Assassins of the Turquoise Palace: Author Interview with Roya Hakakian

Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman is a new half-hour weekly series on ideas and their consequences.

A book interview with Iranian-American author Roya Hakakian. In her new book, "Assassins of the Turquoise Palace," an audacious1992 Iranian led political assassination is examined and helps to shed light on the Iran of today.

Transcript

IDEAS IN ACTION with Jim Glassman

Assassins of the Turquoise Palace: Author Interview with Roya Hakakian

JIM GLASSMAN:
Welcome to Ideas in Action a television series about ideas and their consequences. I'm Jim Glassman. This week a discussion with Roya Hakakian, Iranian American journalist, poet, and author. In her new book, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, Hakakian vividly depicts the murders of four Iranian dissidents in a Berlin restaurant in 1992. With a revelation that Iranian backed assassins recently targeted the Saudi ambassador in Washington and whispers that Iranian agents might be seeking bases in Latin America what can the 1992 murders tell us about Iranian activities today? The topic this week: a discussion of the book, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace and how it relates to the Iran of today. This is Ideas in Action.

ANNOUNCER:
Funding for Ideas in Action is provided by Investor's Business Daily. Every stock market cycle is led by America's never ending stream of innovative new companies and inventions. Investors Business Daily helps investors find these new leaders as they emerge. More information is available at Investors.com.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Roya welcome.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Thank you for having me.

JIM GLASSMAN:
You were a young person in 1979 during the revolution that overthrew the Shah and you were in favor of that revolution. What dynamics led you to the position that you had that you believed that things would really improve?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
The dynamics of being an adolescent you know and liking action, liking seeing lots and lots of people in the streets chanting and it was a very exciting time for Iran. So I can't say that my initial attraction to what was going on was very cerebral. It was mostly visceral. It was a wonderful time to be in Iran. And I think during my adolescent years I developed a very strong sense that we as a new generation should hope for a future of democracy and freedom in Iran.

JIM GLASSMAN:
But do you think that was a mistake? In other words if the Shah hadn't been-- sort of imagine Shah is not overthrown, I mean would Iran be a better place today?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
You know it's one of those tough questions because you can never hope to change the course of history because it always feels that we're moving forward.

JIM GLASSMAN:
But do you feel you kind of made a mistake in supporting this revolution?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
What I regret is the degree to which we were Manichean about the Pahlavi regime.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Just like good and evil, one side or the other.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Yeah. I think there were lots and lots of shades of gray that had we been a lot less radical there were other possibilities that would have led to a better future.

JIM GLASSMAN:
You left Iran in 1985. What were the conditions that made your family choose to leave?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
In the early 1980s it was unofficially impossible for Jews to leave Iran. It was not a law that was passed but if you were a Jewish person and you applied to get your passport you were almost certain not to have your passport renewed. So it was a very long and convoluted ordeal until we received our passports and my mother and I left and my father joined us about four years later.

JIM GLASSMAN:
As you said you come from Iranian Jewish ancestry and you write that before the revolution Iran's cities certainly were pluralistic and that you were free to practice your faith.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Yes I think the 60s and the 70s mark one of the brightest golden moments of ethnic plurality and multiplicity within the Iranian society. I think that the Pahlavis had brilliantly understood the value of dismantling ethnic religious ghettos whether intellectually or physically.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Pahlavis are the ruling family, the Shah.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Exactly. And so I think it was a fantastic time for all minorities concerned inside Iran.

JIM GLASSMAN:
So a lot of these people left. A lot of Jews left, a lot of intellectuals left, a lot of others left, and what is that Diaspora like to today? Is it cohesive? Do they seem to have the same views? Are you very much in touch?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
It's a-- I think it's a Diaspora that's evolving. It's a Diaspora that like many others that were new and fledgling and I think 30 years in the life of a Diaspora is probably still very young. It's trying to define itself. I think the newer generation of Iranians, the second generation of Iranians who were born and raised in the west, have an entirely different view of what went on and I think part of what we all need to come to terms with whether the Diaspora or the movement inside Iran, is a definition or our own version of what occurred in Iran in '79 and since then--

