Thousands of Iranian students in the United States on scholarships from Iran’s Islamic government constitute the greatest domestic threat for fulfilling the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death sentences against those involved in the controversial novel, “The Satanic Verses,” a top FBI official told Congress on Wednesday.
Iranian students generally are not monitored by the FBI and thus pose a “dangerous” potential for bookstores and publishers handling author Salman Rushdie’s novel, said Oliver B. Revell, FBI executive assistant director. He called for revised laws to make it easier to deport suspected terrorists.
In an interview after his testimony, Revell estimated that about 10,000 Iranian students here are subsidized by the Iranian government.
“We can’t . . . determine those who may be energized to act by the call of the ayatollah and act on their own accord,” he told the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations, which was exploring the controversy surrounding Rushdie’s book.
Two Berkeley bookstores and the office of a weekly newspaper in New York City were firebombed Feb. 28 after Khomeini issued a death decree against the British author. The bombings, in which no one was injured, may have been related to the book, which has been denounced as blasphemous by many Muslim leaders.
Since the Rushdie controversy began, 178 threats have been made in the United States, Revell said.
A spokesman from an anti-Khomeini group noted that Iranian students who receive money from the Iranian government don’t necessarily support and obey the ayatollah. “The vast majority of them are against the regime,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh, a spokesman for the People’s Moujahedeen Organization of Iran.
There are about 30,000 Iranian students in this country legally, plus a substantial number of Iranians whose student visas have expired, Revell said.
He said most Iranians in the United States fled Iran to avoid repression but that some “are zealot adherents to Khomeini’s rhetoric and his fundamentalist approach, including the use of violence in the pursuit of the Islamic faith.”
He said the FBI typically would not monitor them unless they are affiliated with a suspected terrorist group or are suspected of spying.
Revell recommended that Congress pass legislation to make it easier for the government to expel visitors suspected of terrorist activities. He envisioned a special court to hear classified evidence against suspected terrorists. All evidence now must be heard in open court, where the FBI is reluctant to appear for fear of compromising its intelligence sources. The Bush Administration is reviewing the proposed legislation, a subcommittee aide said.