Ahmadinejad and a Murder in Vienna: An Interview with 'Witness D'
Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007
On July 13, 1989, a frantic getaway is taking place out front of an apartment house at 5 Linke Bahngasse in Vienna. In an article for the Austrian weekly Profil, the journalists Sibylle Hamann und Martin Staudinger reconstruct the scene:
A secret agent has been shot and he is dragged by two other men between two parked cars. He is bleeding from multiple wounds. A man on a motorcycle pulls up beside them. All four are members of an Iranian terror commando unit that has left behind a bloodbath in a two-room apartment on the fourth floor of the building and is now making its get-away. After a brief exchange of words, the man on the motorcycle steps on the gas, speeding away with one of the perpetrators.
Three men lie dead in the apartment: Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, leader of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), and his two associates Abdullah Ghaderi Azar and Fadhil Rassoul. The three had been lured into an ambush under the pretense of conducting negotiations with representatives of the Iranian government.
Some 16 years later in summer 2005, one "witness D," an Iranian journalist in exile in France, would charge that the man on the motorcycle that day was none other than current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Are the accusations credible or were they merely part of a smear campaign to discredit the Iranian leadership? Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza Assefi dismissed the allegations at the time as "ridiculous and unfounded," suggesting that they were the work of "Zionist circles."
In September 1992, three years after the murder of Ghassemlou and his associates in Vienna, four further members of the Iranian Kurdish opposition, including Ghassemlou's successor as PDKI chair, were shot dead at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. Referring to German investigations into the so-called "Mykonos killings," Profil reporters Hamann and Staudinger note that one thing, at any rate, is certain:
. . . since the 1979 Revolution, there have been numerous assassinations of opponents of the Iranian regime and Tehran must be behind them. According to the German Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BKA), 33 renegades have met violent deaths in Europe. During the 1997 "Mykonos trial," the German judiciary threw light upon the obscure chain of command involved in the commando actions. A "Witness C" (like "Witness D," an Iranian refugee with contacts to the organs of state power in Iran) testified about a fastidious system, according to which victims were selected, located and liquidated. According to C's testimony, each death sentence was set out in written form and the orders were issued in code. Undercover agents ascertained the situation in the target area and dispatched lists of requests for the weapons and vehicles needed. The logistics were handled by the Iranian Embassy in each of the countries in question. "Organized crime of the most developed sort," the BKA called it.
In July 2005, Profil journalist Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof spoke with witness D by telephone. World Politics Review here presents this interview for the first time in English.
The Iranian journalist D is standing in a telephone booth someplace in France when Profil calls. D has recently fled Iran and he does not want to give away his identity. He is scared. Shortly before dying under mysterious circumstances, an officer of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, or Pasdaran, by the name of Nasser Taghipoor made an explosive revelation to him: Taghipoor is supposed to have admitted that he was himself a member of the terror commando unit that in July 1989 shot to death the Iranian Kurdish leader, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, and two other Kurds in Vienna. The recently elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Taghipoor is supposed to have told D, was also a member of the commando unit. On May 20 , the Green member of the Austrian parliament, Peter Pilz, had a long talk with D. At this point, Ahmadinejad was already a candidate for the Iranian Presidency, but he hardly figured among the favorites. His name, according to Pilz, turned up "only on the margins" of the conversation. How credible is D? How plausible are his claims? This is what Profil wanted to find out in speaking with him.
Profil: How did it come to pass that Nasser Taghipoor spoke to you about the hit-team's action in Vienna?
D: I knew Taghipoor since the mid-1990s. He was a friend of the family. He followed my career: where I studied, how I became a journalist. We were genuinely close. We met casually once or twice a month and discussed all sorts of current subjects.
Profil: Did you discuss controversial topics?
D: For a very long time, Taghipoor was loyal to the government. We often had disagreements. He was very active in the Revolutionary Guard, the Pasdaran, from the time of their founding. The values that led to the Revolution were extremely important for him.
Profil: What was Taghipoor's position?
D: When the Pasdaran were founded, they did not yet have any definite organizational structure. They came into being in the revolution against the Shah. The people took up arms. At the beginning, there was no such thing as a career as an officer. When the organization was formalized, he became a colonel and he was active in the Al-Quds unit, which was responsible for obtaining and securing intelligence and other activities.
Profil: What was his rank when he related to you the story about the murder of the Kurds?
D: He was a Sardar. That is an Islamic rank: something like a general.
Profil: Did he have contact with the country's political leadership?
D: He was a good friend of the son of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Profil: What was the son's name?
D: Jazer Rafsanjani.
Profil: What was his position?
D: He did not have any particular rank. He worked in his father's office when the latter was president.
Profil: When did Taghipoor tell you about the murder in Vienna?
D: In 1380 by the Iranian calendar -- so, about three and a half years ago.
Profil: Why do you think he told specifically you, rather than someone else, about it?
D: I asked him precisely this question at the time and he gave me two reasons: "Firstly, since I know you from childhood. I trust you. Secondly, because you are a journalist. If the information should ever be published, you will know when and where, since you know the field."
