History repeats itself, whether we’ve forgotten it or not, and sometimes what used to be considered cold cases come back to haunt those governments that hoped they’d just crumble away like old newspaper clippings in rusting file cabinets.
The bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 is shaking Argentina once again, ever since the prosecutor doggedly investigating the case, Alberto Nisman, turned up dead under very mysterious circumstances last month. Did he kill himself? Was he killed by Argentine government agents trying to hide a cover-up? Or as part of a conspiracy to discredit Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner? Or was he killed by Iran, the country whose officials, from top to bottom, he wanted to indict for that massacre of 85 people in Buenos Aires more than two decades ago? These are all, to say the least, volatile questions.
But Argentina is not the only country where atrocities dating back some 20 years—suicide attacks and assassinations—linger like time bombs with the potential to disrupt internal politics and derail critical diplomacy, not least the ongoing negotiations between Iran, the United States and five other powers intent on limiting its nuclear program.
Prominent among those cases is the murder of Hitoshi Igarashi, a peaceful writer and academic who had translated Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, for which he was stabbed to death in the hallway of his office at Tsukuba University in Japan in 1991.
Igarashi’s murder remains unsolved, although clearly it was, at the very least, inspired and provoked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and his novel. A former CIA analyst and National Security Council staff member told The Daily Beast that many U.S. officials at the time believed the Iranians were responsible for Igarashi’s murder. Over the years, given Iran’s record, that belief has turned to a conviction among many in the intelligence community.
It fits into an unmistakable pattern.
On July 3, 1991, Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses, survived a knife attack at his apartment in Milan. Capriolo reported that the assassin, who got away, had told him he was Iranian. The Italian police said the assailant had connections to the Iranian embassy.
Just over a week later, Igarashi was found slain.On October 11, 1993, somebody shot William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, three times outside his home in Oslo. He survived, but the fallout eventually led to Norway recalling its ambassador to Iran.
None of the assassins was ever caught.
There were many more cases, and there were a few arrests, but the killers, if they ever went to prison, rarely remained there for long.
On the night Igarashi was killed, July 11, 1991, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu was in Kennebunkport, Maine, with President George H. W. Bush. First they gave an afternoon press conference on the lawn of the president’s residence, during which they spoke about rice and perestroika. President Bush was asked about the Iran-Contra affair, whether the United States had gotten in bed with the shady side of the Islamic Republic.
The two leaders dined together later that evening, maybe on lobster, unaware of the murder of the quiet scholar back in Japan, and the grim harbinger it was—of far-reaching Iranian cloak and dagger to come, and of Islamic radicalism’s violent reaction to artistic expression, interpretation, and critique.
The filmmakers and cartoonists attacked with guns and knives in the Netherlands, France, and Denmark, the journalists captured and murdered in Syria were victims of other groups that claim to act on behalf of Allah, but Iran is the “revolution” that set the precedent.
What’s so senseless and telling about Igarashi’s murder is that far from being an enemy of Islam, he was fascinated by and deeply invested in it.
An associate professor of comparative Islamic culture at Tsukuba University, he had even lived and studied in Iran, in the waning days of the Shah, leaving the country before the monarch’s overthrow in 1979.
Along with his translations, Igarashi also wrote books on Islam, including The Islamic Renaissance and Medicine and Wisdom of the East. Professor Shimegi Inaga, who has spoken and written eloquently about Igarashi, keeping his memory and work alive, called him “one of the top Japanese Islamic scholars of the generation.”
“Igarashi took advantage of his solid philology in Islamic studies, and tried to criticize both the Western claim to freedom of expression and the Islamist self-righteousness in the Rushdie affair so as to serve as a mediator in the controversy,” Inaga declared at an academic conference in Chicago in 2007. A stunningly balanced view, particularly in light of how his life ended.
But the followers of the ayatollah’s fatwa couldn’t recognize an ally of their faith and culture. Something of a mystical Sufi perhaps, Igarashi was far too complex a thinker for the Manichean mind of fundamentalist Islam.
In 2006 the 15-year statute of limitations on his murder expired. Hitoshi’s wife, Masako, was still crying out for justice, pressing the Japanese police not to give up on her husband’s case.
The impression then and now, however, is that the Japanese government—like President Kirchner in Argentina in response to the bombings in Buenos Aires—was content to let Igarashi’s murder slide, and sought no real justice for the man, because he was murdered by foreign agents and Japan was dependent on Iranian oil—the very same charge that Prosecutor Nisman was set to level against Kirchner last month Nisman before he was found dead.
Meanwhile, as Iran gains leverage in Iraq and presses the nuclear issue, its overseas hand is active again.
The State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism 2013,” submitted to Congress in April last year, states, “Since 2012, the United States has also seen a resurgence of activity by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Tehran’s ally Hizballah.”
Igarashi’s death deserves a deeper investigation. So does Nisman's. So do all the others.
These cold cases with Iranian implications still burn, and as long as they remain unsolved and unresolved no trust should be placed in the Tehran regime that inspired, aided and abetted so many murders, nor in the Western governments that want to pretend these cases are ancient history. They remain very much a part of the dangerous present.