Tale of Deadly Iranian Network Woven in Paris : Terrorism: An assassination trial’s threads lead as far as California, uncovering a wealth of spy data along the way.
It was almost a perfect crime. Three well-dressed men walked into the suburban compound of Iranian exile Shahpour Bakhtiar in broad daylight, passed through X-rays and metal detectors manned by 24-hour police guards, slit his throat and disappeared.
At first, it appeared to be a brilliantly plotted conspiracy, aided by luck. Then came the mistakes.
Now, three years later, those mistakes have not only led to the capture of key suspects in the case but have produced a windfall of Iranian spy data for Western intelligence agencies.
In a trial that opened here Wednesday under massive security, three suspects share the defense dock with the shadow of the state of Iran--all accused by French investigators of playing a direct role in planning and carrying out the political assassination of Bakhtiar, a former Iranian prime minister.
What began as a murder case has unveiled the shape of what investigators regard as a surprisingly sophisticated Iranian intelligence and terrorism network that stretches from Europe to California. French authorities report:
* That Southern California, a region with an Iranian community of more than 500,000 people by several estimates, “is an operational base” of VEVAK, the state intelligence and security agency of Iran that monitors opponents of the regime worldwide. The California community is dominated by Iranians who fled the Islamic revolution and includes many leading critics of the regime. Consequently, says one of Europe’s leading anti-terrorism authorities, “the most important base of Iran’s secret service is in California;”
* That Iran’s young, KGB-model spy network is now able to carry out its own assassination missions, rather than farming out such assignments to less disciplined terrorist groups;
* That secret agents of the Iran government have infiltrated opposition and exile groups in Europe, the Middle East and California, often targeting their leaders for assassination.
“Iran seems to regard political assassination as its national right, even on foreign soil. Any country that enforces its laws against murder is seen interfering in the sovereign affairs of Iran,” said one high-ranking French justice official.
Iran strongly denies the allegations. In an interview, Iranian ambassador to France Hamid Reza Asefi said that Bakhtiar posed no threat to the security of Iran and that Iran had no role in his death. “Moreover, we deplore any such act of violence against any resistance group,” Asefi added.
In unraveling the mystery of who killed Bakhtiar and pursuing the primary suspects in a network of perhaps 100 major and minor accomplices, French investigators were led on detective hunts to Switzerland, Turkey, Britain and the United States.
Results of that search are contained in a 185-page report obtained by The Times. It lays out a case that French journalists call “an autopsy of Iran’s terror network.” That network, French investigators say, includes operatives in the United States.
“But I fear Washington is not sufficiently concerned,” said one French official.
In January of 1993, a team of French police investigators followed their trail of conspiracy leads to Los Angeles as they looked for possible suspects in the logistic support of the killers. They took testimony from one Iranian exile who denied any involvement but said he had been solicited to kill Bakhtiar by Iran intelligence agents two years earlier.
Still, the French team was frustrated in part because the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, citing inadequate probable cause, refused to issue an arrest warrant requested by the investigators and turned down another request for a search warrant.
A U.S. Justice Department spokesman would not comment on the case except to say: “We cooperate and assist foreign law enforcement investigations in the United States aggressively and to the fullest extent permitted by our laws and procedures.”
But one French investigator said: “We told them (U.S. officials) there is a network of terrorists operating in your country. The Americans seemed to resent being told.” Ironically, a month later terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York. The French had no advance knowledge of that plot. “But we delivered the earlier wake-up call,” the French investigator said.
Allegations of official Iranian involvement with terrorists are not new to the United States. Last year Iran was linked indirectly to the World Trade Center bombers when it was claimed that Tehran provided financial assistance to related radical groups in Sudan.
The U.S. State Department, in its most recent report on global terrorism, implicated Iran in a series of murders in Italy, Pakistan and Turkey that were “carried out by professional assassins” who eluded arrest.
The same State Department report claims that “acts of terrorism are approved at the highest levels of the Iranian government” and that Iranian intelligence agents “stalk members of the Iranian opposition in the United States” and throughout the world.
