The below is an archived article first published by IranWire on August 26, 2020. It has been republished as part of our new series on transnational repression. Read more about the project here.
For the last 40 years, the Islamic Republic has engaged in a practice of assassinating and eliminating dissidents who are based outside of Iran. These include supporters of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, especially those based in European countries.
On May 23, 2020, the US State Department released a report entitled Iran's Assassinations and Terrorist Activity Abroad. It outlined the 360 assassinations carried out in the name of the Islamic Republic since 1979, often at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force and the Ministry of Intelligence, but also conducted via third parties, agents, and proxy groups such as Hezbollah.
Which groups and individuals does Iran target the most, and who has been killed in its name?
Assassination Plots: Part of Day-to-Day Business
In a memoir of his presidency, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote that the special envoy of Sultan Qaboos, the King of Oman, had warned him that an Iranian diplomat based in Muscat was planning to assassinate an official guest of the government of Oman. Rafsanjani's tone in the diary suggests such assassinations were not shocking or even particularly questionable at the time. He does not deny the plot, and simply issues an order, dated June 18, 1995 in the diaries:
"Sultan Qaboos' representative accompanied Akhavi Muhammad, the Deputy Foreign Minister, to deliver the Sultan's message. In a private meeting, he said that an Iranian diplomat and a group were planning to assassinate a foreign official. I told them to summon him."
Seven days later, on June 25, Rafsanjani wrote that he had been the guest of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and had informed him about "the issue of Sultan Qaboos' message.” He did not, however, give any indication of how the Supreme Leader reacted.
High-Profile Assassinations of Pro-Shah Individuals in Europe
One of the first known pro-Shah assassinations was that of Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, an advisor to the Iranian Royal Embassy in Washington, in 1980. Since the assassination of Tabatabaei and the escape of his killer, an African-American Muslim convert , to Iran, there have been no other reported killings by agents of the Islamic Republic in the United States.
But the situation in Europe worsened in the years that followed. The assassination of Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi, a dissident living in the Netherlands who the Islamic Republic accused of carrying out the August 30, 1981 bombing of the prime minister's office, is one of the most recent crimes to have taken place on the continent. Last year a Dutch court sentenced his killer to life imprisonment.
How the Shah's Allies Met Their Deaths
State-sponsored assassinations outside Iran can be divided into five groups. The first constitutes family members, political leaders and senior military commanders of the Shah's era who managed to leave Iran during the 1979 revolution. The best-known examples within this group are Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister under the Shah, General Gholam Ali Oveissi, the military governor of Tehran in September 1978, and Shahriar Shafiq, the Shah's nephew and a senior naval officer.
All three of these men were assassinated in Paris. There were two attempts against Shapour Bakhtiar’s life: the first, in July 1980, was by a Lebanese militant Anis Nakash, who was based in Tehran and had attended official meetings there, including with Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was arrested during the failed attempt and sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 1990 by French authorities in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah. Nakash later told Iranian press that the plot was ordered by Iranian authorities.
Then, in the summer of 1991, Bakhtiar was stabbed to death in his home. The assassination was carried out by people posing as supporters who thus managed to enter his place of residence. Ali Vakili-Rad, who was identified by the French judiciary as one of those responsible for Bakhtiar's murder, was also later released as part of an exchange deal involving a French citizen imprisoned in Tehran. On arrival in Tehran, he was welcomed by officials.
The assassination of Gholam Ali Oveissi, along with his brother, took place in January 1984 and was carried out by members of Lebanon's Islamic Jihad Organization on the orders of Imad Mughniyeh, who later became a senior commander for Lebanese Hezbollah. By contrast, no-one has claimed responsibility for the November 1979 murder of Shahriar Shafiq, and his killers have never officially been identified.
Targeted: Dissidents Who Displeased the Islamic Republic
The second major grouping of assassinations relates to the employees, managers and affiliates of the Islamic Republic who either refused to continue working with Iran or were accused of being in some way hostile to the Iranian government.
