London, House of Lords
May 26, 2010
Thank you Lord Avebury, thank you Mouloud Swara for organizing this event, thank you Asso Hassan Zadeh for your participation and thank you all for being here today.
The first question I usually get from Venezuelan journalists has been: How did a Venezuelan get involved with the Kurds? My first encounter with the Kurds happened in 1982 at the Cannes Film Festival where I met Yilmaz Guney, Kurdish filmmaker from Turkey. It was through him that I learned about the plight of the Kurdish nation. In 1983, I met Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou at the Kurdish Institute of Paris.
My first impression of Ghassemlou was that he was a cultivated, charming and charismatic man. He spoke eight languages. I was impressed by his knowledge of Western art and culture, as well as that of Iran. That night he recited poems by Omar Khayam, and Hafiz in Farsi and then would translate them into French. He was the center of attention; he usually always was, captivating those around him with his humor and his easy way of being with others. His stature and command as a statesman and leader of millions of Kurds brought forth respect and hope for his people.
Ghassemlou invited me to come to Iranian Kurdistan and two years later I traveled there to do a documentary for the French Gamma TV agency. It was then that the idea of a book about the Kurds was born.
Who was Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou?
He was the Secretary General of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, KDPI. In 1979, when he returned to Iranian Kurdistan, the party was small and he was not a well-known figure. But it did not take long for him to become the undisputed leader and spokesperson for the Kurds.
Due to his lucidity and open politics, he was able to communicate in a way that spoke to the hopes and desires of the population. He rapidly emerged as the ideological leader of the Kurdish national movement. For the Kurds, he became the leader who could bring change to their lives. He engendered and represented national pride.
Ghassemlou gave the national movement a clear direction and he was able to mobilize the resistance against the Iranian regime. His message was clear: he favored an independent Kurdish party that asserted the rights of the Kurdish people in Iran. Autonomy for Kurdistan. Democracy for Iran.
From the outset, Ghassemlou knew who Khomeini was. He had read his books, listened to his speeches. He said Khomeini was reactionary and his political proposal medieval but he “never imagined he could be so blood thirsty.”
Even though Ghassemlou was meeting with the authorities from Tehran and went to visit Khomeini twice, he knew that the government was buying time.
In March 1979, Ghassemlou and members of his party went to Qom to meet with the Ayatollah at his home. When they entered into an alcove they found many ministers, ambassadors, politicians, and clerics waiting for the Imam.
Ghassemlou recalled that they were not searched. “We could have easily killed him,” he would say with a chuckle. They entered his room and found him surrounded by hundreds of children and women. The Ayatollah, seated on the floor, would take a lump of sugar, put it into his mouth, and then he would take it out and give it to one of the boys sitting next to him.
Ghassemlou went up to Khomeiny’s son and told him they wanted to meet alone with the Imam. Suddenly everyone left the room. They spent an hour alone with him.
Ghassemlou explained the situation in Kurdistan and said that the Kurds would participate in the referendum and vote for the Islamic Republic as long as their demands were respected.
“That is not my business, go see Bazargan,” Khomeiny answered without looking at Ghassemlou.
Undeterred Ghassemlou said, “That’s fine, and we would like you to publicly comment about our meeting.”
“Ayatollah Taleghani already made a declaration. What more do you want?” he muttered.
Ghassemlou knew that the Western and Iranian press were waiting outside for them. They suspected that the Kurds were clearly in the opposition.
So Ghassemlou insisted once more saying: “So when I leave here, you authorize me to declare that you agree with what Taleghani said?”
“But I don’t know what he said,” objected Khomeini and added, “We are all brothers and Muslims.”
But Ghassemlou insisted and the Ayatollah suddenly said he was feeling sick and quickly left the room without even looking at the Kurds who got up and left. Outside the Kurds saw the Imam on the roof, waving at people.
Before leaving Qom, the Kurds decided they would not participate in the referendum for the installment of an Islamic Republic, and announced that they would not take part because the ballot question only gave the people one option: to choose or not an Islamic republic.