In Paris over the past 10 years alone, six Iranians have been killed in attacks attributed to their political activities. FBI officials say that more than five years ago an Iranian dissident was killed in California in a murder that remains unsolved. And Iranian opposition leaders in Europe say 50 have been murdered worldwide since 1984.
“One reason all these assassinations have continued is because the Iran government has had to pay no price,” said Shaul Bakhash, a historian and Iranian expert at George Mason University. “That is one reason the French case is so important.”
On trial this week are:
* Ali Vakili Rad, 35, suspected of being one of the killers and a VEVAK secret agent;
* Massoud Hendi, 47, a grandnephew of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and former Paris correspondent for Iran’s government-run radio and television service, who is accused of helping the killers obtain false documents to enter France;
* Zeyal (Zia) Sarhadi, 28, a nephew of President Hashemi Rafsanjani and a member of the Iranian foreign service attached to Tehran’s embassy in Switzerland. He is accused of aiding the killers’ escape through Geneva.
All three deny involvement in the alleged conspiracy.
France will try six others in absentia. They are:
* Mohammad Azadi, 34, believed to be an agent of Iran’s intelligence service, and Farydoun Boyerahmadi, 41. Both are accused with Vakili Rad of killing Bakhtiar.
* Hossein Sheikhattar, 44, a top adviser to Iran’s minister of telecommunications; Mesut Edipsoy, 34, an Iranian-born Turkish citizen; Gholam Shoorideh, 34, an Iranian businessman with interests in Southern California and Chicago; and Nasser Ghasmi, 44, also an Iranian businessman. All four are accused of conspiring to aid the assassins.
Prelude to Murder
Based on interviews and access to French investigative files, this is the prosecutors’ account of the Bakhtiar assassination and what its investigation reveals about Iranian intelligence operations around the world.
Shahpour Bakhtiar, 76, lived in comfortable surroundings on the River Seine in the west Paris suburb of Suresnes. But he could never be completely comfortable.
A detachment of French state police occupied posts at his front door, in his back yard and in the ground floor entry to his trilevel home--a constant reminder of his jeopardy.
As a longtime champion of a democratic Iran, he had been imprisoned by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. When the shah saw his rule slipping, he named Bakhtiar as prime minister. Bakhtiar’s tenure lasted barely a month before the Islamic revolution of 1979 swept him away.
Bakhtiar fled to Paris, where he issued tapes and tracts seeking to moderate and unite some of the more extreme opposition factions. He was declared a target of Islamic punishment by Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali for “making a campaign against Imam Khomeini.”
In the summer of 1980, he escaped a botched assassination attempt that left a policeman and a neighbor dead. A second policeman was crippled by a gunshot wound. Investigators said the would-be assassins were hired guns. A Palestinian was convicted.
“Tehran has improved its quality control since those days,” said a French official familiar with the latest Bakhtiar case.
Police beefed up their protection, but anti-Bakhtiar plots continued.
Fariborz Karimi, an Iranian exile living in Southern California, told French investigators that in 1989, while on a trip to Frankfurt, he had been asked by an Iranian secret service agent to “execute Shahpour Bakhtiar.”
According to his account, which is included in the French investigative report, he was later contacted by Ali Falahian--then assistant to the chief of VEVAK (today he heads the intelligence agency)--demanding to know why Karimi had not already assassinated Bakhtiar when he was a guest in the former prime minister’s home.
Another assassination occurred in April, 1991. Bakhtiar’s chief assistant in the National Movement of the Iranian Resistance was stabbed to death in Paris by assailants who escaped undetected.
Bakhtiar called a meeting in July to select a successor. A member of the resistance movement attending that meeting was Farydoun Boyerahmadi. He placed flowers on an empty chair reserved for their lost colleague. After the meeting he placed a call to Istanbul.
By that time, Iranian secret agents had set up a clandestine dispatch center in two Istanbul apartments. French authorities now believe that Boyerahmadi was checking in with the agents there, who were the operations managers of the assassination plot.