JIM GLASSMAN:
I'm sorry so what's the difference when you say-- young people have a different version-- is it kind of a more benign version? Or-- because they didn't suffer under the regime or--?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
I think the jury's still out. I think the ones-- there are two sorts of reactions that you see among the Iranian Americans who weren't-- don't share the experiences that their parents had under the regime. Some think that their parents really exaggerated about the degree to which they suffered and some really share the parents' sense of the past.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Let's talk about your book. Your book begins in 1992 with an Iranian inspired assassination. So what led you to investigate and write about this incident so many years later?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Really-- a very good storyteller who landed in my kitchen and told me the story of this night after night who was one of the survivors of that assassination. And initially it started very benignly in that I was the host in the house and I was trying to strike up a conversation with a guest. What I assumed would be just a story of an assassination turned out to be a much longer, more fabulous tale of a fantastic trial, an investigation, and a lot of small heroes who come together to bring about one of the most triumphant moments of the past 30 years of Iranian-European relations.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Roya could you just kind of set the scene for us? Explain really what happened in this restaurant and who some of the key characters were.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
On September 17th, 1992, four members of the Iranian Kurdish opposition who had come to Berlin, Germany, on the invitation for the Social Democratic Party of Germany for an annual conference were having dinner with a few other Iranians at a restaurant called Mykonos when two gunmen walked in and shot everybody at the table and four died instantly. And what ensued thereafter was a thorough investigation and a trial that lasted almost four years, leading to a judgment in 1997 that forced all the EU member nations to withdraw their ambassadors from Iran for a period of almost five months and led to the loss of relations between Europe and Iran.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Roya you write that the Iranian government tried to influence the trial. Did they succeed in any way?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
They tried very hard and no they didn't succeed because the verdict-- the judgment that issued from this trial is the worst blow that has been delivered to the regime since 1979.

JIM GLASSMAN:
The highest levels of the Iranian government were found culpable.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Exactly.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And so what does that mean?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Well the judgment named the supreme leader in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who's still in charge as the supreme leader, the sitting president at the time who was Rafsanjani, the foreign minister who was Vilaeti and you know the chief of the revolutionary guards and the minister of information as the five people who made the original decisions about the list of 500. And ironically these are all the people who in some capacity or another are still in power in Iran.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Can you just explain the 500 enemies of Islam death list and how it works its way into the story?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
When the assassination occurs the office of the chief federal prosecutor in Germany assigns an investigator, one of his prosecutors, to investigate the case and his impression-- his name is Bruno Jost, he was a senior prosecutor at the time, his initial hypothesis is that this is the work of a rival Kurdish group, the PKK namely, and there has been some kind of rivalry between two Kurdish factions which has led to this attack.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And the Kurds are?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
One of the largest ethnic minorities inside Iran which share a land with the Kurds of Iraq or at least historically did and Syria and Turkey.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And the people who were assassinated in this incident you talk about were Kurds correct?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Three of them were Kurds and one of them was a non Kurdish Iranian who had been their friend and their guide in Germany while they were there. So the initial impression of the investigator slash prosecutor was that this had nothing to do with Iran, contrary to what the exile community was alleging, but it was the work of some sort of internal factional rivalry. And little by little Bruno Jost, our hero slash prosecutor, discovers that this in fact is not a lone operation, that it fits within a-- multiples of other crimes that have occurred since 1980 beginning with an attack in the suburbs of Washington here against a former Iranian minister, and then there are dots that he could connect from Washington to Rome to Vienna to Geneva to a series of other capitals. And then as a result of this he discovers that there has been a list of 500 Iranians; artists, writers, satirists, intellectuals, or opposition leaders, against whom the Ayatollah Khamenei had issued a fatwa to do away with them.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And these are enemies of Islam who are both inside and outside Iran?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
This is a list of those who live outside of Iran's borders.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And so as you said earlier the top levels of the Iran regime were noted in the judgment and you said this was the biggest setback the Iranian regime has ever suffered since 1979.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
That's true.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Does that go all the way through the present day by the way?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
It does absolutely.

