“Since coming to power in 1979, the Iranian regime has been implicated in assassinations, terrorist plots, and terrorist attacks in more than 40 countries,” declared the US State Department in a shock report on May 22. “Iran’s global campaign of terror has included as many as 360 targeted assassinations in other countries, and mass bombing attacks that killed and maimed hundreds.”
Are the US State Department’s accusations groundless, or is there a grain of truth in them? In this article we try to address this question, with the help of official sources from the Islamic Republic itself.
One day in October 1988, a car driving towards the Iranian border raised the suspicions of the Turkish police. When they stopped the car, they found a man in the trunk with his mouth taped shut. The car had diplomatic plates, and enquiries revealed it belonged to the Iranian embassy. The passengers were two embassy personnel, and the man whose mouth was taped was Abolhassan Mojtahedzadeh: a member of opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK).
Foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati reported the incident to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the speaker of the Iranian parliament. In his memoirs, Rafsanjani would write of the episode: “Dr. Velayati reported that a number of Iranian agents who had apprehended a leader of [the Mojahedin] and were conveying him to Iran in a car with diplomatic plates had been arrested. The Turks want to expel the two diplomats and have put three others in prison. I said that they should study this issue very carefully and try not to make too much noise about it. Turkish newspapers have reported the news.”
Then-Iranian prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi had been scheduled to pay an official visit to Turkey a month later. A few days before the visit, interior minister Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour traveled to Turkey to speak to Turkish officials and lay the groundwork for Moussavi’s visit. One of the topics of this discussion was the 700,000 Iranians who had fled to Turkey after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, many of whom were later kidnapped or even killed by agents of the Islamic Republic. The issue had ramped up tensions between Turkey and Iran, especially after the Iraq War.
A year before the two Iranian diplomats were caught red-handed, Turkey had expelled the Iranian ambassador Manouchehr Mottaki, later President Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, over similar acts by Iranian agents.
The Kidnapping of Khamenei’s Sister
The kidnapping of individuals outside Iranian borders is as old as the Islamic Republic itself. Even the sister of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was not exempt from this. In the early 1990s, Intelligence Ministry agents abducted Badri Hosseini Khamenei, who had joined her husband in Iraq along with her children, and forced her to return to Iran. Her husband, Sheikh Ali Tehrani, had been a representative of Khorasan at the Constitutional Assembly after the revolution turned against the regime and in 1984 claimed asylum in Iraq. He too returned to Iran in 1995.
In his memoirs, Hashemi Rafsanjani also writes that Ayatollah Khamenei – who was by then the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic – told intelligence minister Ali Fallahian that he was unhappy about the incident.
Earlier this month the US State Department added Fallahian’s name to its sanctions list because of his record of terrorist activities during his tenure as the Intelligence Minister. “Iran engaged in these assassinations and other attacks primarily through the [Revolutionary Guards’] Quds Force and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, but also via third parties and proxies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah,” says the “fact sheet” it published in the aftermath.
One of the most severe terrorist acts Lebanese Hezbollah has been accused carrying out of as a proxy for Iran is the 1983 bombing of a multinational peacekeepers’ barracks in Beirut. The two truck bombs killed 241 American marines, 58 French military personnel and six civilians and maimed others in the buildings. Since then US courts have awarded billions of dollars to the victim’s families from the assets and properties of the Islamic Republic.
The State Department’s missive also mentions Alisa Michelle Flatow, a twenty-year old US citizen who was in Israel on a foreign study program when she was killed in 1995 in a Gaza suicide bombing. The Palestinian Islam Jihad, a terrorist group supported by Iran, was responsible and in 1998, a US federal district court found Fallahian had contributed to Flatow’s death by personally approving the provision of resources to the terrorist group that killed her.
Not Only the United States
The US is not alone in accusing Iranian diplomats of engaging in terrorism. The State Department’s report also names two officials at the Iranian embassy in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires: Ahmad Reza Asghari, third secretary at the embassy, and Mohsen Rabbani, the cultural attaché.
