Iranwire – A quarter a century ago, in the fall of 1998, a series of murders rocked Iranian society. Iran was then already in a state of agitation and political fever. A year and a half before, reformist Mohammad Khatami had been elected president in an unexpected upset.
Considering Khatami’s moderate program, many Iranians hoped his election could be the beginning of a more throughgoing democratic reform. For a short period, Iran’s press was relatively free, and many newspapers and writers took the fight to the Islamic Republic’s establishment.
And then came the murders.
On November 21, Darioush Forouhar and Parvaneh Eskandari, a husband-and-wife duo known for their nationalist politics, were cruelly murdered at their home, their bodies mutilated by knife wounds.
They were soon followed by two new victims: left-leaning authors Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pooyandeh. Many such crimes had occurred in the earlier years of the Islamic Republic. But this time, the Iran of 1998 would not just sit and watch.
A mass campaign for accountability began and it soon became clear that the Ministry of Intelligence was responsible for the murders. In a move that would have been previously unthinkable, President Khatami dismissed the Minister of Intelligence.
As it turned out, the 1998 murders were only the latest in a series of murders that had targeted dissident intellectuals since around 1990, all organized by the same ministry.
The killings were thus christened the Chain Murders and, by one count, numbered as many as 80 victims. Each of the murders had been carried out under one pretense or another. If Iranians needed a new reason to be disgusted at the Islamic Republic, they now had one.
But there was at least one group of Iranians who was not shocked at all.
About two years before, 21 Iranian poets and writers had almost become Chain Murder victims themselves, before even the name had been coined. The foiled plot – which took place in the summer of 1996 – reads like a far-fetched thriller.
It all started with an invitation by the Writers Union of Armenia, sent to several of the leading members of the Iranian Association of Writers, a hallowed organization founded in the 1960s which had battled the Shah’s authoritarian regime before 1979 and was now doing the same to the even more repressive Islamic Republic.
The Iranian writers had been invited to attend a literary conference in Armenia. Tehran and Yerevan were connected by only one flight a week so the group was invited to travel by bus. On the drive, something unfathomable happened, as the bus passed through the mountainous gorges of northwestern Iran, the driver jumped out of the bus, and the bus began to careen toward a crash into the valley.
The group was saved by a quick intervention by two writers who saved the lives of their fellow hommes de lettres: Masoud Toufan took the wheel while Shahriyar Mandanipour pulled the handbrake.
Born in Shiraz in 1957, Mandanipour was one of the younger passengers that day. The older ones included some of the towering figures of modern Persian literature: novelist Mohammad Mohammad Ali and poets Bijan Najdi and Mohammad Ali Sepanloo.
In the years that followed, Mandanipour went on to become one of the best Iranian novelists of his generation, or perhaps of any generation.
His deft story-weaving skills and his postmodern play with language have brought him much praise. He has taught at Brown, Harvard, Boston College and Tufts, and his best-known novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story has been published in English translation as well as in Italian, French and Korean. But as fate would have it, Mandanipour will also be remembered for a day when his quick reflexes saved a generation of Iran’s leading literati.
From his home today in Los Angeles, Mandanipour spoke to IranWire by phone about his reflections on the Chain Murders, 25 years later.
“The project of the Chain Murders has never been shut down,” he tells me. “During the Khatami administration, they only [investigated] four murders but there were more than 80. The murders have continued both inside and outside Iran. When they killed the late Dariush Mehrjui and his wife,” Mandanipour says, referring to the recent murder of one of Iran’s most celebrated film directors.
“I said from the outset that this was part of the Chain Murders … I believe the engine of the Chain Murders has not been turned off and whenever [the authorities] feel fear [for their position], they make it more active,” he adds.
The Iranian authorities claim Mehrjui was murdered for financial reasons by a disgruntled former housekeeper.
