Iranian diplomats instigated killing of dissident in Istanbul, Turkish officials say

Accusation is likely to strain ties between Turkey and Iran, two regional powers that had grown closer

epa06644607 A handout photo made available by the Turkish Presidential Press Office shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shaking hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, 04 April 2018. Rouhani is in Turkey to attend a summit on the prospects for peace in Syria with his Turkish and Russian counterparts.  EPA/TURKISH PRESIDENTAL PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Two intelligence officers at Iran's consulate in Turkey instigated the killing last November of an Iranian dissident in Istanbul who criticised political and military leaders, two senior Turkish officials said.

The accusation is likely to strain ties between Turkey and Iran, two regional powers that had grown closer under the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Masoud Molavi Vardanjani was shot dead on an Istanbul street on November 14, a little over a year after he left Iran, the officials said.

A police report into the killing, published two weeks ago, said Vardanjani had an "unusual profile".

It said he worked in cyber security at Iran's Defence Ministry and became a vocal critic of the Iranian authorities.

Vardanjani had posted a message on social media against Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard in August, three months before he was shot dead, the report said.

"I will root out the corrupt mafia commanders," his post said. "Pray that they don't kill me before I do this."

Vardanjani's position at the defence ministry and his social media posts could not be corroborated.

No one at the Iranian embassy or consulate in Turkey responded to calls on Friday seeking comment on Vardanjani's background or death.

Asked about possible Iranian government involvement in the killing, a spokeswoman for Istanbul's police said the investigation was continuing and declined to comment further.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the killing was "another tragic example in a long string of suspected Iran-backed assassination attempts" of Iranian dissidents.

Turkish authorities did not publicly accuse the Iranian government of involvement at the time.

But the two Turkish officials said their government would raise Vardanjani's death with Iran and one said Turkish prosecutors were following the case.

The gunman and several other suspects, including Turks and Iranians detained in the weeks after the killing, told authorities they acted on orders from two intelligence officers at the Iranian consulate, one official said.

"It was reflected in the testimonies of the arrested suspects that these two Iranians, carrying diplomatic passports, had given the order for the assassination," he said.

The other Turkish official said evidence including the suspects' statements suggested "Iranian nationals played a serious role in both instigating and co-ordinating" the killing.

The officials said Ankara would soon deliver a formal response to Iran over Vardanjani's killing and the role they said was played by officials with diplomatic passports.

Vardanjani was on the radar of the Iranian authorities.

Two Iranian security sources said he had defied a warning from the Revolutionary Guard not to co-operate with Turkish companies on drone projects.

They said he had also approached the US and European states to work for them, although this could not be corroborated.

One of the Iranian sources said Vardanjani had published documents online that he had either hacked or obtained from contacts in Iran.

He said the dissident ignored requests to contact the Iranian embassy in Ankara, instead meeting Americans and an Israeli diplomat.

The second Iranian source said Vardanjani had been warned about his contacts with foreign diplomats.

The second Turkish official compared Vardanjani's death to the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi agents inside their country's Istanbul consulate.

Mr Erdogan has said Khashoggi's killing was ordered at the "highest levels" of the Saudi government.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman denied anything to do with the killing but said he bore ultimate responsibility as one of the kingdom's leaders.

On Wednesday, the Istanbul prosecutor's office said it had indicted 20 people, including a former aide to Prince Mohammed, over Khashoggi's killing.

Relations between Turkey and Iran have been tested by the civil war in Syria, where they back opposing sides.

Turkey has been angered by the role of Iranian-backed fighters in a Syrian government offensive against rebels backed by Turkey in Idlib, a Syrian province just over Turkey's southern border, launched not long after Vardanjani's killing.

A joint investigation by Istanbul police and Turkish intelligence reviewed more than 320 hours of footage, searched 49 premises and spoke to 185 people, the police report said.

Video on Turkish TV after Vardanjani's killing showed a gunman running past two men as they walked in central Istanbul's Sisli neighbourhood at 10pm on November 14 last year.

The gunman fired several shots at one of them, who fell to the ground while his companion took cover.

The Turkish officials said the man walking with Vardanjani had formed a friendship with him after he arrived in Istanbul from Tehran in June 2018, and had passed information about him to Iranian intelligence.

The morning before the killing, the companion, whom the police report and Turkish officials identify as Ali Esfanjani, went to the Iranian consulate.

He later met the gunman to discuss details of the operation, the officials said.

The police report describes Esfanjani as the leader of the team that carried out Vardanjani's killing.

Esfanjani was spirited across the border into Iran three days later by an Iranian smuggler, one Turkish official said, showing a copy of a bus ticket he had used under a fake name to get to Turkey's eastern border region of Agri.