27 inmates in the process. The Iraqis claimed that many of these men and women in fact committed suicide.
"Terrorists" they may be by America's and Iran's own definition – and there's a strange moral alliance – yet within hours of arriving in Tehran last week, I took lunch with a man who assassinated one of the Islamic Republic's principal opponents and chatted on the phone to another whose hit-team killed two innocent French citizens in a failed attempt to blow away another enemy of the revolution. Long ago, I interviewed them about these events. Yet today – after Abu Ghraib, after Haditha, after Guantanamo and the "black" prison of Bagram and rendition and the massacres of Palestinians and Lebanese – the initial reaction to my luncheon companion's murder (for that is what it was) begins to pale.
It's not that the Islamic Republic has any reason to seize the moral high ground. Its vicious execution of Mojahedin prisoners and thousands of other opponents of the regime, men and women, in 1988, hanged like thrushes on mass gallows on the orders of Khomeini, remains a grotesque bloodstain on the whole necrocracy that Iran had become. But Mohamedi's vehicle looks like any other "terrorism" victim's death car, and the 17,159 Iranian men, women and children remain part of the "martyrdom" portfolio of what may soon be a regional nuclear superpower.