Profil: Where did the conversation take place and under what circumstances?
D: I lived near his place of work. He called me. He wanted to speak to me. I asked him if I should come directly to his office. He said no, that I should come instead to his parents' house. So, it was there that we met, after 10 p.m. At first, he talked about all sorts of subjects for over an hour. I noticed that he was somewhat tense. Then I asked him what he wanted to tell me: He surely did not invite me over just to have a chat. That's right, he said, he wanted to make a sort of deposition to me: "I'm expecting an assignment and I'll have to go on a trip. If I come back, then you have to promise to forget everything that you are going to hear. But if anything happens to me, then you may publish the information." And then he said: "If you do what I tell you, then you'll have no problems."
Next Page: Why did he tell you the story about the murder?
Profil: And then he told you the story about the murder. Why? Did he want to hurt somebody? Did he want to get it off his chest?
D: I didn't know myself why he told me. It was only later that I understood what he was aiming at. I think he had come to the conclusion that the regime was instrumentalizing the Pasdaran and the Al-Quds special unit for which he was responsible. He felt somehow that he had been fooled.
D: The chief purpose of Al Quds was originally to support liberation movements throughout the world. But the unit had moved further and further away from its original aims and had become an instrument used to eliminate opponents of the regime.
Profil: And he played along.
D: The leadership had begun to enrich itself. They had money at their disposal, which they diverted for personal ends.
Profil: At the time of your conversation, was Taghipoor convinced that it had been right to commit the murder in Vienna.
D: I don't think so. He certainly felt remorse. Otherwise, he would not have told me about it.
Profil: What was the assignment about which he was worried?
D: The Pasdaran also participated in development projects: out of a kind of populism. In light of his qualifications, he was extremely surprised that he would be deployed for such a development project. And he was clearly afraid. A short while later, what he was afraid of in fact occurred. He was found drowned in the south of Iran: after having gone diving in the Karun River, it was said.
Profil: Did he explicitly say that Ahmadinejad participated in the commando action in Vienna?
D: He mentioned him several times.
Profil: You submitted a written report to the former Iranian President [Abolhassan] Bani Sadr, who now lives in exile in Paris as an opponent of the regime. But Ahmadinejad did not appear in it?
D: That was a general report and I had agreed with Bani Sadr not to name names.
Profil: But there are names named in the report.
D: Only those that were already known. There were other persons whom I did not mention, in order to avoid giving my identity away.
Profil: When did you write the report?
D: The first report I wrote when I was still in Iran, not here in France. It was on the hard drive of my computer and it was then seized by the government. The report on the hard drive was encoded.
Profil: After your home was searched in Tehran, you fled Iran. When was that?
D: I do not want to give you an exact date. Let's say: less than a year ago.
Profil: And how did you then come in contact with Bani Sadr?
D: Before I came to Paris, I did not know him personally. But I knew some things about him. And at first I did not tell him anything about the Vienna affair. It was only after there had developed a certain trust between us that I gave him my report.
Profil: As you were writing your report, did you know that Ahmadinejad was a candidate for the Presidency?
D: When I wrote the report on my computer in Iran, I did not yet know that. Later, when I was with Bani Sadr, I did.
Profil: What role did Ahmadinejad play in Vienna?
D: He was a kind of backup. If something should happen to one of the commando members, he would have been the replacement. But he was not needed.
Profil: But he was there at the scene.
D: He waited in front of the building.
Profil: In 1989, what position did Ahmadinejad have in the Pasdaran?
D: At the time, there were no ranks in the Pasdaran or in Al Quds. They were only introduced later. I'm not exactly sure when. Please hurry. I have to hang up soon.
Profil: Just a couple of more questions. The commando unit in Vienna consisted of how many people?
D: There was a team of negotiators and a hit squad. Ahmadinejad was the link between the Iranian Embassy in Vienna and the hit squad. It was also his job to supply the weapons. He brought them from the Embassy to the house where the murders took place.
Profil: How many people were there in the hit squad? Various sources now claim that in addition to this group and the negotiating team, there was also a third unit.
D: With Ahmadinejad as the backup, there were three people in the hit squad. One cannot speak of a third unit. There were other people -- who supplemented the hit squad. If the latter had failed, they would have jumped in.
Profil: In your report, you write that the two who pulled the triggers had traveled to Austria from Abu Dhabi under assumed names. How did Ahmadinejad enter the country?
D: With a diplomatic passport.
Profil: Using his real name?
D: I don't know.
Profil: A personal question: you don't want to reveal your identity. Why not?
D: I do not want to put my family in Iran in danger. And I have an uneasy feeling. I am also living in danger. I have gotten support here in France. But I have to watch out that nothing happens to me.
Profil: Are you prepared to give a deposition to Austrian investigators?
D: Yes, on the condition that my identity not be revealed.
Profil: Have you already been contacted by Austrian officials.
D: Yes, by the Ministry of the Interior.
Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof's interview with "witness D" first appeared in the Austrian weekly Profil in July 2005. The original German version can be consulted here. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.