The Istanbul dispatch center was provided by Mesut Edipsoy, an Iranian-Turk who allegedly had ties to the Turkish underworld. He owned or rented the two apartments.
Edipsoy, also known as Edybnia in the United States, traveled frequently to Orange County and Los Angeles, investigators said. The nature of his business dealings was not clear, but French officials believe he was in regular contact with VEVAK agents.
In fact, French authorities suspect that Edipsoy may have acted as a courier serving Iran’s spy network in California.
Central to the assassination plot from its inception were two Iranian secret agents--subsequently identified by the French as Vakili Rad and Azadi--who would be sent to France to rendezvous with Boyerahmadi.
To get the killers into France, investigators contend, officials of various government ministries in Tehran conspired to help the assassination team obtain false travel documents. It was a pattern of conduct, they allege, that Iran uses around the world.
Through the Ministry of Telecommunications and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting offices, for example, French visas were sought falsely claiming that the two Iranian secret agents were actually businessmen on an electronics shopping trip.
While the phony visas were being sought, the Iran Foreign Affairs Ministry separately issued false Iranian passports to the secret agents and later dispatched one of its own employees to Geneva to help bring the agents home, French investigators say.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul other final arrangements were being made. A master forger was employed to create counterfeit Turkish passports and additional phony Swiss visas.
And in Paris, Boyerahmadi secretly notified the Iranian agents that the housekeeper and gardener of his friend Bakhtiar were leaving on extended vacations, French officials say.
The Last Visitors
Through the month of August, apart from a private secretary and all the police guards surrounding his house, Bakhtiar would be alone.
At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 1991, Boyerahmadi drove his red, older-model BMW to the Bakhtiar home, where he often did odd jobs, escorting Vakili Rad and Azadi. The men wore suits. Boyerahmadi had both men change into black ties, a gesture of respect for Bakhtiar, who was still in mourning over the death of his close friend and executive assistant.
Bakhtiar was expecting them and they had no trouble with the guards or metal detectors. They were unarmed. Based on autopsies and other forensic evidence, police investigators believe this is what happened next:
The younger men joined Bakhtiar in his living room, presenting him with a painting, a gift. Bakhtiar’s private secretary served tea, then retired to the terrace off the kitchen. Police guards noticed Boyerahmadi sitting with the assistant shortly after 5:30 p.m.
That left Vakili Rad and Azadi, a large and powerfully built man, alone with Bakhtiar. Police say one of the two men struck Bakhtiar with a paralyzing blow to the throat, possibly with a forearm chop, crushing the older man’s larynx. He could neither cry for help nor breathe.
Then, with a butcher knife and bread knife retrieved from Bakhtiar’s kitchen, they stabbed him 13 times in the neck and shoulders--then cut his throat. They also cut his wrists and removed Bakhtiar’s Rolex watch as “a trophy,” police said, to prove they had accomplished their mission.
Bakhtiar was dead when his secretary returned from the terrace and was similarly slain. Calmly and efficiently, exhibiting uncommon discipline and professional skill, the assailants cleaned up the most visible signs of blood on their clothing. The knives were returned to the sink. The phone was taken off the hook.
A wastebasket was placed between a window and the fallen body of the secretary as camouflage. Bakhtiar’s body was left on the sofa where he had been slain, a tablecloth draped over him like a blanket.
At 6 p.m., as scheduled, the three visitors left the house. Police noticed nothing unusual. They drove away in the BMW, passing through the Bois de Boulogne, a large wooded park in western Paris. The two secret agents changed into fresh clothes and dumped their bloody suits and shirts in a curbside trash bin at the edge of the park.
Discarded as well were their shredded Iranian passports. They had now assumed the identities of Turkish citizens named Musa Kocer and Ali Haydar Kaya.
Boyerahmadi dropped Vakili Rad and Azadi at a subway station then abandoned his car with its bloodstained upholstery in a predominantly Iranian neighborhood, known locally as Tehran on the Seine. It would not be noticed for days.
So far, everything had gone according to the carefully laid plans that French investigators say were devised in the offices of Tehran government ministries.
