Recruiting a Political Assassin: Iran's KGB-Like Spies at Work

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From that first meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, when recruiting agents offered him $600,000 and a new house in Tehran, Fariborz Karimi seemed a most unlikely assassin. The Iranian agents asked him to kill a man who was his mentor and surrogate father.

But it was precisely that close relationship that so attracted the Iranian secret service agents. Few prospective recruits had such easy access to the man they wanted eliminated--the exiled former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, whose public criticism of the Islamic regime had earned him a death sentence.

One recruiter handed Karimi a small vial half-filled with white powder.

"He told me to mix it in Bakhtiar's vodka," Karimi said. "He said: 'It is colorless. No one will know. They will think he had a stroke.' "

Karimi recalls with vivid dread the chill he felt when the vial was thrust on him. "I laughed like it must not be real, but I was terrified," he said.

He was even more frightened later by the calls he received from Tehran, from Ali Fallalian, then chief deputy of VEVAK, the Iranian secret service. The Iranian spy boss grew impatient as time passed, making Karimi worry that he might become a target of retaliation if he failed to commit the murder.

Finally, faced with an order from Tehran to complete the job--"do the act"--Karimi fled to the United States.

Today, in Los Angeles--one continent and an ocean removed from the scene of what he regards as his harrowing ordeal--Karimi, the reluctant assassin-recruit, still lives in fear.

Not because someone might tap him again to complete the lethal assignment. Bakhtiar is already dead. He was killed in a Paris suburb by a three-man Iranian assassination team that slit his throat in 1991, nearly two years after Karimi refused to poison the old man's vodka.

Now Karimi fears retaliation because he has agreed to testify in the Bakhtiar murder case on trial in Paris and because he has already provided extensive information about Iran's secret service to the FBI and French anti-terror investigators.

In a confidential 185-page investigative report submitted to the French Justice Ministry last spring, Karimi's account of early VEVAK contacts was cited by the French investigative magistrate, who declared the Iranian government had a direct role in the conspiracy to kill Bakhtiar.

The Times reported earlier this month that the investigative report and interviews with French investigators disclosed allegations that Iran operates an international terror network that targets dissidents and resistance leaders around the world.

Iran denies those claims. And the cases against some of the accused Bakhtiar assassins and accomplices continue in a Paris court, where Karimi is expected to testify by the end of the month.

The full untold story of Karimi's encounter with Iranian secret service agents sheds new light on Tehran's long-suspected role in ordering and carrying out political assassinations around the world. It also provides a rare first-hand account of the recruiting methods of Iran's increasingly sophisticated, KGB-model spy network.

He agreed to tell his story on condition that some personal details be omitted that would identify where he lives and works.

*

Karimi was born in 1961 to a politically active family--advocates of Iranian democracy, critics of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, open supporters of Bakhtiar even in the days when he was imprisoned by the shah's regime.

And Karimi was barely 18 years old when the Islamic revolution toppled the shah and swept Bakhtiar, the shah's last desperate choice for prime minister, from office. Karimi's family was no less critical of the new regime. Two years later, Karimi's father and an uncle were arrested and subsequently executed by the revolutionary government.

Karimi himself was arrested twice before fleeing to France, where the exiled Bakhtiar had already set up the National Iranian Resistance Movement. He was immediately part of the movement's inner circle, director of its youth organization and a member of the executive council. Bakhtiar paid him a monthly wage of about $2,000.

"I had a good life in Paris," Karimi said.

Manoushur Akasheh, then in his mid-40s, had also worked for Bakhtiar's resistance movement, first in Kuwait and then Paris, where he and Karimi became good friends. They often enjoyed the night life of Paris in their off hours. But the older man had a family and increasingly burdensome debts. Apparently in financial distress, Akasheh finally returned to Iran and the assistance of relatives.

Some months later, in the fall of 1989, Karimi heard from his friend. Akasheh was traveling to Frankfurt and wanted Karimi to meet him in Germany. Karimi was puzzled. How could it be that such an open opponent of the government was now free to travel in and out of Iran so easily?

Bakhtiar, already suspicious that Akasheh had made some sort of peace with the Tehran government, told Karimi bluntly that his friend was "working with them now."

Nonetheless, Bakhtiar wanted Karimi to go to Germany. "Go meet him. Whatever he proposes, don't say anything positive or negative," Bakhtiar advised.

