WASHINGTON - A former colleague of Iran's president-elect who has since turned on the regime says he suspects that the incoming leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, played a role in the 1989 assassination of a Kurdish leader in Vienna.
In an interview yesterday, Mohsen Sazegara, who helped found Iran's revolutionary guard and served as a high official for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei until 1988, said he was watching closely a developing investigation by the Austrian government into Mr. Ahmadinejad's possible connection to the murder of a Kurdish dissident leader, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, and two associates on July 13, 1989, in Vienna.
"Ahmadinejad was an intelligence commander in the revolutionary guard," Mr. Sazegara said. "I think operational intelligence agents had to have been involved. In Iran it is widely suspected he was involved in the operation. He is still very close to the departments in the revolutionary guard that were directly involved."
Mr. Ahmadinejad this week dismissed the charges as "baseless." He served between 1989 and 1991 as the deputy intelligence commander for the al-Quds force of the revolutionary guard, a unit in charge of, among other things, foreign assassinations of Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic. The special unit, named for an Arab term for Jerusalem, has also served as a liaison to Al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab terror groups such as Hamas, according to American intelligence officials.
Earlier this week, Austrian authorities announced that they would be further investigating Mr. Ahmadinejad's role in Ghassemlou's killing after a member of the country's opposition Green Party, Peter Pilz, announced over the weekend that he had fresh evidence linking the Iranian president-elect to the 1989 murder. Specifically, Mr. Pilz said, he knew of an Iranian journalist who claimed to have direct knowledge that Mr. Ahmadinejad was a member of the three-person hit squad that killed Ghassemlou after he was lured to Vienna for secret peace talks.
"We have to verify whether the information this person has is correct," a Justice Ministry spokesman, Christoph Poechinger, told Bloomberg's news service yesterday. In an interview with Agence France-Presse, the spokesman stressed that the Justice Ministry was in no way beginning legal proceedings.
In 1993, a German court pursued a similar assassination on their territory of a Kurdish dissident at the Mykonos restaurant in Hamburg. After that investigation - which linked Iran's president at the time to the killings - became public, Austrian newspapers questioned why their government had dropped the investigation into the 1989 murders of Ghassemlou and the others. The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran has long said that Mr. Ahmadinejad was directly involved in the murder of their former leader, Ghassemlou, alleging that the president-elect helped smuggle murder weapons into Vienna.
Recent inquiries from Austria's justice and interior ministries have ruffled feathers in Tehran. On Tuesday, Iran's foreign ministry summoned the Austrian ambassador there for a tongue-lashing.
A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry, Hamid Reza Asefi, Tuesday told Agence France-Presse, "These accusations are ridiculous and unfounded, and for this reason we have summoned the Austrian ambassador to the foreign ministry to ask him for an explanation ... We categorically deny these accusations which are part of a scenario made up by Zionist circles unhappy with the high turnout of Iranians" in last month's presidential election.
Last week five Americans taken hostage by Iranian student radicals in 1979 said they recognized Mr. Ahmadinejad as one of their captors. The White House last week announced that they were following up on the charges, but so far an inquiry from the State Department and CIA has determined that Iran's next president was not one of the organizers of the embassy takeover. In Iran, one of the hostage takers, Abbas Abdi, last week said Mr. Ahmadinejad was not involved in planning that operation.
In the interview yesterday, Mr. Sazegara, who handled press for Ayatollah Khamenei, concurred on this score with Mr. Abdi. But he also allowed that it was possible Mr. Ahmadinejad may have visited the seized embassy during the 444-day hostage crisis.