But many Iranians have refused to accept this story. Mandanipour is not the first to link the acclaimed director’s gruesome murder to the Chain Murders. Film director Mani Haghighi, a close friend of Mehrjui, said something similar in a BBC interview, shortly after the news broke out.
For Mandanipour, another event, far from Iranian territory, is also reminiscent of the Chain Murders: the stabbing attack on the Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie, in Chautauqua, New York in August 2022 by a young Lebanese-American man who considered himself a supporter of the Islamic Republic.
Ever since 1989, when the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushdie’s murder in an infamous fatwa, the government has kept a bounty on the writer’s head, promising any killer millions of dollars in reward.
“Why not consider the attempt on Rushdie’s life as part of the same thing?” Mandanipour says. “It is in the same line: the assassination of dissidents.”
But why would a government of a major country like Iran invest its resources in killing dissident novelists and other writers?
“Their ridiculous excuse is that they are targeting dissidents and independent artists because they are fighting ‘cultural invasion’,” Mandanipour says. “What cultural invasion? There is cultural exchange everywhere in the world. But when you assassinate creators for thinking and art, when you censor them, that is the true invasion. This is how the lowest and the dumbest creations are made.”
With the hindsight of today, it is clear the Tehran-Yerevan bus fiasco in 1996 was part of the Chain Murders. But for Mandanipour and the other writers who went on the trip, even after their near miss, it was far from clear. Despite all the brutality that the Iranian government had shown, few expected it to go to such lengths.
But Mandanipour notes that several writers who had been invited to Armenia had their doubts – which is why they declined to make the trip.
Novelist Houchang Golshiri, whose Prince Ehtejab is one of the best-known Persian-language novels of the 20th century, was suspicious enough to ask the Armenian embassy if the invitations were genuine.
The embassy confirmed they were indeed from the Writers Union of Armenia. Golshiri still decided to stay behind. Others did the same. Poet Ahmad Shamlou said he was too unwell for a long bus trip. Reza Baraheni said, semi-jokingly, that his Azeri ethnicity meant he did not feel safe in Armenia.
But the most strident response came from Ghaffar Hosseini, a poet and academic, perhaps best known for his Persian translation of Lucien Goldman’s Towards A Sociology of the Novel.
“Hosseini had political experience and he immediately said, ‘They are going to throw you all into a valley,’” Mandanipour said. “But we couldn’t believe they’d be so heinous.”
On August 6, 1996, 21 writers finally decided to make the trip. When they gathered in Tehran’s North Bus Terminal, the writers were jubilant.
Throughout the dark years of repression in the 1980s and 1990s, they had rarely been able to gather together for a literary event. “We were so happy that we didn’t think rationally,” Mandanipour says. “We were blinded.”
When passing through the gorgeous Heyran Pass, Mandanipour was especially alert, because he wanted to see the beautiful scenery just as the sun was dawning. Most of the passenger were asleep. He was shocked when he saw the driver jump out – even taking his briefcase with him. The bus was heading for a deadly crash.
“I got up and shouted: ‘They want to kill us!’ Toofan was holding the steering wheel. I pulled the handbrake,” he says.
Washing terror away
In utter shock, the writers disembarked the bus one by one. The gendarmerie came and took the entire group for interrogation at a police station near the old Iran-Soviet border.
Mandanipour later learned that in a car a few hundred meters above, a man was watching the whole scene: Sayeed Emami, an agent of the Ministry of Intelligence who was later charged with overseeing the Chain Murders.
In June 1999, his dead body was found in a cell in Tehran’s Evin Prison. He was alleged to have taken his own life by drinking chemical depilatory.
At the border station, the writers were given interrogation forms familiar to any political prisoner. They were asked a series of questions.
“The most ridiculous question was this: ‘You claim that the bus was to be thrown into a valley. If this is true, who do you think did it?’” Mandanipour remembers.