JIM GLASSMAN:
So the sanctions and all that, nothing close to what happened here.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Absolutely. That's my view. And I think if you look at the way the regime has treated this incident you will come to the same conclusion. Because you know the takeover of the American embassy in Iran in November of 1979 is among the major historical events that regime continues to celebrate. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie-- a lot of other historical events the regime has somehow spun into its own advantage or at least has tried to do so. This is the one incident that has been completely buried. It has not existed within the media or any-- there is no references to it. It's been just the kind of thing that they try to do away with and forget as much as they could as fast as they could.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And this withdrawal of diplomatic relations that also had a profound effect to the punishment itself to the regime.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Yes. I think the reason for that is probably because if you have no relations with the United States you can somehow say that the Americans are bad. You can blame it on the history and you know the coup d'état of 1953. But if you don't have relations with Finland and Denmark and Switzerland and Austria then it becomes-- the greater the number grows then the harder it is to justify. And I think it became really hard to justify to the ordinary Iranians why all these embassies were closed and why they couldn't get visas to go visit relatives.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And so if the response today to Iran building a what some would call a nuclear weapon were for embassies around the world or countries around the world that withdrawal diplomatic relations you think that would have an effect?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Absolutely. If this case is a guide and I think it should be, it's why I wrote about it, I think the cutting of ties between Europe and Iran will be hugely effective in that it will create a great deal of unrest within the public. Look this period in the history of Iran marks a moment at which the largest number of Iranians live in Diaspora. There have never been such a huge number of Iranians living abroad. There is something between 3 to 5 million Iranians primarily here and in Europe and I think if you shut down all those embassies and you basically make it impossible for the families to visit, to go back and forth, you create an impressive effect inside.

JIM GLASSMAN:
The group that was involved in planning these killings was called 'The Committee for Special Operations,' do you know if this committee still exists and what it might be up to?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
I don't know whether the committee still exists but I know that at the time that the trial was going on there were several witnesses who had been with high ranking members within various organizations inside Iran; ministry, one from the ministry of information, one was the former president of Iran, Bani Saj, who testified to the fact that every decision that is made for an assassination or for such an operation whether inside Iran or abroad is made with the approval from the highest ranking members of the Iranian leadership, the supreme leader, among them.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Let's talk about what's happening today because the timing of your book was just exquisite-- and by the way your book was just recently named one of the most-- 100 most notable books of the year by the New York Times. So congratulations.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Thank you.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Many people were shocked to learn that Iranian people forces were behind an effort to have the Saudi ambassador to the United States assassinated in Washington in a restaurant apparently. But you've written that the Iranians targeted the ambassador-- Saudi ambassador of Sweden in 1990. So this is nothing new. On the other hand since 1997 when this judgment was made in the German court there have been no attempted assassinations and you know people had said that the regime was chided-- understood there's some bad consequences. So what do you make of what's going on here in the United States with this plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Well for one thing I think-- I look forward to the trial. I look forward to learning what really happened. What was the motivation? And just watching for once how it is that we as Americans make an accusation of espionage or terrorism against someone and go about trying the person that we've accused because this will be a very important moment for Iranians also to see you know here is Iran that constantly comes up with these accusations whether against hikers or Iranians living inside Iran you know that-- they're conducting espionage. So I think this would be a very, very refreshing change for us to just show how it is that we conduct a trial here in this country and what justice in action really includes.

JIM GLASSMAN:
So does that tell us anything about where Iran is right now in history? For example, could this attempted assassination be related to the green movement-- the green revolution which began in 2009, it was tweeted around the world and seemed to have some momentum and now seems to be a little more quiescent. Is there a relationship there?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
I think that 2009 was an important moment in that up until then there was a sense of belief that the regime was legitimate, that the supreme leader was a benign leader, and that if the public took to the polls and chose the candidate that they really wanted as president that the votes will take care of what needed to be done. And I think once the votes were not honored, once the guards attacked, arrested, the demonstrators and you know the brutality by which they went around you know arresting activists showed itself then that was a very big moment for the public to realize that the regime is not legitimate, that the supreme leader isn't really the nation's father that wants the good of all in his heart and that it further-- not only revealed the face of those in leadership but also it separated the nation from those who are supposed to be in the position of leadership and I think further polarized both the regime and the public.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Some in Washington have reported that Iran's Quds force-- what is the Quds force by the way?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
It's an elite unit within the revolutionary guards that do much of the extra judicial territorial operations that the revolutionary guards carry out.

