Lost in the election-year drudgery that is America’s current foreign policy discussion is a fact most won’t dispute: The Ali Khameini regime in Iran has been brutal at home and abroad, restricting human rights within its borders and supporting murders and assassinations around the world. While the right-wing saber-rattling has been nothing short of irresponsible and misguided, a naturally broad rebuttal against their IRAN IS ALL-POWERFUL AND BAD FOLKS argument leads to a denial of the total shittiness of Khameini and his clerical thugs, granting the terrible leaders of post-Shah Iran the clemency they don’t deserve. (And while we’re on the subject of who deserves what: the Iranian people don’t deserve Khameini, et al.)
In this context, Roya Hakakian’s Assassins of the Turquoise Palace is a great read, an example of the pathetically infantile pettiness carried by the Khomeini-Khameini regimes. Hakakian’s subject is an assassination in September 1992, the gunning down of four Iranian-Kurdish leaders at a Greek restaurant (Mykonos) in Berlin. At a meeting of opposition members, two “hulking, bearded figures” executed the killings with a chilling lack of precision, firing a silenced machine gun with little regard for who was and wasn’t hit.
Almost immediately in Assassins, the reader knows the identity of the gunmen (and their watchman). What we don’t know, and what keeps the suspense going, is who ordered it—who paid the triggermen, who wanted the men dead, and why. Of course, tying the loose ends are not difficult in the early going. We know that Noori and his companions opposed a brutal, murderous regime. Being on Khameini’s shitlist is, essentially, a death sentence. And once we meet two men on the “team,” Rhayel and Yousef, it’s clear they were put up to it. All signs point to Tehran.
But Hakakian’s not writing a crime novel; her story has breadth. In the aftermath of the shootings, Parviz—a survivor—uses media contacts to get his story out. Fearful that a soft-on-Iran German government will deport the assassins and refuse to investigate the scope of the killings, Parviz pushes a narrative of conspiracy. While German government figures immediately point to the possibility of rival Kurdish independence groups being involved, Parviz feels—or knows—that it’s all smoke meant to distract from Iran. With deft cleverness, Parviz leaks information to different newsmen, anxious to get the story out. And while Parviz seems almost gleeful in his mischief, it’s heartbreaking to know what drives him, Hakakian painting a vivid picture: the pain of silence, no mention of the murders in papers or on television; his friends gunned down, later swallowed up in the news cycle.
The good in Assassins is in these heartbreaking vignettes, the living making do without their friends or family members. Of course, the ongoing investigation—and ensuing lengthy trial—has much to do with their collective grief. Hakakian divides these two worlds in some respect: the investigation and the grief. With the sustained gravity in the sections on Parviz and Sara and Shohreh, bringing the killers to justice seems secondary.
That’s not to say the investigation isn’t dazzling: political conflicts of interest, press leaks, (for an American) a strange trial system in Germany, and a whole other cast of characters whose stories Hakakian deftly fleshes out. And, on top of all of this, a broad conspiracy involving Khameini and Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. (Side note: for an American like me, a vast, state-sponsored conspiracy—which might be called terrorism—is so easy to call bullshit on. But as Assassins shows, or the trial of the Mykonos killers shows, it is a thing, really. And it’s a thing that’s so weirdly small in scale and petty, almost infantile, this desire to blow away old political foes for sport. Anyways.)
The two worlds meet at times—Shohreh’s courtroom outbursts, Parviz’s fear that the seemingly dutiful German legal figures would be bought out, the Iranian-Kurdish diaspora flooding the gallery—a collision that produces compelling text. And credit to Hakakian not only for her investigation but also for her smooth, readable prose.
But it’s the division between the two is heartening: there are these German officials prosecuting murders, hopeful to find those responsible for the Mykonos assassinations. Whenever the bereaved has a moment to emphasize the sheer, absolute importance of the Germans’ task—before or after the trial—the legal officials shrug and assert, almost heartlessly, that they’re just doing their jobs.
And I like to think there’s a lesson there. Doing your job, putting your head down and working—as a prosecutor or an investigator or a judge—sometimes means doing good, doing things that will make a group of oft-discriminated people feel some level of retribution, that will expose a murderous regimes pathetic attempts to squash its opposition abroad. Suspense isn’t the only thing that will make you extra-aware of your heart.