The form gave them some options for this question. Maybe it was the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, known as the Dashnaks, formerly a militant group but now a political party. Or the French intelligence services? Or perhaps a rogue group from inside the Ministry of Intelligence?
The writers spent the night at the station. Since there was not enough space, some slept outside. Several agents walked amongst them, checking their faces. Mandanipour believes that one of the agents he saw was Emami himself.
The morning after, the writers were released. They rented a private bus and went back to Tehran.
On the way to the capital, they stopped at a beach on the Caspian Sea and swam, as if they were trying to wash away the near catastrophe they had just experienced.
They were told not to speak of their experience to anyone. But the BBC’s Persian-language radio reported on the story that same day.
In the years since, many more details have emerged about the Tehran-Yerevan bus affair, how it was an integral part of the Chain Murders, anmd was led by some of its major architects such as Emami and another agent named Masoud Kazemi.
In the fall of 1999, Masoud Toufan wrote a newspaper article describing the event in detail. In an interview he gave to BBC, Mandanipour did the same.
Almost 30 years later, he is clairvoyant about the whole episode.
“I have been in war, and I’ve seen death up close,” Mandanipour tells me. “But this was even more insulting. They wanted to throw us into a valley, like sheep, and this bothered me a great deal.”
“I was sure this was an attempt at cultural liquidation,” Mandanipour adds. “They called it fighting ‘cultural invasion’. The Chain Murders have never stopped. Emami committed suicide or maybe they made him commit suicide. But there are thousands more like him.”
Despite all this, Mandanipour believes the Iranian government has lost in its attempt to crush the Iranian intellectual and arts scene. New generations are even more critical of the Islamic Republic authorities. They have come out in repeated mass protests, as seen in 2009, 2017-18, 2019-20 and 2022-23.
If anything, Mandanipour wants people to remember that Iran’s literary society was a pioneer in raising its voice and in attracting global solidarity.
Throughout the 1980s, as the Islamic Republic consolidated itself, it executed thousands of its opponents, and by the 1990s, no overt oppositional activity was possible.
But in 1994, dozens of members of the Iranian Association of Writers published a statement protesting censorship. Entitled “A Statement by 134 Writers,” it became known by its first line: “We, the Writers.”
“[The statement] showed the exemplary courage of Iranian writers,” says Mandanipour, who was among its signatories. “Even though it was a moderate statement, it was the first group protest following all that massacre, execution, and repression. A group of Iranian intellectuals and writers had been able to gather, and they mostly stood by their words despite all the pressure.”
Only a handful of writers later rescinded their signatures. Many of the rest often paid a heavy price.
More than a dozen of them had been on the Tehran-Yerevan bus. A few were later murdered as part of the Chain Murders. Mokhtari and Pooyandeh were among the signatories as was Ghaffar Hosseini.
A few months after he had refused to go on the bus trip, he was murdered in his own home in Tehran, through an injection of potassium.
However, the 1994 protest letter made Iranian writers many international allies in the days before social media and smartphones.
In a congress of PEN International, the freedom of expression group, legendary playwright Arthur Miller read out the 1994 statement. Many more writers from around the world followed by showing their solidarity – and this helped lessen the pressure in Iran.
On a visit to New York City, on the invitation of PEN, Mandanipour was able to meet Miller in his small Manhattan apartment. He was there as part of an Iranian literary delegation including Sepanloo and veteran writers Mahmoud Dowlatabadi and Javad Mojabi.
“As soon as Miller greeted us, he asked: How is the Iranian Association of Writers doing?” Mandanipour remembers. “This showed how much he cared. He was a great writer and a truly committed human being.”
Miller’s solidarity has been followed in the ensuing years by many others from around the world who have shown sympathy for the Iranian struggle for freedom and justice. This was on show last year as the Women, Life, Freedom movement touched millions.
25 years after the murders, one thing is clear. Despite its decades-long campaign, the Islamic Republic has failed to snuff out the cultural and literary resistance of the Iranian people.