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Khamenei’s Systematic Terrorism Abroad

October 4, 2020
Ehsan Mehrabi
9 min read
The assassination of opposition figures outside Iran started shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei it became more pervasive and more systematic
The assassination of opposition figures outside Iran started shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei it became more pervasive and more systematic
Shapour Bakhtiar, who was the Shah’s last prime minister, was assassinated on August 6, 1991, but attempts on his life went as far back as 1980
Shapour Bakhtiar, who was the Shah’s last prime minister, was assassinated on August 6, 1991, but attempts on his life went as far back as 1980
Mohammad Reza Kolahi, a member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization, was assassinated near Amsterdam in 2015
Mohammad Reza Kolahi, a member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization, was assassinated near Amsterdam in 2015 is a review of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s 31-year record as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is one of the world’s most secretive and unknown leaders. Details on his personal life are scant and, except for his son Mojtaba, whose name has been in Iran’s news only in recent years, media outlets have seldom published any reports or photographs of his family.

But the mystery does not only surround his personal and family life. Now, three decades after he became the most powerful individual in the Islamic Republic, videos have come to light that reveal his election as Supreme Leader by Iran’s Assembly of Experts was meant to be a temporary measure. 

Business groups and economic institutions under the control of the Supreme Leader are as secretive as their master. The financial dealings, profits and losses of these bodies are all secrets, and their operations have never been transparent. The Supreme Leader refuses to act transparently in politics too and has shunned taking direct responsibility whenever possible.

IranWire’s new series of reports seeks to untangle the mystery of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


Terrorist activities against opposition groups outside Iran started not long after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. However, it has been under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei that these activities became more systematic.

“Since coming to power in 1979, the Iranian regime has been implicated in assassinations, terrorist plots, and terrorist attacks in more than 40 countries,” the US Department of State report “Iran’s Assassinations and Terrorist Activity Abroad” announced on May 22, 2020.

Immediately after the revolution, Islamic revolutionaries started executing members of the old regime on the roof of the Alavi Islamic High School in Tehran where Ayatollah Khomeini was staying. But in less than a year, they began targeting officials and associates of the Pahlavi regime who had escaped Iran before they could be arrested.

One of the first prominent targets was Shahriar Shafiq, son of the Shah’s sister Princess Ashraf and an Imperial Navy captain who, before the revolution, was the president of Iran’s judo and karate federations. According to the website Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, Sadegh Khalkhali, the first Chief Justice of the Revolutionary Court who became known as the “hanging judge,” tried Shafiq in absentia and sentenced him to death on the charge of “corruption on earth.” He was shot dead with two bullets to his head and his neck as he was leaving his mother’s home in Paris on December 7, 1979.

During the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, the war with Iraq prevented the Islamic Republic from pursuing its terrorist activities outside the borders of Iran although, even at that time, its terrorist teams were active abroad.

The US State Department report points out that Iran has been using third parties and proxies in assassinations and other attacks, and this tactic also started very early on. The suicide bombing of the US embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983, which killed 63 people including 17 Americans, was one such operation carried out while the war between Iran and Iraq was ongoing. The US State Department describes the incident as “the deadliest attack on a US diplomatic mission to date.” On October 23 of that year, that attack was followed by another in the Lebanese capital when a suicide bomber drove a truck underneath the four-story building housing the US Marine barracks and detonated 2,000 pounds of TNT. The explosion reduced the building to rubble and killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers. A few minutes later a second bomber drove into the basement of the nearby French paratroopers’ barracks, killing 58 more people.

The Islamic Republic denied that it had anything to do with these explosions and was not convicted by any court on this charge, but the Islamic Jihad Organization, which took responsibility for the US embassy bombing, was established and supported by the Islamic Republic. Even today there are occasions when an Iranian official talks about the attacks in a boastful manner.

The attempted assassination of Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last prime minister, on July 18, 1980 in the suburbs of Paris was another terrorist attack carried out during the first decade of the Islamic Republic with the aim of assassinating a senior official from the previous regime.


A New Chapter Opens

When Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989 and Ayatollah Khamenei succeeded him, a new chapter opened in the Islamic Republic’s terrorist activities abroad. It started with the appointment of Ali Fallahian as Minister of Intelligence under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and set a new pattern in motion. This pattern was more systematic, and involved a considerable increase in the number of terrorist activities the regime put into action. An important development in this regard was that, as the Iran-Iraq war came to a close, the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force was reorganized and given a new mission.

In 1994, a suicide attack on a Jewish center in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires left 85 dead and injured hundreds. The attack was carried out by Lebanese Hezbollah and investigations eventually concluded that it had been supported by the Islamic Republic. As a result, Interpol issued arrest warrants for eight Iranian officials including intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohsen Rezaei, the commander of chief of the Revolutionary Guards at the time.

