Turkish leaders mum on Iran’s suspected killing of dissident in Istanbul

Cyber expert and critic of Tehran killed in November.
Sunday 29/03/2020
Uncharacteristic silence. A 2019 file picture of a meeting between Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, right, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Kuala Lumpur.
Uncharacteristic silence. A 2019 file picture of a meeting between Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, right, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Kuala Lumpur.

Intelligence officers at Iran’s consulate in Turkey instigated the killing last November of an Iranian dissident in Istanbul who had criticised the Islamic Republic’s political and military leaders, reported the Reuters news agency.

Masoud Molavi Vardanjani was shot dead on an Istanbul street on November 14, 2019, a little over a year after the Turkish officials say he left Iran.

The information was confirmed by Turkish officials on the condition of remaining anonymous but was not publicly discussed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or by senior government officials who all have remained mum on the Iranian suspected assassination of a dissident on Turkish soil.

Despite Ankara's uncharacteristic silence, since Erdogan is usually keen on offering on-the-record comments on all foreign policy issues, Tehran's suspected involvement in the killing could impact ties between Turkey and Iran, two regional powers already at odds over the Syria war  and mutually exclusive expansionist agendas.

A police report into the killing, published two weeks ago, said Vardanjani had an “unusual profile.” It said he worked in cyber security at Iran’s defence ministry buthad become a vocal critic of the Iranian authorities.

According to the report, Vardanjani had posted a message on social media targeting Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards in August, three months before he was shot dead.

“I will root out the corrupt mafia commanders,” the post said. “Pray that they don’t kill me before I do this.”

Asked about possible Iranian government involvement in the killing, a spokeswoman for Istanbul’s police said the investigation was continuing and declined to comment further. Turkish officials said prosecutors were following the case.
A week after the killing, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as “another tragic example in a long string of suspected Iran-backed assassination attempts” of Iranian dissidents. He did not elaborate further.

The suspected gunman and several other suspects, including Turks and Iranians detained in the weeks after the killing, told authorities they had acted on orders from two intelligence officers at the Iranian consulate, a Turkish official said.
“It was reflected in the testimonies of the arrested suspects that these two Iranians, carrying diplomatic passports, had given the order for the assassination,” he said.

A Turkish official said evidence including the suspects’ statements suggested “Iranian nationals played a serious role in both instigating and coordinating” the killing.

Vardanjani was on the radar of the Iranian authorities.

Talking to Reuters, two Iranian security sources implicitly confirmed Tehrans' involvement saying he had defied a warning from the Revolutionary Guards not to cooperate with Turkish firms on drone projects, without giving details. They claimed he had also approached the United States and European states to work for them.

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

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

Relations between Turkey and Iran have been tested by the civil war in Syria, where they back opposing sides.
Experts believe Turkey was particularly frustrated by the role of pro-Iran militias in support of the Russian-backed Syrian government troops fighting Jihadist rebels backed by Turkey in Idlib. 

Iran and Turkey both are pursuing aggressive policies aimed at expanding their influence in North Africa and the Middle East, whether through direct military involvement or through regional proxies. 
Iran has been using Shia militias among its proxies while Turkey has relied on pro-Turkish militias mercenaries in Syria and Libya.