In July 1994, a suicide truck bomb attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires killed 85 people and injured hundreds of others. Both Asghari and Rabbani were accused by Argentina of involvement in the deadliest terrorist attack to ever have taken place in the country.
Hadi Soleimanpour was the Iranian ambassador to Argentina at the time. He was arrested in 2003 while studying in northeast England on a student visa. The warrant had been issued by an Argentinian court, and demanded his extradition to Argentina to face allegations that he had been a key figure in planning the attack. Eventually, though, Soleimanpour was released from extradition proceedings due to “insufficient evidence” and was later appointed to a top post at the foreign ministry under Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The State Department’s report also notes, “Iranian assassins using diplomatic cover have attracted increased scrutiny. Iran has showed willingness to use criminal gangs, drug cartels, and other third parties to carry out its assassination plots abroad.”
The assassination of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press attaché to the Iranian embassy in the US under the Shah, in July 1980 was one early example of such operations. Tabatabai was killed at his home near Washington DC by Dawud Salahuddin, an American Muslim convert who worked in the Iranian interest division of the Algerian embassy and, posing as a mailman, shot Tabatabai dead on his doorstep.
After the assassination, Salahuddin escaped to Iran. He went on to play a major character in the 2001 film Kandahar by the well-known Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
This was not an isolated incident. In 1980, Anis Naccache, a Lebanese national, led a five-man team to assassinate Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last prime minister. The plot failed, but Naccache and his accomplices were pardoned by French President François Mitterrand and he returned to Iran. He is still regularly invited to official gatherings. In 1991, agents of the Islamic Republic eventually succeeded in assassinating Bakhtiar at his home in France.
A similar incident took place in Germany in what became known as the “Mykonos Assassinations”. In September 1992, four Kurdish leaders were killed by machine-gun fire in the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin. The main defendant in the case was Kazem Darabi, an Iranian who worked as a grocer in Berlin and, according to Iran’s ambassador to Germany, Hossein Mousavi, was an active leader of Islamic student societies in Germany. Darabi and four Lebanese nationals were indicted and sentenced to various prison terms for planning and executing the attack. In 1997, the German courts issued an international arrest warrant for the very same Iranian intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian, declaring that the assassination had been ordered by him with the knowledge of Khamenei and Rafsanjani.
Naming Terror Targets in Public
In his memoirs, Hossein Mousavi also writes that Germany’s federal supreme court indicted Ali Fallahian and the intelligence ministry for murder because, in an interview with the Iranian state TV a few days before the attack, he had explicitly named the assassinated Kurds as his ministry’s “targets.”
Kazem Darabi was sentenced to life in prison but ended up being released in 2007 and deported back to Iran, where he was welcomed by government officials. Last year he published his memoirs, which received the government’s “Book of the Year” award, which was presented to him personally by President Rouhani.
The most recent high-profile incident was the 2019 assassination of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, a vocal critic of the Islamic Republic, in Istanbul, Turkey. Five people were arrested in Turkey in connection with the killing. But according to two senior Turkish officials who spoke anonymously with the Reuters, the murder took place at the instigation of Iran’s consulate in Turkey.
Iranian diplomats and agents outside Iran have been under increased surveillance because of these incidents and others over the past 40 years. But even today, some continue to try to use their diplomatic immunity to repeat the “successes” of earlier decades.
Asadollah Asadi, a senior diplomat with the Iranian embassy in Vienna who enjoys this legal privilege, spent the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution awaiting trial in a Belgian prison. He stands accused of providing a Belgian-Iranian couple with a bomb in Luxembourg for an attack against an Iranian opposition group in France. Asadi was arrested by German police at the request of Belgium.
Diplomatic immunity is only valid in the country that grants it to a diplomat. Even this, though, is only valid if it relates to actions connected to their diplomatic duties, and can be revoked if a diplomat commits offences that fall outside of this. Asadi’s immunity was thus not recognized by Germany, and now that he charged with involvement in a terrorist plot, it is not recognized by Austria either.