JIM GLASSMAN:
So the Quds force is developing a presence in Latin America, especially Venezuela, how credible do you find this-- these reports? And should we be concerned about it?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Well we should be concerned about the Quds force and in my view for reasons that have to do with the history of the Quds force operations. They have been involved in many of the assassinations that Iran carried out against the list of 500 throughout Europe. I mean in those years in the 80s when these operations were occurring the international community basically turned a blind eye to these assassinations and unfortunately it is until now when there are non Iranians, you know high profile non Iranians that are being involved that we have finally come to pay attention to them but they had been implicated and involved in numerous operations against Iranian dissidents.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Apart from sanctions-- president Bush and president Obama generally had at least in public a wait and see attitude toward Iran. Do you believe that more action should be taken against the current regime?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
I think there are ways possibly of filling in the gaps that existed when in 2009 the public took to the streets. And one of those gaps was in the area of communications. The movement was at the mercy of the regime for reaching to its members. They took down Twitter when they wanted to, they took down the Internet when they wanted to, they took down the cell phone towers when they wanted to. And you know they're also trying very hard to make it impossible for news broadcasts in Persian to reach Iran, whether it's the Voice of America, or BBC, or other broadcasts. And I think for starters filling in the gaps that the 2009 movement experienced would be a major step in strengthening the hands of the potential hopefully near future next movement.

JIM GLASSMAN:
So where's the real power in Iran? It's with the supreme leader? It's not with the president?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
I think it's with the supreme leader and revolutionary guards. I think the revolutionary guards are the people who are really running Iran economically and politically. We here in the United States look at what needs to happen in Iran as the Iranians versus the regime but it's really a question of how does a believing nation separate itself from those who are defining themselves as the representatives of God in charge. That's a very hard thing to do. This is no longer a question of Iranians versus Khamenei but it's a question of how do you as a believing Muslim say no to your clerical leadership and say you go back to the mosque, we still honor you, but we want to have a government that is completely free of religious influence.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And you think that that-- those forces are occurring in Iran in the same way that they've occurred in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt maybe not so visible, but that's the movement of history?

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
I think that's the movement of history and I think Iran is a pivotal place in what happens next because I think Iran is where it all began in 1979 where this fantasy of let's bring our clerical leadership to power and see what happens really took shape. And I think it is where it will be buried as well. But I think it will all depend on how well the Iranians do it and most importantly how they figure out the process and the separation should occur.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Thank you Roya Hakakian and thanks for writing a really a fascinating and very, very timely book.

ROYA HAKAKIAN:
Thank you.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And that's it for this week's Ideas in Action. I'm Jim Glassman, thanks for watching. Keep in mind that you can watch Ideas in Action whenever and wherever you want. To watch highlights or complete programs just go to ideasinactiontv.com or download a podcast from the iTunes store. Ideas in Action because ideas have consequences.

ANNOUNCER:
For more information visit us at ideasinactiontv.com. Funding for Ideas in Action is provided by Investor's Business Daily. Every stock market cycle is led by America's never ending stream of innovative new companies and inventions. Investor's Business Daily helps investors find these new leaders as they emerge. More information is available at investors.com. This program is a production of Grace Creek Media and the George W. Bush Institute, which are solely responsible for its content.


Leave a comment

Featured Guests

Roya Hakakian

Journalist, Author, and Poet

Roya Hakakian is an Iranian-American poet, journalist and writer living in the United States. A lauded Persian poet turned television producer with programs like 60 Minutes, Roya became well known for her memoir, “Journey from the Land of No” in 2004 and essays on Iranian issues in the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and on NPR. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008, Roya published “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace in 2011,” a non-fiction account of the Mykonos restaurant assassinations of Iranian opposition leaders in Berlin.

Episode Clips

Hakakian Excerpt: Iran's Legacy of Assassinations

With past Iranian backed assassinations, what can we tell about the latest accusation?

Hakakian Excerpt: A Book Discussion

What motivated Roya Hakakian to write her new book?

Hakakian Excerpt: Who Truly Holds Power?

Between the religious establishment, the military, and the political elite, who really rules Iran?