Twenty-six years ago today, three Iranian officials met in Vienna apartment with three Kurdish officials to negotiate an end to a long-simmering conflict. It was a time of hope. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had died the year before. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, long regarded by many Iran watchers as moderate and a pragmatist, was on the verge of locking up Iran’s presidency (he would win 96 percent of the vote two weeks later). The Iran-Iraq War, meanwhile, had been over for nearly one year, and most Western diplomats assessed that the Islamic Republic would focus on rebuilding itself.
They were wrong. On July 13, 1989, the Iranian negotiators pulled out guns and assassinated Abdol-Rahman Ghassemlou, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), along with a KDPI representative in Europe and an Iraqi Kurdish mediator. It’s hard to hide gunshots in the middle of a Vienna apartment building. Austrian police came to the scene, but the Iranian delegation denied any responsibility. After taking statements, the Austrian police released the Iranians — Mohammad Ja’fari Sahraroudi, Iranian Kordestan governor Mostafa Ajoudi, and Amir Bozorgian — so long as they promised to make themselves available for further questioning, as necessary. They immediately returned to Tehran.
Only in subsequent days did questions about the Iranians’ statements arise: There had been no forced entry into the apartment, two of the victims were shot as they sat, and each victim had received a coup de grâce to confirm death. Subsequent forensic evidence confirmed the Austrian anti-terrorism unit’s conclusions that the murders were a hit. The shots were fired from the position of the Iranian delegation and not from the door. Shell casing positions also suggested the Iranian delegation’s complicity. The Austrian police issued warrants for the three Iranians, but Tehran refused to extradite any of the wanted men; rather, they promoted the team lead. Sahraroudi won his star and became head of the Qods Force intelligence unit. The promotion — as well as the senior level of the Iranian delegation — showed that the assassination was no rogue operation. It was not locally conceived, but rather likely was directed from the top.
The head of the Supreme National Security Council at the time, coordinating such activities? One Hassan Rouhani, the man whom President Barack Obama considers his partner. That a deal predicated on the trust of Iran will be struck in Vienna, on the 26th anniversary of one of Iran’s — and, specifically, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s and Hassan Rouhani’s — most brazen hit jobs illustrates just how much Iran has triumphed by doubling down on intransigence and terrorism and, in contrast, just how unhinged America’s foreign policy has become.