TEHRAN — The head of Iran's intelligence ministry resigned Tuesday in the continuing political fallout from revelations that agents killed at least two dissident writers and two nationalist politicians last year.
The resignation of Qorbanali Dorri Najafabadi, reportedly along with two of his deputies, is an important victory for reformist forces, allowing President Mohammad Khatami to exert at least partial control over the Information Ministry, the somewhat misleading name of the body that gathers both internal and external intelligence.
The ministry has been a bastion of conservatives resisting a trend toward greater democracy and openness. Conservatives also dominate parliament, the judiciary and the army, while reformers lined up behind Khatami are making inroads in most other Iranian institutions.
Facing a public uproar over the killings in November and December, the Information Ministry made the startling admission last month that they had been carried out by some of its own "renegade" agents. These agents, who have not been publicly identified, are said to be under arrest.
Why the ministry disclosed the agents' role remains something of a mystery. Some analysts speculate that the Khatami camp had identified the culprits and forced the Information Ministry's hand.
Others believe that mainstream conservatives, who are aligned with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, felt such killings were harming the conservatives' political chances and insisted that arrests be made. Iran holds nationwide municipal and provincial elections later this month.
In any case, the confession that at least some agents of the regime had been caught killing dissidents and the assurance that they would be held accountable were firsts for Iran, and gave the reform camp a huge shot in the arm.
If Khatami now succeeds in inserting his people in the ministry, it will mean that the conservatives will "lose that power base. It will either be neutralized, or the reformers will gain control and be able to use it as an institution for the rule of law," political scientist Nasser Hadian said.
News of the resignation came in two English-language papers, the Iran Daily and the Tehran Times, and was confirmed by state media.
"Informed sources said . . . that Information Minister Qorbanali Dorri Najafabadi has presented his letter of resignation to President Mohammad Khatami," the Iran Daily said. "The chief executive is expected to answer within one or two days."
The newspaper, published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, quoted the same sources saying Ali Yunesi, a cleric who has been in charge of military courts, will replace Najafabadi.
Najafabadi, 53, is widely believed to have been forced on Khatami by conservatives in parliament when the president was forming his Cabinet in August 1997.
Although Yunesi, 43, helped organize the ministry after the Iranian revolution, he apparently has Khatami's confidence. Khatami earlier had named him to lead a special commission to look into the killings.
According to the Tehran Times, Yunesi was active in the 1978-79 revolution that toppled the regime of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and suffered "severe torture" at the hands of the SAVAK, the shah's secret police. The paper said Yunesi went into exile in the 1970s and spent time in Palestinian and Lebanese guerrilla camps.
His appointment to replace Najafabadi is subject to approval by parliament. But conservatives, who have been on the defensive ever since the disclosures, are not likely to block it, said conservative parliament member Mohammed Reza Bahonar, quoted by the Sobh-e Emrooz daily.
In his resignation letter, Najafabadi said he was leaving "to create the suitable atmosphere and necessary conditions for this powerful ministry to carry out its duties."
He complained that the ministry had unjustifiably come under fire in the wake of the killings, including "ruthless attacks by domestic and foreign enemies against the country's great security and intelligence apparatus."
According to the news reports, Najafabadi will be taken on as an advisor to Khatami.
Iranians were shaken by the slayings of nationalist dissident Dariush Foruhar and his wife, Parvanjeh, in November, and of writers Mohammed Mokhtari and Mohammed Jafar Pouyandeh soon afterward.
Another writer, Majid Sharif, disappeared at about the same time and was found dead. Some suspected he also was slain, but authorities said he died of a heart attack.
One Western diplomat in Tehran said he believes that the radical right may have been trying to intimidate reformers or create a pretext for a hard-line takeover to restore law and order. Tehran has been swept by rumors of other "death lists"--killings that were not carried out because the agents' involvement was exposed.