Ali Fallahian: The Most Feared Mullah in Iran

Ali Fallahian, perhaps the most feared mullah in Iran, was laughing with a fat man's gusto. He sat on a carpet among his supporters in his Isfahan campaign headquarters, confident he would win a seat in Iran's parliament once results were tabulated from last Friday's elections. From 1989 to 1997, this portly cleric was Iran's minister of intelligence. French and German investigators allege that during that time he was behind the savage murder of the Islamic regime's political opponents abroad. American investigators say his intelligence operation may have been linked to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar apartments in Saudi Arabia, which cost 19 Americans their lives. And inside Iran, Fallahian's top deputy and dozens of subordinates were arrested last year for the murder of four intellectuals in the winter of 1998-1999, after Fallahian left office. The Tehran press claims another 60 to 80 people were killed by Fallahian's people while he was still in power. Speaking through a translator, Fallahian, 50, met last week with Newsweek's Christopher Dickey. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Just to clarify details, you were the minister of intelligence when Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was president. Is that right?
FALLAHIAN:
[After a long pause] I was minister of intelligence during Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency. But I am not an intelligence personality. I am a member of the leadership's Assembly of Experts. That's where the clerics gather to choose the Supreme Leader.

NEWSWEEK: How did you learn your job?
FALLAHIAN:
We were in constant struggle against the Shah's regime and after the [1979] revolution we witnessed many turbulences. I learned expertise in intelligence by experience. Management and intelligence work should be in your blood.

NEWSWEEK: There were many incidents during your term as—
FALLAHIAN:
No. I was not involved in these. And these people who allowed our opposition into their country [France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey were among the countries where members of the Iranian opposition were murdered], who increased the range of the missiles and gave chemical weapons to Saddam [a reference to the support some German companies gave Iraq during its 1980-88 war with Iran], and who are strengthening the opponents of our country and our nation—these were the people responsible.

NEWSWEEK: Who was doing the killing?
FALLAHIAN:
In general we can say that these little [opposition] groups are fighting with each other. These killings just give them the opportunity to insult us a little more.

NEWSWEEK: What about the bombing of the Khobar apartments in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia? American investigators have linked that to Iran.
FALLAHIAN:
It's obvious that Iran didn't have anything to do with the killing in Khobar.

NEWSWEEK: Do you have any idea who did?
FALLAHIAN:
Give me the files and give me a lot of money and I will find out. [Much laughter among the former minister's entourage.]

NEWSWEEK: How can the United States and Iran improve relations?
FALLAHIAN:
The good moment is when you have no sanctions against us and you recognize the Iranian peoples' rights. And when the Americans are willing to talk to the Iranians on an equal basis.

NEWSWEEK: President Clinton said this week he hoped for "a constructive partnership with Iran."
FALLAHIAN:
Unfortunately his words are in contradiction with his deeds because he signed the sanctions with seven or eight different pens. Politicians's words are contrary to their deeds.

NEWSWEEK: That's not the case with you, of course.
FALLAHIAN:
I am a cleric, and a cleric is honest.

NEWSWEEK: Will you be elected, and while we're at it, do you think your old boss Rafsanjani will become speaker?
FALLAHIAN:
I hope so—that I will be elected. And regarding Mr. Rafsanjani being speaker, it depends on which fraction wins the majority in parliament. He will be elected to the parliament.

NEWSWEEK: A senior official of the Intelligence Ministry, Said Emami—
FALLAHIAN:
[In English] Return to killing. Return to killing. Why do you talk about killing? [He laughs and his supporters laugh with him.]

NEWSWEEK: Emami, who reportedly committed suicide last summer, was implicated in the murder of intellectuals here. Was he your deputy when you were minister?
FALLAHIAN:
[Nods yes]

NEWSWEEK: Was he killing people when he was your deputy? Press reports say there may have been 60 to 80 people murdered?
FALLAHIAN:
No. It's a lie.

NEWSWEEK: What did happen?
FALLAHIAN:
Some of these killings did not have anything to do with the ministry of intelligence. It had to do with fighting between groups. And it would not be between 60 and 80 killed, as they say.

NEWSWEEK: So who was responsible?
FALLAHIAN:
Some people were killed and they say Said Emami was responsible. We do not think that was the case. They say Said Emami was responsible for the killings that took place a year and a half ago, after my tenure as minister. They would like to make him responsible for killing during my ministry.

NEWSWEEK: Were you surprised by the revelations about Emami?
FALLAHIAN:
[Nods yes] I was shocked by this news. But he was not a bad guy and I don't think he did those killings. Correction, he was not a bad guy during my ministry. I don't know what happened after that.

NEWSWEEK: Where did he come from? How did you come to hire him?
FALLAHIAN:
When I became the minister he was one of the managers at the ministry.

NEWSWEEK: So he was already there.
FALLAHIAN:
[Nods yes]

NEWSWEEK: What was his background?
FALLAHIAN:
He was an aeronautical engineer. He was studying in your country [the United States].

NEWSWEEK: Was that before or after he was working for your service?
FALLAHIAN:
He was young. He studied in your country before he was in the intelligence service.

NEWSWEEK: About 30 other people at the ministry have been arrested for the killings of the four intellectuals. Who were those people?
FALLAHIAN:
These people who have killed, they have confessed. They have been arrested. The accusation is that Said Emami directed these people.

NEWSWEEK: Did you know them when you were minister?
FALLAHIAN:
I knew them, and you can read their names in the papers.

NEWSWEEK: So they worked for you.
FALLAHIAN:
[Nods yes]

NEWSWEEK: Were you surprised when they were arrested?
FALLAHIAN:
[Nods yes]

NEWSWEEK: Some defenders of the ministry claim that Emami and his group were agents of a foreign power, perhaps the United States or Israel. Do you think that's true?
FALLAHIAN:
That's one of the possibilities. But I cannot review the files right now. I have had no relations with the ministry of intelligence for the past two years.

NEWSWEEK PHOTOGRAPHER PETER TURNLEY: What kind of man becomes head of an intelligence service?
FALLAHIAN:
[His eyes narrowing] You are a photographer.

NEWSWEEK: A photographer can ask questions. What kind of man becomes an intelligence chief?
FALLAHIAN:
Someone who has done intelligence work in the disguise of a reporter or photographer—and has done some management and studied more until he advances. But that's just for a deputy intelligence chief. The minister of intelligence is just a political person.

TURNLEY: What kind of man becomes the minister of intelligence in Iran?
FALLAHIAN:
The minister should have enough political, legal and religious knowledge to do the job.

TURNLEY: So you were never a photographer.
FALLAHIAN:
[Does not smile. Shakes head no]

NEWSWEEK: Where do you go to find out if you have the religious authority to do the kinds of things an Iranian intelligence minister does?
FALLAHIAN:
I would ask myself. I am a religious authority myself. And someone who is minister of intelligence and a member of the Assembly of Experts has to be a religious authority. I am that.

NEWSWEEK: Aren't you tired of conflict with the United States?
FALLAHIAN:
You started it.

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