Iranian diplomats plotted assassination of dissident in Istanbul, Turkish officials allege

Iranian diplomats plotted assassination of dissident in Istanbul, Turkish officials allege
A Turkish police probe has revealed new details of the assassination of an Iranian dissident in Istanbul who criticised Iran's 'corrupt mafia commanders'.
3 min read
28 March, 2020
Vardanjani had allegedly been threatened over his contacts with foreign officials [Getty]

Intelligence officers based at Iran's consulate in Turkey coordinated the killing of an Iranian dissident in Istanbul late last year, Turkish officials have alleged. 

Comparing the killing of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani to that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Turkish officials told Reuters that Ankara plans to confront Tehran over the murder.

Vardanjani was shot dead on a street in central Istanbul in November 2019, a little over a year after Turkish officials say he left Iran.

According to a Turkish police probe into the killing, Vardanjani had worked in cyber security at Iran's defence ministry. He later became a vocal critic of the Islamic Republic and its ruling elite.

"I will root out the corrupt mafia commanders," Vardanjani wrote in a Facebook post three months before his death, referring to the Iranian Republican Guard Corps. "Pray that they don't kill me before I do this."

Turkish authorities have not publicly accused Iran of involvement in Vardanjani's death, described by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as "another tragic example in a long string of suspected Iran-backed assassination attempts" of dissidents.

But the two Turkish officials told Reuters that Ankara plans to raise the findings of its police probe with Tehran. Turkish prosecutors are also following the case, one of them said.

Orders from the consulate

The suspected gunman and other detained suspects, including Turkish and Iranian nationals, told authorities they had acted on orders from two intelligence officers at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, one of the officials 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.

The second official added that statements from the suspects suggested "Iranian nationals played a serious role in both instigating and coordinating" the killing.

Iranian national Ali Esfanjani had struck up a friendship with Vardanjani after he arrived in Istanbul in June 2018, Turkish officials said.

Esfanjani was pictured walking alongside the Iranian dissident in security camera footage of the night in November last year when he was shot dead.

Turkish officials say Esfanjani visited the Iranian consulate the day before Vardanjani's death and later met with the supsected gunman to discuss details of the killing.

Three days later, he was smuggled across the Iranian border using a fake name, one of the officials added.

Warnings over foreign contacts

Iranian security sources told Reuters Vardanjani had faced warnings from officials over his contacts with foreign diplomats.

The Revolutionary Guards had told Vardanjani not to cooperate with Turkish firms on drone projects, the sources said, without giving further details. They also alleged he had contacted the United States and European nations to work with them.

Vardanjani allegedly published documents either hacked or obtained from contacts in Iran, one of the Iranian sources claimed. He then denied a request to meet with Iranian officials in Ankara, instead allegedly meeting with Americans and an Israeli diplomat.

Reuters could not verify the claims made about Vardanjani in the Turkish report or by the Iranian sources.

Publicly confronting Iran over the allegedly state-directed killing will likely strain ties between the neighbouring countries, which had grown closer under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Relations between Tehran and Ankara had already been tested by the countries' involvement in the Syrian conflict, in which they back opposing sides.

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