Turkish media outlets have provided new details about the murder of Massoud Molavi Vardanjani, a prominent critic of the Islamic Republic and curator of the Black Box Telegram channel, who was killed in Istanbul in 2019.
Last March Turkish officials accused Iranian diplomatic personnel of ordering and coordinating the attack. Now Sabah newspaper reports that an employee at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul has been arrested in connection with forging the travel documents of one Ali Esfanjani. Who is this man, and what does he have to do with Vardanjani's murder?
The Turkish newspaper Sabah reports that back in June 2018, after fleeing Iran for Istanbul, Molavi became friends with Ali Esfanjani: an Iranian residing in the same city. But according to this publication, Esfanjani passed all the information he obtained on the dissident Telegram channel operator back to intelligence units in Iran.
But to further muddy the waters, Sabah goes on to state that Vardanjani himself was as a former Iranian intelligence operative who had later turned against the regime, using social media to expose corruption involving Iranian officials.
Molavi was shot dead on a street in Istanbul’s affluent Şişli neighborhood on November 14, 2019. Shortly beforehand he had met with Esfanjani, who had accompanied him to the scene of the murder. Thirteen suspects were detained by Turkish police in the aftermath, of whom eight were remanded in custody.
Among the suspects was a man named Abdulvabap Koçak: a man who in turn had ties with had ties to fugitive Iranian drug lord Naji Sharif Zindashti, who is still at large despite a string of charges against him in Turkey. Zindashti was also implicated in the disappearance of Habib Assoud, otherwise known as Habib Chaab, a former head of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, who was abducted in Istanbul in October 2020 and smuggled back to Iran.
Further cementing Zindashti’s apparent collaboration with the Islamic Republic’s targeting of dissidents abroad, Sabah newspaper had previously identified Zindashti's driver and bodyguard as a suspect in the killing of Saeed Karimian, the exiled director of the Iranian channel GEM TV, who was shot dead three years ago by unknown assailants in Istanbul.
Fake Documents Prepared for Informant’s Escape
Some 35 people were interrogated in connection with Vardanjani’s killing. Among them was Siavash Abazari Shalamzari, who had helped to arrange the escape of Ali Esfanjani after the murder. Shalamzari told the prosecutor’s office that a falsified travel document had been prepared for Esfanjani by the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul.
According to his testimony, Mohammad Reza Nasserzadeh, the then-registrar of the Iranian Consulate General, had arranged for a new, forged passport for Ali Esfanjani. When Esfanjani’s plane touched down in Tehran, he added, about seven members of the Islamic Republic's intelligence service had come to greet him.
Shalamzari said Esfanjani’s new ID was under the name Abbas. “All the information on the travel document was the same as the passport, except that his name was written Abbas. I called Haji (Mohammad Reza Naserzadeh) and said that they had misspelled his name. He told me to wait, and he would call the consulate. He called back 15 minutes later and said that the consulate was two thousand kilometers away, and try to find a way. When we landed at Tehran airport, I saw Haji. They were waiting for us. They took Ali and left. I never saw him again."
Nasserzadeh, 43, was arrested on February 10, 2020, on charges of aiding and abetting Esfanjani by preparing a fake travel document for him. The detained diplomat was held at the prosecutor's office for about three hours. He claimed that he had not been in Turkey at the time of the assassination and that his mission at the consulate had ended before the assassination took place. Furthermore, he said, he did not know Ali Esfanjani and the others named in the case. For its part, the Islamic Republic has denied the arrest of its employee in Turkey.
Iranian Agents Often Let Off the Hook in Turkey
Over the past 40 years, the Islamic Republic has assassinated or kidnapped a large number of its political opponents overseas. The assassination of Vardanjani is one of the few times in which an Iranian diplomat has reportedly gone on to face arrest in connection with facilitating such a killing. The fact that the arrest took place in Turkey is even more unusual.
Turkey and Iran have a visa waiver agreement and as such, Turkey has long been a haven for people displaced from Iran. But as easy as it is for asylum seekers to enter Turkey, the agreement also allows the Islamic Republic’s security agents to quickly cross the border after them – so much so that before the fall of Saddam Hussain in Iraq, Turkey was construed as the principal "backyard" of Iranian security agents in the region. Today it is easy hunting ground for the Iranian regime to kidnap and assassinate its opponents.
Employees of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul enjoy diplomatic immunity and are therefore widely considered to be immune to arrest and trial. This is a fundamental misreading of the law, as was proven last week when Asadollah Asadi, the third secretary of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic in Vienna, was finally sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempting to carry out a bombing operation at a July 2018 conference of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization [MKO] on the outskirts of Paris.
Even though targeted killings of political opponents of the Islamic Republic have been taking place in Turkey for four decades now, the government has at most expelled any Iranian diplomats thought to be involved. On one occasion this included Iran’s ambassador, Manouchehr Mottaki, who later became Iran’s Foreign Minister in the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The repeated assassination of dissidents in Turkey, some of whom have been relatives or politicians allied to Mohammad Reza Shah, and others members of political groups opposed to the Islamic Republic, is explicitly mentioned in the memoirs of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and ambassador to Germany.
Rafsanjani writes in his diaries of November 1988: "[Then-Foreign Minister] Dr. (Ali Akbar) Velayati informed me that several Iranian agents in Turkey, while arresting one of the leaders of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization and putting them in a car with diplomatic plates on to send them to Iran, were arrested, and the Turks demanded the extradition of two diplomats and detained three others. I told them to handle the issue carefully and try to reduce the noise. Turkish newspapers published the news."
Abolhassan Mojtahedzadeh, the leader of the MKO at the time, was miraculously saved. After his release, he described his abduction by the embassy of the Islamic Republic in Turkey and the role of Manouchehr Mottaki, which was what led to Mottaki's deportation from Turkey. But no lessons were learned, and the state-sponsored crimes have continued since then.
Ali Akbar Ghorbani, a member of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization, Behrouz Shahverdilou, an officer of the Imperial Army, political refugees Gholamreza Nakhaei and Mehran Bahram Azadfar, Mohammad Hassan Mansouri, who served as a pilot in the Shah's Air Force, were not as lucky as Mojtahedzadeh. Since January 2006, the fate of Fathollah Manouchehri, also known as Foroud Fouladvand, a political opponent of the Islamic Republic, along with two other people who were with him at the time, is unknown. They were last seen in Turkey's Hakkari province.
Cooperation between the two countries on common concerns, such as the issue of Kurdish opposition to their respective governments, may be a potential reason for Turkey to have turned a blind eye to some of Iran's behavior on its soil in the past. But with the precedent set by the Asadi case, which has focused international attention on Iran’s operations overseas, and reports of Nasserzadeh’s arrest, it may be that the Turkish authorities have finally decided enough is enough.