Iranian Regime's Trail of Terror
by Stephen Schwartz
Legal charges were entered in the U.S. last week against an Iranian-American dual citizen, Mansour Arbabsiar, 56, who had resided in Texas, and an Iranian living in his native country and thus beyond American judicial apprehension, Ali Gholam Shakuri. The two men are accused of conspiring to murder Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, after first scheming to kidnap the diplomat. According to the legal filing provided by the U.S. federal authorities, Shakuri is a member of the Qods Force, a special-operations component of the Tehran clerical regime's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The indictment, along with American media reportage, discloses that the plan to kill Al-Jubeir was a "sting" by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Arbabsiar believed that he was dealing with a representative of a fearsome Mexican drug cartel, the "Zetas," in attempting to procure the abduction or slaying of Al-Jubeir in Washington, DC. The interlocutor for the murder contract, ostensibly hiring Mexican gangsters, was a paid U.S. confidential source previously arrested for narcotics offenses and control\led by the DEA. U.S. agents monitored Arbabsiar's travel to Mexico, and transcribed conversations, between him and the purported gang representative, that were recorded by the U.S. government's agent in June and July 2011.
Arbabsiar is the cousin of Abdolreza Shahlai, 54, a highly-placed member of the Qods Force and superior of Shakuri. Shahlai has been involved in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Arbabsiar was spotted by Shahlai for potential action after Arbabsiar gave up a car-dealing business in south Texas and moved back to Iran this year, according to The Washington Post. Arbabsiar was tasked to use his cross-border connections to employ Mexican criminals against Al-Jubeir. Arbabsiar then returned to the U.S. and Mexico, and travelled between Iran and Mexico. His "partner," the FBI's operative, received nearly $100,000 as a down payment on $1.5 million to be disbursed for the successful killing of Al-Jubeir.
The discussions recorded between Arbabsiar and the FBI's "bait agent" are chilling. The accused settled on murdering Al-Jubeir in a large Washington restaurant favored by the Saudi ambassador. The site was left unidentified but the FBI's source told Arbabsiar it accommodated up to 150 people, including U.S. Senators who were frequent customers. Arbabsiar expressed his indifference to additional casualties in targeting Al-Jubeir. He stated, in citations from the FBI's records, "it doesn't matter" if the crime were committed by bombing the restaurant. Arbabsiar agreed to go to Mexico again as a guarantor for delivery of the full sum negotiated for the murder of Al-Jubeir.
Arbabsiar was arrested at the end of September when he left a jetliner at Kennedy International Airport in New York, after having been denied entry to Mexico. He began cooperating with American authorities immediately, delivering a confession in which he confirmed all the details inventoried above. Arbabsiar told the U.S. government that Shahlai suggested the hiring of drug criminals for the killing. After his arrest, Arbabsiar made recorded telephone calls to Shakuri, in which they reviewed various aspects of the proposed assassination. Arbabsiar is now in federal custody. The Iranian government, predictably, denies any truth to the matter.
Disclosure of the conspiracy charge has sent much of American and other Western media in equally predictable directions. Many observers suggest that if Iran contracted the assassination of the Saudi ambassador on American soil, war would ensue between the U.S. and Iran. Otherwise, a considerable contingent in U.S. and international media has adopted the habit of questioning any terrorism case in which the U.S. investigative agencies "sting" defendants in terror conspiracies. Mansour Arbabsiar has been portrayed as an ineffectual, bumbling individual who would be an inappropriate participant in such an attempt. Commentators have questioned why the Iranians might turn to someone they believed to be involved in a Latin American narcotics gang for such an operation.
Additionally, the presumption that Iran would kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. is complicated by the considerable American mistrust of the Saudi kingdom built up in the decade since the atrocities of September 11, 2001, when 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi subjects. Very little the Saudis have to say is believed by most Americans today. It has been noted that news of the Iranian intrigue came soon after clashes between Saudi Shia Muslims and the Saudi authorities in the kingdom's Eastern Province. Saudi representatives blamed the unrest in the Eastern Province on Iranian agitation, as they have also alleged Iranian manipulation in civil protests in Bahrain and the chaotic conflict in Yemen. But within a day the Saudis had withdrawn from the areas of the Eastern Province where fighting had taken place. Still, after a telephone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah, it was clear that Riyadh would utilize the Arbabsiar investigation to amplify its long-standing rhetoric against Iran.
