Ten miles up the freeway from where the missile cruiser Vincennes is berthed, the San Diego State University campus has four Iranian student groups. One of them, the International Muslim Students Assn., is an avowed supporter of Iran’s ruler, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
According to university administrators and Iranian community members in the San Diego area, the group consists of only five or six hard-core pro-Khomeini students, plus hangers-on. But this week, the tiny group has been the subject of an FBI inquiry and some San Diego State administrative concern, ever since a pipe bomb went off under a van being driven by the Vincennes skipper’s wife.
Last July, the Iranian government vowed revenge after Vincennes Capt. Will Rogers III ordered his ship to fire on an Iranian aircraft over the Persian Gulf, mistaking a civilian airliner for an attacking warplane. All 290 aboard the plane were killed.
Of the 31 students holding Iranian passports and another 100 or so of Iranian origin currently enrolled at San Diego State, most are either non-political neutrals or against the Khomeini regime. Thousands of Iranians, most of them permanent immigrants, live in the San Diego area and, according to community sources, more than 90% of them are opposed to Khomeini. The pro-Khomeini elements in this area probably number no more than 50 people, according to Aqueel El-Amin, the imam of the mosque where they worship.
This week, the pro-Khomeini group, which usually keeps a low profile, was at pains to deny in strong terms that it had anything to do with the bombing incident.
A spokesman for the group, who asked that his name not be used, said, “My wish is that they catch the person who did this, because my opinion is that it was not done by somebody practicing Islam. It was done by somebody who wants to inflame hatred against Muslims.”
A Muslim, the spokesman said, would not attack a woman for what her husband did. Moreover, he said, “I have not personally received any word from the Iranian government that Capt. Rogers is to be punished or that even Mr. Rogers is at fault” for shooting down the airliner.
Many anti-Khomeini Iranians in San Diego also express fears that the bombing incident or any future incidents will inflame sentiment and possibly action against innocent Muslims. A longtime Iranian resident and former San Diego State student who now operates a business near the campus said in an interview Wednesday night:
“If I were pro-Khomeini, I wouldn’t be worried. The worst that could happen to them would be to be deported. But for us, there’s no place we could be safely deported to.
“It would be the anti-Khomeini Iranians that would be stuck in the camps. . . . We always have this fear that they (the U.S. government) may gather us in a camp.”
The man asked not to be identified, because he said he has had three cousins recently executed in Iran. Even locally, he added, “we’re dealing with real bad guys, and they could blow up my whole place in a minute.”
He said that twice this week, FBI agents had come to see him, asking for aid in identifying militant Iranians on the San Diego State campus as part of their investigation into the bombing incident.
“I didn’t want them to get on their case,” he said. “I didn’t have any names, and if I had any names, I’m afraid I’d get them in trouble by giving them out.”
He said he told the FBI that he does not believe Iranians on the campus would be directly involved “in any dirty business.” Describing the pro-Khomeini hard core on the campus as future “diplomats” for Iran, he said that in any event, “they’d never use an Iranian for something like this.”
“They would always use a Lebanese Shiite,” he said.
San Diego FBI spokesman Ronald Orrantia refused to say Thursday who was being interviewed in the van bombing investigation, saying, “We haven’t eliminated any areas of the investigation, and it’s very broad in scope.”
Ron Moffatt, the director of International Student Services at San Diego State, said in an interview, “I get concerned when students are lumped into a category and there’s a backlash. We try to protect them from getting hurt.”
But, he added, “10 years ago, I could dismiss it as nonsense when someone said a student might be a terrorist.”
“I can’t say now there’s no possibility. (Terrorism) has grown so much more sophisticated, and it’s now a 10-year history,” he said.
The International Muslim Student Assn. on the campus is seldom active publicly, but on March 4 it sponsored a public forum where the speaker was a visiting Muslim convert, Gregory Rose, who is a political science professor at the University of North Texas. Rose was quoted in the Daily Aztec, the San Diego State student newspaper, as describing Khomeini’s death sentence of author Salman Rushdie as absolutely justified.
Rose was quoted as saying, “This is an internal matter for Moslems--let us take care of it ourselves.”
Scott Morton, the Daily Aztec reporter who covered the meeting, said that after Rose spoke, someone in the predominantly Muslim audience got up and asserted that the murder of Rushdie would not require a bomb, but could be done “real peaceful-like, just by slitting his throat.”
The spokesman for the Muslim Student Assn., who said he had been in attendance, confirmed Rose’s comments but said he had heard no one talk about slitting Rushdie’s throat. The local imam, El-Amin, who also had been present, agreed with the spokesman.
Moffatt said neither Rose’s nor others’ remarks at the forum had been formally reported to the San Diego State administration.
“All student organizations agree to comply with local, state and federal laws,” he said. “Any violation would need to be investigated.”
Moffatt, as did spokespersons for other universities contacted in the San Diego area, noted that the number of Iranian students has declined sharply in recent years. Moffatt said there were 109 students with Iranian passports on the San Diego State campus in the fall of 1985, 70 in 1986, 39 in 1987, 36 in 1988 and the 31 now.
A spokeswoman for UC San Diego said there are 35 Iranians on the campus, although there are no politically active Iranian student groups there. There are even fewer Iranian students and no Iranian political activity at the University of San Diego and United States International University.
Nationally, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, there are currently 22,631 Iranian students in the United States, of whom 6,453 are going to school in California, the largest concentration of any state.
INS spokesman Verne Jervis said that U.S. policy is not to bar anyone from entering this country on the basis of nationality. But, he noted, those who wish to enter must apply at a U.S. embassy. Since the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, Iranians must proceed to other countries to get U.S. visas.
Iranian students applying for visas “do get a more thorough inspection,” Jervis said. “They’re placed in secondary interviews and questioned about their intentions,” and “there’s a very good likelihood that their luggage would be looked at more thoroughly.”
If someone has bad intentions, he said, they “tend to withdraw (from that screening process). That happens daily with all nationalities.”
Jervis’ remarks regarding Iranian students were more accepting in tone than those made in congressional testimony on March 8 by Oliver B. Revell, FBI executive assistant director, who declared that thousands of Iranian students pose a “dangerous” potential for causing trouble in the United States.
He said that while most Iranian students in the United States fled Iran to avoid repression, there may be “tens” of zealous Iranian revolutionary guards among them.
Moffatt and Mary Dhooge, dean of international education at UC San Diego, said that last November, the State Department moved to tighten restrictions on Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese students given single-entry visas to enter the United States.
In the past, they said, such students were allowed under an informal procedure to cross the border into Mexico, and as long as they did not stay too long or venture more than 20 miles beyond the border, they were given assurance that they would be allowed to return on the same visa. Under the new policy, they said, the State Department has withdrawn that assurance.
Moffatt and Dhooge said that accordingly, they had warned such students against excursions to Tijuana. Moffatt said that just this week he told four Iranian students not to take part in a trip to Tijuana that San Diego State was organizing for foreign students.
Contributing to this story was Times staff writer Lee May in Washington.