Iran's plots against foreign officials and dissidents: the high profile cases

Man linked to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been charged after an attempt to kill former US security adviser John Bolton

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Iran’s attempted assassination of a senior US official has shed more light on Tehran’s plots against international officials and dissidents in a multi-decade campaign of murder and intimidation spanning several continents.

John Bolton, who served in senior national security positions in the administrations of former US presidents Donald Trump and George W Bush’s, was believed to have been the target of a plot by Shahram Poursafi, who was named by US officials as a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The US Justice Department said the plot was probably “in retaliation” for the January 2020 American air strike that killed the IRGC's Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad.

But the failed plot was one of many attempts on prominent figures abroad, including diplomats and dissidents who fled the regime and organised campaigns against the rule of the ayatollahs from abroad.

Since the 1980s, Iranian agents have been blamed for scores of assassinations and plots, brazenly carried out in international capitals such as Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, often using pistols or knives but, sometimes, bombs that could have killed innocent bystanders.

More recently, Israel has assassinated high profile figures in Iran's nuclear program as well as members of the Guard, killings which have generated significant controversy in the region and which Israel has only commented on obliquely. In June however, Israeli major general Eyal Zamir said the killings were justifiable.

Following the plot against Mr Bolton, here are some of the most high-profile Iranian plots in recent decades, starting with recent plots against senior politicians from Saudi Arabia and the US, and looking back on Iran's plots against opposition figures.

Hassan Al Qahtani, Saudi consulate employee in Karachi

Al Qahtani, an employee in the Saudi consulate, was shot dead by a man on a motorbike on May 15, 2011.

Saudi and American officials believed that Iran's Quds Force was involved in the Karachi killing.

A Saudi official who spoke to The Washington Post at the time said that Pakistan had identified the killer as a member of a Shiite dissident group known as Sapih Mohammed, which is linked to the Quds Force.

Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s climate envoy

In 2011, Washington foiled a plot to assassinate former Saudi ambassador to the US and former foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir.

The reasons behind the attempted killing were unclear but Eric Holder, US attorney general at the time, said that it was “a deadly plot directed by factions of the Iranian government to assassinate a foreign ambassador on US soil with explosives”.

Mr Al Jubeir, currently serving as the kingdom's minister of state for foreign affairs, is a well-known figure in the Saudi government.

One man, Manssor Arbabsiar, was arrested in New York but another managed to flee the US. Along with plotting to commit murder, Arbabsiar was charged with “conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism transcending national boundaries”.

Lana Marks, former US ambassador to South Africa

In September 2020, Ms Marks was reportedly the target of an Iranian assassination team after the killing of Suleimani. US officials revealed she had been sent a notification of the threat, known in US security circles as a “duty to warn” notice.

Mr Trump warned Iran at the time that Washington’s response to an attack on US figures would be overwhelming.

Reports suggested that Ms Marks's long friendship with Mr Trump might have been the main reason why she was a target of Tehran's hit squad.

Donald Trump, former US President

According to leaked US government intelligence reports, Iran has been attempting to kill or capture Mr Trump.

“Iran would probably view the killing or prosecution of a US official it considers equivalent in rank and stature to Suleimani or responsible for his death as successful retaliatory actions,” said the report.

Mr Trump was the one who ordered the strike that killed the Quds Force commander, alongside Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, near Baghdad airport in January 2020, after an escalation of violence between US forces in Iraq and Iran-backed militias.

Mike Pompeo, former US secretary of state

Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has been a target of Iran’s assassination plots. Mr Pompeo served in Mr Trump’s Cabinet during the 2020 air strike that killed Suleimani.

Reports by CNN suggest he was the second target, after Mr Bolton, of the IRGC assassination plot.

Gen Kenneth McKenzie, former US Central Command commander

Gen McKenzie has been on Iran's list of top targets for retribution, according to a US intelligence document.

The top US commander oversaw the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and headed the Central Command, the US military's command over the Middle East since 2019.

He retired from the position in March.

Fereydoun Farrokhzad, Iranian poet and entertainer

Farrokhzad's death has never been solved but an investigation by Radio Free Europe found that the poet's killing in 1992 was believed by German police to have been at the hands of Iranian operatives.

The well-known entertainer — who often appeared on television and released records before the 1979 revolution — had settled in Bonn, Germany, where he organised campaigns against the regime in Tehran and said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revered leader of the Iranian revolution, was unqualified to lead the country.

German police believed that Tehran would not let Farrokhzad's activism go “unpunished”, but the case remains unsolved.

Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, former head of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan

Ghassemlou was taking part in peace talks held in Vienna in July 1989 between his organisation and the government in Tehran, when suspected Iranian agents shot him dead on the street.

He had previously been labelled an “enemy of God” by Mr Khomeini — a designation that carries the death penalty in Iran.

Shapour Bakhtiar, former prime minister of Iran

Bakhtiar was the last prime minister of Iran under the Shah regime and went into exile in France after the revolution.

In August 1991, three men broke into his home and brutally murdered him and his secretary, a crime that strongly resembled the killing of Farrokhzad a year later.

Updated: August 11, 2022, 1:15 PM