The Arbabsiar affair, whatever its final judicial outcome, has aspects that are familiar to observers of Iranian terrorism abroad since the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The Iranians support Hezbollah in Lebanon, and kill NATO troops in Iraq. They have been denounced as accomplices of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most famous terrorist outrage for which Iran has been blamed was the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. and French barracks in Beirut – killing 299 people. Then one must recall the strikes outside the Middle East: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, in which 29 people were killed and 242 injured, and the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, which left 85 people dead and some 300 wounded. Iran is believed to have organized these last two attacks, but they remain unsolved.
A series of assassinations committed in the U.S. and Europe by agents of the Iranian Islamic regime are less known, and illustrate the ingenuity of the Tehran functionaries in eliminating their opponents. At the end of 2010, trustworthy Iranian dissidents abroad stated that 251 people had been killed in terror operations outside the country's borders by the Tehran regime, since 1979. Of them, 180 died in Iraq. The remainder was composed of 19 victims in Turkey, 13 in Pakistan, eight in France, six people in Germany, five in Sweden, four people in Austria, and three in England, with two each in the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, Switzerland, and India. Italy, Denmark, and Cyprus each count one murder of an Iranian dissident.
Six notable examples of Iranian terrorism in the West include the first murder directed by foreign Islamist radicals on U.S. soil, in 1980. Ali Akbar Tabatabaei was a former press secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, representing the pre-revolutionary shah's government. Tabatabaei, then 50, was shot to death in his house in Bethesda, Maryland, a Washington suburb. He was condemned to be gunned down when he founded the Iran Freedom Foundation to oppose Ayatollah Khomeini as the supreme leader of Iran.
Tabatabaei was murdered by David Belfield, an African-American Muslim convert who admitted his guilt in a 1996 interview with the U.S. television network ABC News. Belfield had changed his name to Dawud Salahuddin. He said he was paid $5,000 by the Khomeini regime to kill Tabatabaei.
The culprit fled to Iran via France and Switzerland, and adopted a new career as a film actor, taking on a second alias as Hassan Tantai and performing in the widely-praised Iranian feature Kandahar, released in 2002. Belfield/Salahuddin/Tantai continues to live in Iran. During the current crisis the U.S. Christian Science Monitor interviewed the killer, under the name Salahuddin, from Istanbul. Salahuddin discounted the allegations against Arbabsiar. He further alleged that after his murder of Tabatabaei, "several [Iranian assassination] attempts in the U.S. that Salahuddin was aware of failed."
But already at the end of 1979, soon after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, prince Shahriar Shafiq, the ex-shah's nephew, and the second son of Iranian princess Ashraf, was walking on a Paris street carrying groceries to his sister's apartment. A young man, later identified as a certain Boghraie, pulled out a 9-millimeter pistol, and shot Prince Shafiq in the back of the head, in the middle of the sidewalk.
In 1991 came the murder in France of political leader Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of Iran under the former shah. Bakhtiar was killed along with his secretary, Soroush Katibeh. The Iranian regime had assigned five different terror teams to the Bakhtiar case, and in 1980 an attack on Bakhtiar's home in a Paris suburb left a neighbor and French policeman dead. But the Iranians were intent on their goal, and more than a decade after his departure from power, Bakhtiar was slaughtered. The means utilized was a bread knife, in an apparent attempt to make the crime look like a quarrel in which the blade had been taken up as a weapon of opportunity.
Two members of the death squad escaped to Iran, but two others were apprehended. Ali Vakili Rad was caught in Switzerland and arrested with an alleged accomplice, Zeyal Sarhadi, a great-nephew of then-president of Iran Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Both men were extradited to France. Vakili Rad was sentenced to life imprisonment but Sarhadi was acquitted. Vakili Rad served 18 years behind bars and was released in May 2010.
A series of homicidal attacks on Iranian Kurdish leaders bears a resemblance to the plot against Al-Jubeir, in the commission of a major crime in a restaurant in Berlin, Germany. In 1989, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDP of Iran or KDPI), travelled to Vienna for a meeting with emissaries of Rafsanjani. Ghassemlou, who had led the KDPI since 1973, was found by Austrian police; his bullet-riddled body was seated in an armchair. Two more KDPI delegates, who had previously conferred with the Iranian authorities, Abdullah Ghaderi Azar and Fadhil Rassul, lay dead on the floor nearby.
