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Iran's dissidents' deaths stir fear Slayings of five critics of regime raise notion of existence of terror squad


CAIRO, Egypt -- The fifth mysterious killing of a government foe in just four weeks raised feelings of dread in Iran yesterday, with speculation that something like an extrajudicial death squad may have emerged with a murderous agenda to defend Islamic rule.

The most recent slaying was confirmed when the body of writer-translator Mohammed Jafar Pouyandeh was identified late Saturday by family members, according to news services.

The family had feared the worst since Pouyandeh, 45, vanished Wednesday somewhere between his office and his home. His body was discovered under a bridge in a Tehran suburb, apparently strangled. He was still wearing his watch and ring, suggesting that robbery was not a motive for the attack. Pouyandeh disappeared the same day that the body of poet Mohammed Mokhtari was found, also apparently suffocated, with bruises around the neck.

A week earlier, Majid Sharif, another dissident writer, was found dead under what fellow dissidents have called suspicious circumstances. And in late November, Dariush Foruhar and his wife, Parvanjeh, activists in an anti-regime nationalist and secular political party, were found stabbed to death in their home.

Adding to the general apprehension in Iran, an author who has been critical of the regime, Pirouz Davani, is reported missing.

Residents of the capital have described anxiety mounting with each murder. The killings also are putting pressure on the administration of President Mohammad Khatami to prove that it can protect other critics of government who may be in danger and that it can find and arrest the unknown assailants.

"Everyone is wondering and talking about it," said Mohammed ** Ghaed, a magazine publisher in Tehran. "People ask themselves: What can the government do? Who is going to stop whom? And how far are 'they' going to go?"

A statement by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is controlled by Khatami loyalists, suggested yesterday that the killers mean to strike at the liberalization that has been under way in Iran since Khatami took office in August 1997.

"Behind this saga, we can see there are plots and anti-revolutionary subversive acts, and their purpose is nothing but to discourage people and weaken the regime and strike a blow at the new atmosphere in the Islamic Republic," the ministry said.

The killings have come during a long-running power struggle between supporters of Khatami, on the one hand, and the conservative traditionalists who dominate parliament and the judiciary on the other. The latter associate themselves with the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

Although Khatami appears to retain great popularity with the population that elected him in a landslide in May 1997, there have been signs that the conservatives have grown bolder in their efforts to defend their more rigid interpretation of Islamic rule.

In September, Iran's Revolutionary Court jailed four senior journalists and closed the country's leading independent newspaper, Tous, for allegedly questioning the authority of the supreme leader. Earlier, acting on complaints from parliament, a conservative judge-prosecutor convicted a key Khatami ally, Tehran Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi, on corruption charges. Karbaschi had played a major role in organizing Khatami's successful election campaign. The conservative backlash seems to have stalled Khatami's efforts to bring about greater openness in Iran.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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