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Tehran’s Unlikely Assassins

5:05 PM, Aug 20, 2012 • By MATTHEW LEVITT
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Over the past few months, Iran has demonstrated a renewed willingness to carry out attacks targeting its enemies. From India and Azerbaijan to Cyprus and Thailand, recent Iran directed plots have targeted diplomats and civilians, Israelis, Americans, Saudis, and more. To execute these attacks, Iran has sometimes dispatched its own agents, such as members of its elite IRGC Quds Force. Other times Iran has relied on trusted proxies like Hezbollah. In a number of cases Quds Force and Hezbollah operatives have worked together to execute attacks abroad.


Now, evidence has emerged indicating Tehran is employing another type of agent—the unlikely surrogate assassin—to target Iranian dissidents abroad, including here in the United States. Last October, dual U.S.-Iranian citizen Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri, a commander in Iran's Quds Force, the special-operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), were charged in New York for their roles in an alleged plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir. According to the Department of Justice, Arbabsiar told a Drug Enforcement Administration confidential source posing as an associate of an international drug cartel that "his associates in Iran had discussed a number of violent missions” for the source and his associates to perform, including the murder of the ambassador. When the DEA source noted that others could be killed in the attack, including U.S. senators known to frequent the restaurant where they planned to target the ambassador, Arbabsiar allegedly dismissed these concerns as “no big deal.” Later, after Arbabsiar was arrested and confessed to his role in the plots, he reportedly called Shakuri at the direction of law enforcement. Shakuri again confirmed that the plot should go forward and as soon as possible. "Just do it quickly. It's late," he said.

For many pundits, the plot was deemed too outlandish and unprofessional to be taken seriously. Surely Iran’s vaunted Quds Force was too clever to tap a failed used car salesman to carry out an operation as sensitive as this? In fact, Iran has relied on fairly unskilled and simple operatives to carry out attacks in the past. For example, Iran and Hezbollah relied on Fouad Ali Saleh to run a cell of twenty operatives responsible for a series of bombings in Paris in 1985 and 1986. Saleh, a Tunisian-born Frenchman (a convert from Sunni to Shia Islam) who sold fruits, vegetables, and clothing in the Paris subway, was as unskilled and unlikely an operative as Arbabsiar, the Iranian-American car salesman arrested in the al-Jubeir assassination plot.

In fact, this is no new tactic, but a tried and true operational model Iran has used to target political opponents in the United States as early as 1980. Recently, ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella offered the most detailed account to date of the July 2009 arrest of Iranian-American house painter Mohammad Reza Sadeghnia. Arrested in California, Sadeghnia a Michigan resident, had conducted surveillance of an Iranian dissident who hosted a Farsi language radio program. He hired an Iranian immigrant with a criminal record as an accomplice, and the two planned their assassination. But his accomplice got cold feet and alerted police to the plot. Sadeghnia suspected his accomplice wanted out, and threatened to have his family in Iran killed. “I have done other missions around the world,” he warned.

Indeed, Sadeghnia had reportedly conducted surveillance of another Iranian dissident in London, Ali Reza Nourizadeh. He befriended Nourizadeh, a Voice of America radio personality, who soon grew suspicious and broke off contact. British authorities later warned Nourizadeh that Sadeghnia had been “working for the Iranian intelligence services.”

While the Arbabsiar and Sadeghnia plots seem outlandish, unprofessional, and out of character with Iran’s known intelligence capabilities, Tehran actually has a long history of employing unlikely surrogates to carry out assassinations abroad.

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