The novel coronavirus has understandably stolen most headlines across the world, so you might be forgiven for thinking all other news had stopped. Unfortunately, among the countries that have carried on and even escalated dangerous rogue activities is the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the recent confirmation of its involvement in an assassination in Turkey late last year appears to have slipped under the radar.
On November 14 last year, Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani was gunned down while walking in Istanbul. Turkish news agencies leaked footage and reported on the assassination 11 days after the incident, but the Turkish government chose not to publicly embarrass or overtly implicate Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, was less circumspect, declaring in a briefing the day after the reports emerged that “The Iranian regime also continues to export cruelty outside its own borders. Last week, an Iranian dissident, Massoud Malvi, was assassinated in Istanbul after he defected to Turkey from Iran. The killing of Mr. Malvi is yet another tragic example in a long string of suspected Iran-backed assassination attempts outside of Iranian soil. The regime’s brutality and amorality know no international boundaries.”
Turkey was at that time part of a tripartite quasi-alliance with Russia and Iran to resolve tensions in Syria, and the 14th round of discussions as part of this “Astana Process” partnership took place in December 2019. Meanwhile, under the auspices of the United Nations, negotiations on the Syrian Constitutional Committee, also an outgrowth of the Astana partnership, were ongoing in November and December. Turkey, which generally has reasonably warm relations with Iran, had no wish to antagonise its partner in these discussions, and so avoided saying anything about the murder which might lead to diplomatic fallout.
All of this changed when Russia, Iran, and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime killed 33 Turkish troops on February 27, violating the deals struck with Turkey. Turkey apparently then leaked to Reuters that two agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) had directed the Vardanjani assassination – an assessment US officials shared, also with Reuters, several days later – and that Turkey would raise the matter with Iran.
According to a Turkish police report on the killing released in early March, Vardanjani had worked in cybersecurity at the Iranian Defence Ministry and was a vocal critic of the regime, allegedly helping run a Telegram channel called “Black Box” that published corruption allegations against Iranian officials and claimed to have sources in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). However, these details remain unconfirmed.
Parallels with the brutal murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul are unavoidable. Indeed, one of the Turkish officials who spoke to Reuters explicitly made this comparison. For a variety of reasons, first and foremost the regional Cold War between Turkey and the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) axis, Turkey made a much bigger deal of Khashoggi’s death. Khashoggi’s much higher profile in the West and US alliance with Saudi Arabia also meant raising the issue publicly could have a positive political impact for Turkey by negatively impacting US support for the Saudis. Meanwhile, the still virtually unknown Vardanjani could not make comparable global ripples, given he was assassinated by a country the US already considers a major enemy.
Iran has a long and storied history of assassinating anyone in opposition to the regime throughout the world, particularly in Europe, since the Islamic revolution of 1979. In January 2019, the Dutch government confirmed that MOIS had been behind the assassination of Ahmad Mola Nissi, founder of the separatist Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), in 2017 in the Hague, as well as that of Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) member Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi in 2015 in Amsterdam. In October 2018, Denmark said it had foiled attempts by MOIS to kill three members of the ASMLA on its territory. Also foiled in 2018, with the reported help of Mossad, was a complex MOIS plot coordinated from Iran’s Austrian embassy across multiple European countries to blow up a MEK rally in Paris in June of that year, which would likely have led to dozens of deaths. In April 2017, MOIS reportedly assassinated Saeed Karimian, an Iranian who ran a Persian-language channel called GEM TV in Turkey, as well as his business partner, in Istanbul. He had been convicted in absentia by the regime and sentenced to six years imprisonment for his broadcasts.
Iran has also continued to be malicious in other spheres, with no evidence of a slowdown in its activities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or cyberspace. Israel has had to bomb Iranian shipments and Hezbollah positions in Syria multiple times in the past month to forestall the hostile import, manufacture or entrenchment of weaponry, while the IRGC-led militias in Iraq continue to bombard coalition positions and associated oil companies every week. In Yemen, the IRGC-aligned Houthis continue to launch large offensives and rain ballistic missiles and suicide drones on Saudi Arabia.
In April, four sources confirmed to Reuters that hackers linked to the Iranian Regime had attempted to steal the passwords of World Health Organisation (WHO) staff.
Despite being pummelled especially severely by the virus, Iran has managed to utilise the confluence of COVID-19, near-daily rocket attacks, and overwhelming political influence to help precipitate a drawdown of US forces in Iraq. Most anti-ISIS coalition forces have already fully withdrawn, and the US has withdrawn from several bases. Iraq’s former Prime Minister–designate Adnan al-Zurfi declared that, after speaking to the US ambassador and other officials, “Half of the US-led coalition troops will withdraw from Iraq y the end of 2020, while the other half will leave Iraq after we agree on a schedule by the beginning of next year.”
Iran’s activities may not be front-page news, but that doesn’t mean coronavirus has put a dent in its ambition to drive the US out of the region, pursue dissidents across the globe and export its Islamic revolutionary ideology.