Ghassemlou was well aware that those first months of freedom after the revolution would not last, and that the mullahs would confiscate the revolution, turning it into a clerical dictatorship. He believed that under the iron grip of the ayatollahs, there could be no democratic progress in the country.
During those turbulent months of 1979, Ghassemlou was building the armed resistance of the peshmergas and at the same time, he was working to reach
an agreement with the government. He always sought dialogue with the authorities.
After the referendum for the Islamic Republic ―which the Kurds opposed, there was an election for the members of the Constitutional Council of Experts. This body was going to design a Constitution for the new Islamic Republic.
Not only had Ghassemlou obtained 80% of the votes in the region, but he was also one of the three laypersons elected to that body. The clerics and other fundamentalists occupied the majority of the seats.
A few days before the opening session, armed Kurds had defeated the government’s troops in Iranian Kurdistan. Irate, Khomeini had threatened the army with punishment and declared himself Commander in Chief of the armed forces.
Because of this tension, the party had recommended that Ghassemlou stay home and not attend the opening session. Sitting in his house in Mahabad, Ghassemlou was watching the transmission on television.
It was August 19, 1979 – the Ayatollah Khomeini had come to the opening session of the Constitutional Council of Experts in Tehran.
Imagine the scene the television camera is broadcasting: The hall is full of
venerable ulemas, their heads covered with turbans and their faces somber as
they listen to the Imam.
Khomeini at the podium, with his thick eyebrows, is speaking in his soft monotonous voice; a tone he also used to express great anger.
Looking at the silent audience, he said: “Ghassemlou is the culprit. The KDPI is a nest of saboteurs and corrupt people. The party is banned. And Ghassemlou must be punished.”
Without raising his voice he asked: “Is Ghassemlou here? I don’t see him.”
No one answered. With a contained fury concentrated in his dark carbon-colored eyes, he said to the assembly: “If that mofsed fi’l-arz (corruptor of the earth) had come today, I would have had kept him here.” In other words, executed him.
The Kurds began an armed struggle against Khomeini and his regime that would last more than a decade. Though Ghassemlou took up arms against the regime, he never believed that violence was the way to achieve his demands. Armed struggle was a means to achieve enough clout when the time came for negotiating.
Ghassemlou was a far-sighted leader; a tolerant man whose democratic and humanistic vision for his nation had left behind the dogmas of the radical left. He was a man who in the 80’s, contrary to the revolutionary movements of the time, opposed any act of terrorism that would harm civilians.
About this he said: “As a democratic organization we have always opposed all acts of terrorism, be it hijacking of planes, taking hostages, putting bombs or any action that threatens the lives and security of civilians. To renounce our principles and thus lose our image as a responsible, democratic and humanitarian party, in return for fleeting publicity is both vain and useless.”
In 1988, the war between Iran-Iraq was over and Ghassemlou feared that both governments would agree to crush the Kurdish rebellion in their respective countries, as it had happened in 1975 after the Algiers Accord. It was time to sit down and negotiate.
Hashemi Rafsanjani, then president of the Iranian Parliament, reached out to Jalal Talabani, current Iraqi president, to mediate with Ghassemlou. Talabani organized a first series of meetings in Vienna between December 1988 and January 1989. Talabani ensured extreme security measures to protect his friend Ghassemlou.
But soon after these discussions the Iranians informed Talabani that his people had talked about the meetings, and therefore they were halting the conversations. Secrecy was absolutely necessary.
Talabani at the time thought that they were abandoning the negotiations due to the changes in the internal political situation in Iran: Khomeiny’s health was declining and the fight for succession had intensified. In this way they deftly put Talabani aside, for their plan was in fact to murder Ghassemlou.
Those first meetings were meant as bait that would lead to a second round of meetings without Talabani and without security measures. So the regime asked Fadil Rasul, an Iraqi Kurd to serve as an intermediary and insisted on the need for total secrecy.
