Iranian Murders in the West
by Stephen Schwartz
Americans were stunned on October 11 when the Justice Department unsealed its complaint against Mansour Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old used-car dealer from Corpus Christi now in federal custody, and Ali Gholam Shakuri, a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. Shakuri remains inside Iran. The pair have been charged with conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel Al-Jubeir.
As disclosed by the Treasury Department, the plot was coordinated by Arbabsiar's cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, a top Quds Force functionary whom the Treasury designated in 2008 as one of several "individuals and entities fueling violence in Iraq." Shahlai was described then as the planner of "special group attacks" by the Mahdi Army, headed by Moktada Al-Sadr, against Coalition forces on the territory of Iran's western neighbor.
The Arbabsiar affair is not the first terrorism case involving an Iranian agent in the United States. In 1980, the year after the Iranian Revolution, foreign-directed Islamist homicide on American soil was inaugurated in Bethesda, Md., when Ali Akbar Tabatabai, 50, was killed at his home. A former press attache of the Iranian Embassy in Washington, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Tabatabai was shot dead by David Belfield, an African-American Muslim.
Tabatabai's offense, in the view of the Tehran regime, was having founded the Iran Freedom Foundation (IFF) to oppose the Islamic revolutionary regime. Belfield fled successfully to Iran, changing his name to Dawud Salahuddin, then to Hassan Tantai, and later to Hassan Abdulrahman. He continues to live there, a fugitive from U.S. authorities.
In an interview with ABC News 20/20 broadcast in 1996, Belfield confessed to the Tabatabai crime and said he had been paid $5,000 by the Iranian revolutionary regime for it. Calling himself Tantai, he acted in the Iranian film Kandahar, released in 2002. Like Arbabsiar, Belfield was not an intelligence professional. Rather, he was a security guard at an Iranian diplomatic office in Washington when he was hired to kill Tabatabai, according to an interview with the New York Times in 2009 (given as Hassan Abdulrahman).
After the Arbabsiar investigation was revealed last week, Belfield, once more using the name Salahuddin, was interviewed from Istanbul by the Christian Science Monitor. In the Monitor's words, "Several attempts in the U.S. that Salahuddin was aware of failed . . . after his successful hit."
While Belfield's assassination of Tabatabai still evokes memories in the Washington metropolitan area, a second assassination of an Iranian in the U.S. is seldom discussed. As noted in the 2008 report No Safe Haven: Iran's Global Assassination Campaign, published by the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), a 51-year-old woman named Nareh Rafizadeh was killed by gunfire in New Jersey in 1992. Nareh Rafizadeh was targeted presumably because her husband and brother-in-law had been agents of the shah's intelligence service.
Mansour Arbabsiar's family relationship with Abdul Reza Shahlai is reminiscent of another notorious assassination: that of the last prime minister under the shah, Shapour Bakhtiar, and his secretary, in France in 1991. Bakhtiar had been pursued by five different Iranian death squad teams, one of which killed a female neighbor of Bakhtiar and a French policeman in 1980. When Bakhtiar was slain, two of the killers escaped and two were arrested and tried. One of the latter pair, Zeyal Sarhadi, was the great-nephew of Iran's then-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Sarhadi was acquitted, while his accomplice, Ali Vakili Rad, served 18 years in a French prison and was released last year.
Believing he was recruiting the Mexican drug gang "Los Zetas" to kill Al-Jubeir, Arbabsiar declared his indifference to how the Saudi diplomat would be murdered, even if it required bombing a crowded restaurant frequented by U.S. Senators. According to transcripts of conversations between Arbabsiar and a U.S. government informant wearing a recording device, Arbabsiar said "if you can do it outside, do it. . . . If not, restaurant, hit it, it's OK."
The concept of killing opponents of the Tehran dictatorship in a restaurant recalls one of the most infamous Iranian assassination actions in the West: the Mykonos Restaurant massacre in Berlin, in 1992. Iranian and Lebanese terrorists shot to death an Iranian Kurdish leader, Sadegh Sharafkandi, with two of his colleagues and a translator. Swedish Social Democratic leader Ingvar Carlsson was supposed to attend the Sharafkandi group's dinner with Pierre Schori, a former Swedish state secretary for foreign affairs. But the two Swedes and their colleague, Sweden's then-prime minister Carl Bildt, were called back to their homeland because of economic problems. If Carlsson and Schori had joined the Kurds in the Mykonos Restaurant, they might very well have been killed in the assault.
German authorities captured an Iranian controller in the Mykonos crime, Kazem Darabi, and one of the Lebanese, Abbas Hussein Rhayel, who fired single bullets into the head of each victim. The Germans stated that the murders were authorized by the elite "Special Affairs Committee" of the Iranian regime, composed of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then-president Rafsanjani, and two of their ministerial colleagues. Darabi and Rhayel, convicted of the Mykonos crime, were 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.
No Safe Haven, issued in 2008, enumerated 162 cases of Iranian dissidents murdered outside Iran, many of them in Iraq. At the end of last year, a reliable Iranian source in Western Europe, who declines to be named for obvious reasons, declared that 251 people had been killed abroad by the Iranian revolutionary regime, 180 of them in Iraq.
These numbers involve targeted individuals or small groups, and exclude the dead in three infamous truck bombings. In the 1983 Beirut barracks attack, 299 U.S. and French service personnel were killed. Later came the two unsolved bombings in Argentina—the 1992 blast at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, in which 29 were killed and 242 injured, and the 1994 assault on the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association or AMIA, in which 85 died and 400 were wounded. The Argentine authorities have accused Iran of responsibility in both cases.
Opportunistic recruitment, including that of relatives, and murders in restaurants are old news in Tehran. A plan as reckless as that in which Mansour Arbabsiar was caught reflects the habitual mode of operation of the Iranian regime.