Meanwhile, at the Bakhtiar house all was quiet. Police guards making their regular rounds of the compound grounds every 15 minutes dutifully entered in their logs the initials: “RAS” for rien a signaler , meaning “nothing to report.”
Errors of a Mission
The Istanbul dispatch center was set up to handle emergencies. But in the aftermath of a perfectly executed assassination, the phones were silent until almost midnight. That’s when the secret agents made their first mistake.
Neither Vakili Rad nor Azadi spoke French. Traveling without Boyerahmadi for the first time since arriving in France, they were bound for the small Savoy-region resort town of Annecy, near the Swiss border. It required a train change in Lyon.
But Lyon has two train stations--and they got off at the wrong one. They missed their connection to Annecy and called Istanbul for help. Days later a taxi driver would recall for police investigators that “the big one,” Azadi, had used the pay phone outside the rail station.
The Istanbul center was compromised and, with it, all the contacts made by its agents believing they were beyond surveillance in Turkey.
Meanwhile, at Bakhtiar’s home no one noticed that the private secretary failed to make his regular morning visit to deliver the day’s agenda. Sacks of groceries, dropped off at the door as usual, were not retrieved all that day.
The phone was constantly busy, not unusual given Bakhtiar’s heavy phone use. Police failure to discover the crime was giving the fleeing killers a considerable head start. But such unexpected good fortune was making other Iranian agents anxious. There were no press bulletins to confirm the assassination.
Istanbul agents made a costly blunder the next morning. Even though Vakili Rad and Azadi had already checked in, they phoned an Iranian woman in Paris whose role as an undercover intelligence agent for Tehran had been unknown to French authorities.
“Any news of Bakhtiar?” the Istanbul caller asked. No, but she agreed to inquire.
Later, armed with phone records, French police would raid the woman’s home and discover encoding devices, a pen with disappearing ink and other evidence identifying the woman as “an Iranian mole.” She would not be the only covert agent compromised by the phone links.
Another was an Iran Air official at Orly Airport who was believed to be involved in counterfeiting runway access badges based on evidence found in his office safe. He also was holding the long-lost wallet and passport of a French businessman, raising suspicion that they might be used to create fake identities for Iranian agents.
In England, an Iranian interior decorator near Birmingham was linked to the Istanbul operation. French officials believed he was a “dormant mole” for Iran intelligence. British officials arrested him for questioning.
And in Southern California, French investigators believed they had found more Iranian moles but were unable to persuade U.S. authorities to detain them, as was possible under French and British laws. One French official complained that it prevented exposure of more Iranian agents operating in California and elsewhere in the United States.
But Dave Tubbs, chief of the FBI’s counterterrorism section in Washington, said: “We cooperated within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution and laws. . . . Nothing was held back.”
Tubbs acknowledged that Iranian intelligence is active in the United States, keeping track of dissidents and keeping its thumb on students.
In fact, Southern California figures to be a hotbed of such activity since the size of its Iranian community is the largest anywhere in the world outside of Iran. California also has a high concentration of the wealthiest Iranian exiles, according to experts.
Eighteen hours after the assassination, Vakili Rad and Azadi arrived at the Swiss border. But they had made another mistake--they stuck their phony Swiss visa stamps into their phony Turkish passports so late that the visa stamp was still moist, arousing the suspicion of a Swiss officer. On closer examination the guard determined that the visas, supposedly issued in Tehran, bore serial numbers of Swiss consulates in France.
Swiss entry was promptly denied and the Iranians were turned over to French border guards--who just as promptly released them. The men were not yet wanted by police.
Their difficulties getting out of France, which would continue for several more days, forced the Istanbul dispatch center to send out repeated calls to Iran to Paris to London to Los Angeles and to other cities, each call compromising another intelligence asset and revealing more of the VEVAK network.
What the agents had failed to count on was the relative technological ease with which investigators could reconstruct records of their telephone traffic--this, despite the fact that the fleeing assassins had used only pay phones.