The 1986 killing of Ali Akbar Mohammadi, a former chief pilot for President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who had defected and claimed asylum in Germany, is one of these. Mohammadi was gunned down in the streets of Hamburg shortly after his arrival. But eight months later, Rafsanjani denied any formal links to the pilot. Mohammad Hassan Mansouri and Ahmad Moradi Talemi, two other Iranian pilots who had respectively fled to Canada and Iraq, were also later killed.
In the recent case of Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi, cited above, Iran accused the exiled political dissident of having masterminded the bombing of August 30, 1981 bombing that killed then-President and Prime Minister Mohammad-Ali Rajai and Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, and others. Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi has also moved to exonerate the Iranian regime of any involvement, claiming: "He lived in the Netherlands for 30 years under a false identity until he was mysteriously beaten and killed."
Earlier this year the sudden death of Gholamreza Mansouri, an Iranian hanging judge accused of corruption who had fled to Romania, made headlines around the world. Mansouri was facing criminal prosecution in Iran and potentially Europe when he abruptly fell to his death inside his Bucharest hotel. "One of the speculations about the death of Judge Mansouri," said Mojtaba Zolnouri, head of the National Security Committee, "is the existence of a notorious gang linked to the judiciary [and tasked with] removing anyone who may have information."
Political Killings of Activists and Critics Overseas
The third group most frequently targeted by Iran are opposition activists and those who object to the policies of the Islamic Republic, who have not necessarily held an official position in the country but have nevertheless been identified as in some way influential - therefore posing a perceived threat to the Iranian regime.
In 1992, Fereydoun Farrokhzad, a famous Iranian singer, poet, actor and TV and radio host, who had left Iran for Germany in 1979, was the subject of a brutal murder in his kitchen in Bonn. The crime remains unsolved but it is widely thought to have been carried out by the Islamic Republic alongside other killings abroad in the period. Reza Fazeli, an Iranian-born actor living in Britain, was the target of a 1986 bomb attack at his workplace in London; he survived, but his son was killed. More recently Saeed Karimian, an Iranian TV producer based in Turkey, was gunned down in Istanbul in April 2017. His family had previously been held hostage by the Iranian regime - on the orders of the aforementioned Judge Mansouri - in a bid to force him to take his channel Gem TV off-air.
Leaders of Political and Military Groups
The largest category of those targeted and assassinated abroad is that of the leaders of political and military organizations that oppose the Islamic Republic. Kazem Rajavi, the first Iranian ambassador to the UN's Office in Geneva, who was the brother of Masoud Rajavi, leader of the People's Mojahedin Organization (MEK), was shot to death in Switzerland by agents of the Intelligence Ministry in April 1990. Sadegh Sharafkandi, secretary-general of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, was one of four Kurdish opposition leaders killed by machine gun-wielding assassins at Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, also a leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, was killed in July 1989 in the very room in which he had been holding negotiations with Iranian government envoys.
Religiously-Motivated Killings in Europe and Asia
Religious figures constitue the fifth group targeted in assassinations on behalf of the Islamic Republic. They include Sunni Muslim leaders traveling abroad, Christians and Christian converts, and members of the Baha'i faith. Among them Maulvi Abdul Nasser Jamshid-Zehi, a member of Iran's Supreme Sunni Assembly, who was killed in 1993 in front of his residence in Karachi, Pakistan.
Nasser Zarafshan, a lawyer for the families of the victims of the so-called "chain murders" in Iran from 1988 to 1998, who himself was eventually imprisoned, said: "The defendants said that the kidnapping and removal of these people was their organizational duty. ‘Why are you making a fuss about these people?’, they asked.”
The person long thought to have masterminded the chain murders was Saeed Emami, a former deputy minister of intelligence. At his funeral, Ruhollah Hosseinian, a deputy intelligence minister nder President Rafsanjani, stated: ”He believed that opponents of the Islamic Republic should be annihilated and he had good experience in this area."
The US State Department says the Islamic Republic has carried out more than 360 assassinations abroad since its establishment in 1979. These killings took place in the United States, Tajikistan, Denmark, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, India, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Austria, Germany, Italy, Britain, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Romania. Of these, its report claimed, France, Austria and Germany in Europe and Turkey, Pakistan and Iraq have seen the highest numbers of assassinations.
Below is a list of some of those assassinated in the last four decades outside of Iran: