US accuses Tehran of being ‘directly involved’ in the killing of Iranian dissident in Turkey
LONDON--The United States believes Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) was directly involved in the killing of an Iranian dissident last November in Turkey, a senior administration official told Reuters.
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.
“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.
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.
Late on Wednesday, 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.
The involvement of Iranian diplomats in the murder was confirmed to Reuters in recent days by Turkish officials on the condition of anonymity. But it was not publicly discussed by Turkish leaders.
Despite Ankara’s uncharacteristic silence — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is usually keen on offering on-the-record comments about foreign policy issues — Tehran’s suspected involvement in the killing is seen by experts as possibly affecting ties between Turkey and Iran, two regional powers already at odds over the Syria war and mutually exclusive expansionist agendas.
A police report about the killing, published in mid-March, said Vardanjani had an “unusual profile.” It said he worked in cybersecurity at Iran’s Defence Ministry but had become a vocal critic of the Iranian authorities.
The report said Vardanjani posted a message on social media targeting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in August. “I will root out the corrupt mafia commanders,” the post said. “Pray that they don’t kill me before I do this.”
Vardanjani was killed three months later.
Asked by Reuters about possible Iranian government involvement in the killing, a spokeswoman for Istanbul’s police said the investigation was continuing and declined to comment further.
A week after the killing, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as “another tragic example in a long string of suspected Iran-backed assassination attempts” of Iranian dissidents.
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 told Reuters.
A Turkish official said evidence, including the suspects’ statements, suggested “Iranian nationals played a serious role in both instigating and coordinating” the killing.
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.
Relations between Turkey and Iran have been tested by the civil war in Syria, where they back opposing sides. 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.
Iran has been using Shia militias among its proxies while Turkey has relied on pro-Turkish militias mercenaries in Syria and Libya.