Pinpointing which pay phone records to analyze was made somewhat easier by another error of the fleeing secret agents. One left his wallet behind in an Annecy phone booth.
Finally, the silence at Bakhtiar’s home raised suspicions. About noon on Thursday, Aug. 8--nearly 42 hours after the killings, long enough for mold to form on the unfinished cups of tea--police found the bodies.
Too late, pictures of the last three visitors would be distributed to news outlets throughout Europe. Azadi and Vakili Rad finally made it across the border to Geneva. But that is where their last round of costly mistakes occurred.
Splitting up to make it appear each man was traveling alone, the secret agents checked into separate Geneva Hotels. They were to meet their contacts outside the Iran Air offices. Azadi made his appointments. Vakili Rad got lost and arrived 10 minutes late.
Azadi was apparently whisked off to Iran. Vakili Rad was left wandering the banks of Lake Geneva, trying to avoid Swiss police and waiting to be rescued.
Clues and Accomplices
French law enforcement had suffered a string of embarrassments. It had failed in the first instance to protect Bakhtiar, then failed to discover the murder in a timely fashion--providing protection, as it turned out, for two corpses for nearly two days.
Its border police had two of the suspected killers in custody for a time and released them without so much as a routine investigation of their phony passports. In fact, it was Swiss border police who first alerted anti-terrorism investigators that the Iranian agents had tried to enter Switzerland a day after the killings.
The French began to make up for lost time. Investigators found cabdrivers and hotel clerks who reported seeing the men, and Investigating Magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere could narrow his survey of public phone records. With that, the case against Iran began to form, and the dimensions of Iran’s worldwide network of operatives would start to take shape.
A call from a Bois de Boulogne prostitute proved especially fortuitous. She had found the bloody clothes left behind in the Paris park. Although she had cleaned them to present to a boyfriend, investigators said lab tests were still able to link the clothes to the suspects and to the murders.
The first big break in the case came before dawn on Aug. 21. Vakili Rad was arrested on the lake shore by Swiss police and promptly extradited to France. Bruguiere finally had a murder suspect, a man he also believed to be an Iranian secret agent.
Later that day, with Vakili Rad captured, the clandestine dispatch center shut down in Istanbul. The last agent monitoring the phones left for Iran.
One of the lingering mysteries is what happened to Boyerahmadi, accused of complicity in the murder by vouching for the suspected killers. He made a separate exit from France at least 10 days after the killings.
French investigators say he has relatives near Washington, D.C., and in Germany. While hiding in Paris he told one witness that he was awaiting documents for a trip to the United States. Investigators speculate that he may have changed identity to enter the United States.
As the trial gets under way, French investigators are confident their case will show that four Iranian government ministries--Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, Telecommunications and Interior--played key roles in ordering and carrying out a Bakhtiar conspiracy.
Bruguiere, who directed the investigation, calls the legal fight against terrorism vital for the defense of freedom.
“Terrorism is trying to destroy our society. It’s like a war, " he said in an interview. “Organized crime has an understandable goal, to make profits for its members. But terrorism seeks to destroy our values, our democratic systems. We must fight it with the arm of the law.”
Meanwhile, the country braces for possible terrorist attacks similar to what accompanied the trial of the Palestinian gunman accused of trying to kill Bakhtiar back in 1980. Police have bolstered security around train stations and major department stores. Sharpshooters man the rooftop of the Palais de Justice.
Hoping to defuse prospects of terrorist actions and help minimize the tensions between Iran and France, one French Justice Ministry spokesman insisted:
“This is a murder trial, not a trial of Khomeini or Rafsanjani. The issue will be simply this: Who is the murderer and who is the accomplice?”
For the remnants of the Bakhtiar resistance group, the trial has much broader implications. Ali Chakeri, 57, who replaced the fallen president, accuses Iran of mounting an international campaign to exterminate dissent.
“We don’t care so much if the accused suspects are convicted,” Chakeri said in a discreetly arranged interview. “What is most important to us, the victims of this violence, is that Iran is convicted.”
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington and researcher Sarah White in Paris also contributed to this story.