When Karimi boarded a Paris train for Frankfurt, he was traveling as a spy for Bakhtiar's resistance movement. He was to gather intelligence about Akasheh and his new relationship with the Iranian government.

What Karimi would soon learn was that back in Tehran he had been handpicked to become the assassin of Bakhtiar.

There was obvious logic in the choice. Akasheh knew that Karimi had routine access to Bakhtiar, that he was trusted by the opposition leader (who often called him Fariborz rather than the customary Mr. Karimi), that he was a bachelor with expensive tastes.

Of course, Akasheh also knew that Karimi was very fond of Bakhtiar and that their families had a long history of cordial and loyal relations.

Perhaps most important, however, was the fact that Karimi was a friend of Akasheh. In retrospect it seems likely that as part of his restitution with the Iranian authorities he had once condemned, Akasheh agreed to help recruit a Bakhtiar killer from among his former resistance colleagues.

"It is very much like the old KGB to compromise one who then compromises a friend and so on," said one French investigator in a recent interview.

Akasheh was not alone in Frankfurt, but he tried to reassure Karimi that the other two men with him had nothing to do with the Islamic republic. They were caviar salesmen, he insisted. Karimi believes that they were secret service agents.

A third man appeared to be a disgruntled student, declaring that he wished only to return to Iran because "Europe is not home for Iranians." Karimi thought he was also an agent making a crude appeal to Karimi's own sense of nationalism and lost homeland.

Then came the pitch.

Their first proposal required Karimi to simply return to Tehran and denounce Bakhtiar in the media. For this, Karimi would be handsomely rewarded and forgiven of all past sins against the revolutionary government.

Following Bakhtiar's instruction to make no commitment for or against any proposals, Karimi simply said he would consider it. His failure to reject the plan, however, may have encouraged them to press for a more drastic commitment.

Karimi said that on his second morning in Frankfurt, he was awakened by a telephone ringing in the next room of the apartment he was sharing with Akasheh. He pretended to sleep through the call, but he heard Akasheh's voice saying softly: "Let me do it my way."

Alone later that day, Akasheh confronted Karimi. Holding out a copy of the Koran, Akasheh insisted that Karimi swear an oath that he would never divulge what Akasheh was about to tell him. "As long as you live I will say nothing," Karimi said he agreed.

"They are going to kill him," Akasheh said. Karimi knew he meant Bakhtiar. "Someone will do it. If you want to make some money, you can do it."

The offer: $600,000, a house in Tehran and "anything else you want."

Karimi said he protested. "I can't kill him; he is my father."

In the end, as a favor to Akasheh who pleaded with him, Karimi agreed to listen to a further appeal by phone from Tehran.

Ali Fallalian was already a prominent member of the Iranian intelligence service when he called Karimi in Frankfurt the next day. (He now heads VEVAK as Iran's minister of intelligence and security.) Karimi recalls it was an oddly cordial conversation during which Fallalian even apologized for "the necessity" to execute his father.

"He said: 'Hi, how are you. . . . I've heard about you. I know there have been problems between us, but things are changing. . . . I hope we will meet soon after the action you have accepted to take. . . .' "

That was the moment Karimi felt the first chill. They assumed he had agreed to be their killer. Could he back out now without jeopardizing his own life? Karimi decided to stick with Bakhtiar's initial instruction against making any commitments, responding simply: "Well, see you soon."

Being handed the vial of white powder produced the second chill.

Karimi believes that his friend knew he would never kill Bakhtiar but that Akasheh "went through the motions" of trying to recruit him in order to satisfy Iranian authorities. Clearly, Akasheh was on a mission for VEVAK in Frankfurt, Karimi says.

Karimi still had the vial in his pocket when he returned to Paris and was summoned immediately to Bakhtiar's suburban home for a report. Feeling an obligation both to keep his oath of silence to Akasheh and to warn Bakhtiar at the same time, Karimi responded somewhat obliquely that he was not sure what the meetings were all about.

"I think either they want me to become a terrorist or they want to get rid of you," Karimi told Bakhtiar.

Bakhtiar nodded and ordered Karimi to move into his home immediately. A team of French police maintained a 24-hour watch on the compound. Karimi lived there for the next 46 days, the vial of white powder always in his room.

"He wanted me there for my safety. He was being my father," Karimi said.

But the young man finally grew weary of Bakhtiar's constant attention to his coming and going. "I told him his home was like a jail. I had to go," Karimi said.

