No Safe Haven: Iran's Global Assassination Campaign
The 1979 Iranian Revolution was the result of a broad-based opposition movement that encompassed clerics, Islamists, communists, ethnic nationalists and liberal secularists. Although these groups were able to unite around the common goal of deposing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, they could not agree on the shape the future republic should take and the triumphant coalition gradually fell apart in mutual acrimony.
Between 1979 and 1982, a struggle for power raged within Iran in which all sides suffered major casualties. The radical clerics who formed the nucleus of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s support gradually gained the upper hand ruthlessly using organs such as the Revolutionary Guards and local Islamic Komitehs to squelch dissent. Some political parties sought to reach an accommodation with the clerical establishment, others chose direct confrontation; ultimately all were suppressed.
From the outset, the radical clerics who made up Ayatollah Khomeini’s inner circle demonstrated an unwavering commitment to exporting their revolution abroad. In support of this objective, the Islamic Republic established the Ministry of Intelligence (Vizarat-i Ittila’t) with a global network of intelligence assets. The Revolutionary Guards established the Quds Force to carry out clandestine military operations overseas. Both organizations would establish a close working relationship with emerging Shi’a terrorist organizations inspired by the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, most notably Lebanese Hezbollah. The Islamic Republic would use these organizations to track down and eliminate opponents of the regime living outside the country’s borders.
It is perhaps only fitting that the first of these operations, the assassination of the Shah’s nephew, Shahriar Shafiq, in Paris in December 1979 should come only a month after the interim government, led by Mehdi Bazargan, had been replaced by the Revolutionary Council, Ayatollah Khomeini’s “government within a government.” With the collapse of the Bazargan government, the clerical establishment immediately began to move against potential centers of opposition both at home and abroad. Iranian intelligence agents have since assassinated more than 162 monarchist, nationalist and democratic expatriate activists in countries as diverse as the United States, Austria, Pakistan, France and Turkey.
Inevitably, any investigation of clandestine structures and operations must necessarily be somewhat incomplete. Therefore, this report focuses on nine of the best documented incidents. All of these incidents provide compelling evidence that senior government officials, particularly those within the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards, were complicit in these extrajudicial killings, and that these killings comprised a widespread and systematic policy. The report complements an earlier IHRDC publication, Murder at Mykonos: Anatomy of a Political Assassination.
Iran’s global assassination campaign was predicated on the simple principle that for opponents of the Islamic Republic there can be no safe haven anywhere in the world. It flourished in contravention of both international and national legal regimes. It is a campaign for which the organizers and perpetrators within the Islamic Republic of Iran must be held accountable.