Approximately a month before Hashemi Rafsanjani took over as the president of the Islamic Republic, Abdolrahman Ghasemlou, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), was assassinated in Vienna on July 13, 1989. Ghasemlou fell into a trap laid by the Iranian government, which used the guise of negotiations with a delegation from Tehran, and he was killed as he met with representatives from the Islamic Republic.

A few months after Hashemi Rafsanjani assumed the presidency, in April 1990, Kazem Rajavi, the brother of Masoud Rajavi, leader of the opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), was assassinated in Switzerland. For a year after the Islamic revolution, Kazem Rajavi had been the Islamic Republic’s representative to the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva. He was shot in the head at close range by one of two machine gun-wielding men in a Volkswagen that they used to block the road as he was driving to his home outside Geneva.

These terrorist acts were followed by a number of high-profile assassinations in Europe.

Shapour Bakhtiar was finally assassinated, along with his secretary, on August 6, 1991, in his home in the Parisian suburb of Suresnes. On September 17, 1992, Sadegh Sharafkandi, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, and two other Iranian-Kurdish leaders and their interpreter were killed by machine gun-wielding assassins at Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.

The brazenness and the magnitude of these terrorist acts on European soil showed that the assassinations were systematic and meant to convey a message to the opposition. They also left little doubt that the assassinations were approved by the highest political authority in the Islamic Republic; otherwise, they would have been stopped early on, but they continued unabated.


A European Court Officially Charges Iranian Leaders

On April 11, 1997, after a three-year trial that included testimony from 166 witnesses, the presiding judge in the so-called Mykonos trial ruled that the killing of four dissidents at the Mykonos restaurant was orchestrated by a secretive ''Committee for Special Operations'' in Tehran whose members included the Supreme Leader, the president, the foreign minister and high-security officials.

European countries recalled their ambassadors from Iran and the diplomatic relations between these countries and the Islamic Republic stayed at a low level until after Mohammad Khatami assumed the presidency. However, for a long time afterward, Khamenei prevented the return of European ambassadors to Tehran and insisted the German ambassador be the last one to return because the German court had held Khamenei responsible for the Mykonos terrorist attack.

In 2011, referring to the ruling by the German court that had accused “top Iranian officials” of ordering the attack, Khamenei said: “European governments...withdrew their ambassadors out of Tehran. We have not forgotten those things. They tried to slap us across the face, but they received a stronger slap.”

Even though Khamenei claimed that the Europeans had received “a stronger slap,” the arrest warrants issued by the court for high-level Iranian officials led to an abatement of Iran’s terrorist activities abroad and to a change in how these activities were conducted.

“As Iranian assassins using diplomatic cover have attracted increased scrutiny, Iran has shown willingness to use criminal gangs, drug cartels, and other third parties to carry out its assassination plots abroad,” the US Department of State report said. “Iran consistently lies about its involvement in killings abroad, even when its own diplomatic personnel are caught surveilling attack targets, providing explosives or fleeing crime scenes.”

Mohammad Reza Kolahi, a member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization who had been accused of planting a bomb at the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party that killed more than 70 officials in 1981, was assassinated near Amsterdam in 2015. And, in November 2017, Ahmad Mola Nissi, founder of the separatist Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, was shot dead outside his home in the Netherlands. In July 2019, A court in Amsterdam handed down a life sentence to the person suspected of ordering the murder of Mohammad Reza Kolahi. According to the Dutch media, since the prime suspect, 38-year-old Nouafel F., who hired the killers, refused to say anything about his motive, the court was unable to determine whether the Islamic Republic had been involved in the case or not. But previously Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok had said that there were "strong indications that Iranian security services were involved in the assassination of 56-year-old Kolahi, as well as the killing of another Dutch national of Iranian origin...Ahmad Molla Nissi.”

In July 2018, Belgian anti-terror prosecutors announced they had foiled an attempt to bomb a June 30 meeting of the People’s Mojahedin Organization outside Paris. In October 2018, Asadollah Asadi, the third secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Austria, was arrested in Germany and extradited to Belgium. He was charged with planning the bombing. In July 2020 a Belgian court ruled that Asadi and three other suspects would be held in Belgium in the coming months.

This development in July 2020  is one of the most recent examples of the Islamic Republic’s terrorist activities abroad. But According to the US Department of State, “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.” And these activities, which could not possibly take place without the “leadership” of Khamenei, show no sign of fading away. In one other recent example, earlier in 2020, reports emerged that Iranian intelligence had threatened to kidnap journalists working for the London-based Iran International TV and forcibly take them to Iran.


Also in the series:

How Big Is Khamenei’s Economic Empire?, 27 September 2020

Nuclear Confrontation, Khamenei’s Gift to Iran, 19 September 2020

The Overnight Ayatollah: Khamenei's Fight to Become a Spiritual Leader, 16 September 2020

Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei: An Ayatollah and his Acolyte, 14 September 2020

How Did Khamenei Become Supreme Leader?, 11 September 2020


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