The reason Rasoul and Ghassemlou were probably told was that there were hardliners within the regime that did not want to negotiate with the Kurds.
Ghassemlou took the bait and accepted to meet with the Iranian emissaries in Vienna and did not inform the party. He was convinced the regime needed to resolve the Kurdish question. Also Khomeiny had just died and Rafsanjani presented himself as a pragmatist who would lead a less fundamentalist government. This was Ghassemlou’s flawed lecture of the internal politics of the country.
His death resembled that of Julius Cesar who despite all the warnings he received still went to the Senate where he met his death. In the same way, Ghassemlou received several warnings prior to his trip to Vienna. Bernard Kouchner, current French Minister of Foreign Affairs, told him the night before to not go to this meeting because he could not trust the Iranians. His former wife, Helene Krulich told him that Rafansayani wanted his death and he should not go to Vienna. His loyal assistant Abdullah Ghaderi had an ominous feeling and was sick to his stomach the day of the murder…there were so many signs that he ignored.
And he went. He was confident and happy after the first meeting on July 12th. On the second meeting, July 13 1989 Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was killed. He received 3 bullets in the head, Fadil Rasoul, the intermediary, received five bullets and Abdullah Ghaderi eleven. Ghaderi had blood and skin in his nails; he had fought to his last breath and in this final struggle a bullet probably strayed, and wounded the main Iranian emissary. Because of this stray bullet, it was not the perfect murder.
Two of the three Iranian emissaries negotiating with Ghassemlou were taken into custody. The wounded Iranian was taken to a hospital. Oswald Kessler, of the Austrian national police force, announced to the minister of the interior that it was a political crime planned from abroad. He said “Three Iranians have assassinated three Kurds.”
Iran began to pressure the Austrian government to release the wounded Iranian. At the same time a political scandal, the Noricum Prozess was in full swing. It implicated high-level Austrian officials in the sale of weapons to Iran and Iraq violating Austria’s neutrality.
It was because of this commercial exchange of weapons with the Islamic Republic of Iran that Austria, a democratic European state, released the witnesses and suspects of the crime covering up a state murder and thus became by omission the accomplices to a terrorist act.
The case was never resolved. In 2005, the Austrian parliamentary Peter Pilz brought forth new evidence regarding the participation of the Iranian regime in the murder and allegedly implicating Hashemi Rafsanjani and the newly elected president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the planning of the assassination.
According to this new evidence there had been two Iranian teams involved in the murder – a negotiations team and an execution team. Pilz demanded the case be reopened and that there be a parliamentary inquiry. The request was denied.
In 2009, Peter Pilz once again accused Ahmadinejad according to a confession of a German arms dealer to the Italian police. This man affirmed having delivered the weapons that killed the Kurds to the Iranian Embassy in Vienna. He also said: “A certain Mahmoud who later became president had been present.”
I wrote the book to denounce the assassination by the Iranian regime and the complicity of the Austrian authorities, and also to tell the story of the Iranian Kurds through Ghassemlou’s fascinating life. I finished the book in 1992 and my agent sent it to different publishers in Spain, Venezuela and Mexico. The response was always the same: It’s a good book, but who’s interested in the Kurds? So, I shelved the project.
In 2003 after the invasion of Iraq by the United States, the Kurds became front page news. I updated the book and sent it to a Venezuelan publisher. They published it in 2008. Chavez had become chummy with Ahmadinejad and Iran was an unknown for Venezuelans. Since then, the book has been translated into Turkish, Sorani and now English.
In 1984 I read Ghassemlou a eulogy I had written about Yilmaz Guney after his death. When I finished translating the article, Ghassemlou said to me, “When I die, I would like you to write a book, telling the story of my life and the Kurdish cause.”
Twenty six years later the promise I made in 1984 to write his story has been fulfilled and I offer it to you today friends and members of this proud and dignified nation, the Kurds.