Within hours, the Austrians recovered the murder weapon, and had one suspect, Amir Mansur Bozorgian, in custody and the second in a hospital, and knew the identity of the third. Soon, they found enough evidence to indict all three; but they were released. Nevertheless, the Austrians issued arrest warrants for high Iranian officials in the Ghassemlou case.
Ghassemlou's successor as KDPI leader, Sadegh Sharafkandi, was murdered in Berlin in 1992, after participating in a meeting of the Socialist International. Sharafkandi was killed at the Mykonos Restaurant in the German capital, with three colleagues, Fattah Abdoli, Homayoun Ardalan and their translator Nouri Dehkordi. Five death squad members were arrested in the Mykonos affair and tried by the Germans: an Iranian, Kazem Darabi, and four Lebanese recruited from Hezbollah and the Lebanese Shia Amal party.
Swedish Social Democratic leader Ingvar Carlsson was scheduled to attend the dinner at the Mykonos Restaurant with the Sharafkandi group and Pierre Schori, former Swedish state secretary for foreign affairs. But the two Swedes and their colleague, then-prime minister Carl Bildt, were called back to their homeland. If Carlsson and Schori had joined the Kurds in the Mykonos, they might very well have been killed in the brutal assault. As in the Al-Jubeir conspiracy discussions, other potential victims in the restaurant were dismissed as insignificant.
The Mykonos Restaurant attack was authorized by the elite "Special Affairs Committee" of the Iranian regime, made up of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rafsanjani, minister of intelligence Hojjatoleslam Ali Fallahian and then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati. In 1997, during the German trial of the five Mykonos Restaurant defendants, German authorities declared that the slaying had been ordered by Khamenei and Rafsanjani. Darabi, the go-between to the Lebanese, and one of the latter, Abbas Hussein Rhayel, were convicted of full responsibility in the crime, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany, but were released and deported to Iran in 2007. Two of their Lebanese accomplices received short sentences, and one was acquitted.
Another infamous assassination committed by Iranians acting abroad was that of Fereydoun Farrokhzad, a prominent Iranian singer and figure in the émigré opposition to the clerical regime, killed in his Bonn home in 1992. Farrokhzad's murder occurred only five weeks before the Mykonos horror and is still classified by the German authorities as "unsolved." Farrokhzad was stabbed to death. His apparent offense, in the view of the tyrants of Tehran, was that he served as a broadcast technician for a radio program, "The Voice of the Flag of Freedom Organization of Iran," which supports the former monarchy.
More recently, in 2001, the Iranian Kurdish Sufi musician Seyed Khalil Alinejad, aged 44, was killed in Göteborg, Sweden. Seyed Khalil was also done to death with a kitchen knife, as in the Bakhtiar case, before a fire that broke out in the bottom two floors of a structure where he taught oriental instruments and singing to children and adults. An acquaintance in the Revolutionary Guard Corps told Seyed Khalil that the musician had been declared an apostate from Islam and was considered one of the two most dangerous Sufis in Iran. This was motivated by the open declaration of Seyed Khalil that the "People of Truth" or "Ahl-e Haqq," the Sufi movement to which he belonged, was independent from Islam. His case is likewise "unsolved" by the Swedish authorities, though his admirers, who are many, firmly believe the Iranian government was responsible. Seyed Khalil Alinejad was the most beloved young traditional Iranian musician of his time.
The extreme risk in trying to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington may reflect aggravated anxieties at the summits of Iranian power. There, factions headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continue machinations against each other while facing repudiation of support for either from the Iranian people. Iranian involvement with Latin American malefactors becomes less dubious a possibility when one considers the close relationship between Ahmadinejad and the terror-supporting dictator of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. In the Argentine Israeli embassy and AMIA cases, Hezbollah supporters in the "border triangle" where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina come together have often been mentioned. The bloody trail left previously by Iranian agents around the world makes such an effort as that of Mansour Arbabsiar, however bizarre its details or unimpressive the personality of the defendant, entirely credible.