Accusations to Tehran in killing of dissident add to Turkey-Iran tensions

Iran and Turkey are both pursuing aggressive policies aimed at expanding their influence in North Africa and the Middle East.
Sunday 05/04/2020
Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani. (Twitter)
Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani. (Twitter)

ISTANBUL - Statements by Turkish officials linking Tehran’s intelligence agency to the killing of an Iranian dissident in Istanbul form the latest twist in escalating tensions between Turkey and Iran over the conflict in Syria.

Masoud Molavi Vardanjani was shot dead on an Istanbul street on November 14, 2019. Citing Turkish officials, Reuters last week reported that two intelligence officers in Iran’s consulate in Istanbul had instigated his killing.

The United States on April 1 accused Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) of being directly involved in the killing of Vardanjani.

“Given Iran’s history of targeted assassinations of Iranian dissidents and the methods used in Turkey, the United States government believes that Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) was directly involved in Vardanjani’s killing,” a senior administration official told Reuters.

Turkey is a sponsor of loyal militias and Sunni militants fighting against Syria’s government while Iran provides Shia fighters supporting the government. Even though Ankara and Tehran cooperate with Russia in Syria and Turkey buys natural gas from Iran, tensions are never far from the surface. Erdogan accused Iran of trying to “dominate the region” in the past.

The latest spat between the two countries came on February 29, when Iran’s Military Advisory Centre (MAC) in Syria, a body thought to be linked to the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), accused Turkish troops in the Syrian province of Idlib of targeting pro-Iranian fighters there. News reports quoted the MAC statement as warning that Turkish soldiers were “in the range” of Iranian weapons and that “we could have easily taken revenge on them for the bombardment of our bases.”

The Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that Turkish military action in Idlib had killed “31 Shia militias, including one Iranian national, 9 Hezbollah militias and 21 from the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades.”

Experts said Turkey was particularly frustrated by the role of pro-Iran militias in support of Russia-backed Syrian government troops fighting jihadist rebels backed by Turkey in Idlib.

Iran and Turkey are both pursuing aggressive policies aimed at expanding their influence in North Africa and the Middle East, whether through direct military involvement or through regional proxies.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said the fact the accusations against Iran in the Vardanjani case were made public by Turkish authorities pointed to political background.

“The timing of this revelation by senior Turkish officials might signal Ankara’s willingness to put public/international pressure on Tehran at a time when both sides have been clashing over Syria,” Fathollah-Nejad wrote on Twitter.

Turkish government officials did not respond to a request for a comment on the Vardanjani case.

Talking to Reuters, two Iranian security sources implicitly confirmed Tehran’s involvement saying Vardanjani had defied a warning from the IRGC not to cooperate with

Turkish firms on drone projects. They claimed he had approached the United States and European countries to work for them.

One Iranian source said Vardanjani published documents online that he had either hacked or obtained from contacts in Iran and ignored requests to contact the Iranian Embassy in Ankara, instead meeting Americans. The source gave no details on the documents or meetings.

The second Iranian source said Vardanjani had been warned about his contacts with foreign diplomats.

The US statement about the Vardanjani murder gave an additional boost to Turkey’s accusations.

The United States had not previously disclosed its assessment on who might have been behind the incident.

A week after the killing, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had described it as “another tragic example in a long string of suspected Iran-backed assassination attempts” of Iranian dissidents.

Pompeo said in a tweet that he found disturbing the reports that Iranian diplomats were involved in the killing of the dissident but that they were “fully consistent” with their assignments.

“Iran’s ‘diplomats’ are agents of terror and have conducted multiple assassinations and bomb plots in Europe over the past decade,” Pompeo said.