Another Bakhtiar aide offered Karimi a ride back to his Paris apartment. Farydoun Boyerahmadi drove an older model red BMW. Two years later, Boyerahmadi would use the same car to drive two suspected VEVAK agents to Bakhtiar's home, escort them past the French police guards and, police allege, help them kill Bakhtiar with knives from the exiled leader's own kitchen. (Boyerahmadi is now a fugitive, possibly living in the United States.)

Karimi was still unpacking when the phone rang in his apartment. Tehran had a few questions. He was to be at a specific public telephone on the street outside his apartment at 11 a.m. the next day. He would get a call from "Hosein."

Based on his previous conversation with Fallalian, Karimi knew that was Fallalian's code name. The next morning he heard Fallalian's voice again on the line. Again the tone was cordial, but a bit more strained:

"Hello, how are you? Why didn't you contact us? We know you have been in Bakhtiar's home. . . . We're waiting to hear from you. . . . When are you going to do this action? . . . Of course, you must select the time and the place. . . . Why did you not take the action when you were a guest in his house?"

Karimi now knew he could not simply ignore his dilemma. By accident or design he was, he realized, "associated with a bunch of terrorists." And he saw no escape.

"As of that day I started feeling very frightened. I've been frightened from that day to this," Karimi said in a recent interview in Los Angeles.

More calls came from "Hosein" in the weeks that followed. Karimi kept putting him off with vague complaints that he was in no position to take "that action." He said Fallalian remained patient but persistent--very persistent. The calls came more frequently, always at a different pay phone.

Karimi hit on a plan. The only way to get VEVAK off his back without killing Bakhtiar was to find a convincing way to end his relationship with his patron. He drafted an open letter distributed to the Iranian media that accused Bakhtiar of being a tool of the shah's old secret police, SAVAK. He also took critical shots at the Islamic regime in Tehran.

He tried to burn every bridge he had to Bakhtiar and to the Tehran government. Then he moved to London and dropped out of sight. "I had to quit to save my life," he said.

Bakhtiar was apparently stunned by Karimi's public gesture and abrupt departure, telling Boyerahmadi at one point that "Fariborz is no longer my son."

Nonetheless, Fallalian eventually tracked down Karimi in London. About five months later, Karimi got another call from "Hosein," this time out of patience and in no mood for excuses. This time the tone was not at all cordial:

"Why have you done this? You are a charlatan. . . . You are playing with us. . . . You had a lot of time to do the action."

And the deputy chief of VEVAK ordered Karimi immediately to take steps to repair his relationship with Bakhtiar so he could finish his mission. Reluctantly, Karimi returned to Paris, but only briefly.

"They knew I was leading them on. I knew they had told me secrets about their plan to kill Bakhtiar. I was afraid they would kill me," Karimi said.

He fled to Canada. Then, after staying a few days with friends in Quebec, Karimi walked into a forest and came out in Vermont. He was promptly arrested by immigration authorities and applied for political asylum.

*

Karimi was in the United States when Bakhtiar was murdered in August, 1991, along with his private secretary, a young man Karimi regarded as his "best friend in the world." Even before the arrest warrant was issued for Boyerahmadi and two suspected Iranian assassins, Karimi said he knew his former colleague was involved.

Another Bakhtiar associate had been assassinated in the spring of that year, and there was widespread speculation in the resistance movement that Bakhtiar himself was next. Colleagues suspected colleagues of treachery.

Some Bakhtiar aides warned him that Boyerahmadi could not be trusted, but the resistance leader dismissed their concerns as tribal jealousies. Boyerahmadi, in turn, confronted Karimi, asking if he had been approached to kill Bakhtiar. Karimi denied it.

"Maybe if they pay me, I would kill him," Boyerahmadi told Karimi in what was taken at the time as a facetious remark.

Now, Karimi believes that Boyerahmadi took his place in the plot and, in doing so, "saved my life."

"He pushed himself in (to the conspiracy) and took the (assassination) job away from me," Karimi said. "They didn't need me. They forgot about me."

But Karimi fears that his years of obscurity ended when news accounts broke of his conversations with French authorities and FBI agents. Still, he agreed to talk about his experiences.

"I am afraid. But the truth is important," Karimi said. "The Islamic republic did this terrible act (against Bakhtiar.) I will let my story be the knife that stabs them back."

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