It was recently revealed that the Iranian regime was planning to assassinate the US ambassador to South Africa. Tehran denied any such plans, but a brief look at the Islamic regime’s history shows that Iran not only has the will but also the means to conduct assassinations on foreign soil.
Assassinations and terrorism have been the regime’s modus operandi both at home and abroad ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Four institutions in Iran are instrumental to the decision-making, organizing, and execution of subversive operations, especially those conducted on foreign soil: the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Supreme Council of National Security, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Ministry of Intelligence. It is above all with the assistance of its diplomatic corps that Iran puts its subversive plans into action. Terrorist attacks and assassinations have been conducted around the world by Iranian operatives or proxies in close conjunction with Iranian diplomats and Iranian embassies. Many of the targets have been Israeli and Saudi diplomats. The recent allegation that the Iranian regime is targeting the US ambassador to South Africa is credible, as such an operation is entirely consistent with Iranian tactics. As Iranian operatives and intelligence officers are highly active in South Africa, it is no surprise that the US embassy in Pretoria has been targeted.
In the wake of the slaying of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, there has been significant pressure on the Iranian regime to retaliate. It is of foremost importance to the regime that its supporters—the physical base of the state—be satisfied. As the regime is not able to target notable American generals and statesmen, it will instead target US ambassadors, diplomats, and embassies. At the same time, the regime will continue its attacks on countries it deems to be enemies of the Islamic revolution: namely, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Not long ago, Politico published an exclusive item stating that the Islamic Republic of Iran was plotting to assassinate US ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks. According to US intelligence, an Iranian threat against Marks is known to have existed since the spring of 2020. The South African intelligence organization, the State Security Agency (SSA), stated said that it has no knowledge of any assassination plans. In typical fashion, Tehran vehemently denied the existence of such plans. Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh added that the claim of an Iranian assassination attempt was part of “the Trump administration’s counter-intelligence campaign against Iran.”
It is impossible to know whether the American intelligence reports are correct or on what they are based. But a review of the history and style of the Islamic Republic of Iran can provide some indication of whether the Iranian regime is either willing or able to attack foreign diplomats abroad. This is of particular interest with respect to South Africa, where the Iranian regime and its operatives are highly active.
The regime’s first international assassination was conducted very soon after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in April 1979. On December 7 of the same year, Prince Shahriar Shafigh, a captain of the Imperial Iranian Navy and the Shah’s nephew, was gunned down in Paris by Iranian assassins. Seven months later, on July 22, 1980, Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, a supporter of the Shah, was shot and killed at his home in the US state of Maryland. The assassin, David Theodore Belfield, was an African American who had converted to Islam and changed his name to Dawud Salahuddin. After the assassination he fled to Iran, where he resides to this day.
So many assassinations were conducted by Tehran over the decade between 1988 and 1998 that they have been given a title, the Chain Murders. The killings began during the presidency of AliAkbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and continued during the presidency of Muhammad Khatami. Interestingly, both these presidents are deemed to be the fathers of the reformist movement in Iran. During the Chain Murders, dozens of Iranians were assassinated both inside the country and abroad. Of those assassinated in Iran, individuals like Ebrahim Zalzadeh, Dariush Forouhar and his spouse Parvaneh Eskandari Forouhar, and Hamid Hajizadeh and his nine-year old son, Karoun, can be mentioned. They were all deemed to be a liability for the Islamic Republic and were therefore killed. Those assassinated abroad include the Shah’s last PM, Shapour Bakhtiar, and his secretary Soroush Katibeh, as well as Abdorrahman Boroumand.
All three were viciously stabbed to death in France. The most infamous killings by Iran on foreign soil, also part of the Chain Murders, were the so-called Mykonos Restaurant assassinations, which occurred in Berlin, Germany on September 17, 1992. While several opponents of the Islamic regime were gathered at the restaurant for a meeting, assassins attacked the restaurant with firearms and killed four of the attendees: Muhammad Sadegh Sharafkandi, Fattah Abdoli, Homayoun Ardalan, and Nurollah Dehkordi. The German authorities were able to arrest, indict, and convict several individuals connected to the killings and concluded, “The political leaders of Iran gave the order for the murders, for the sole purpose of staying in power. Those who issued the orders and pulled the strings were Iranian state functionaries.” Ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, more than 160 Iranians in exile have been assassinated by regime operatives all over the world.
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Dr. Ardavan Khoshnood (PhD, Lund University). Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Lund University in Sweden. Criminologist with focus on offender profiling and violent crimes inclusive terrorism. From Malmö University and Lund University he holds degrees in Political Science respective Intelligence Analysis. Specializes in Iranian foreign policy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as the Ministry of Intelligence.