Former Iran assassin says alleged plot 'makes no sense'

Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive in Tehran who carried out 1980 hit near Washington, argues that Iran would not try to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US for fear of provoking war.

Jane Rosenberg/Reuters
Iran assassination plot: Manssor Arbabsiar is shown in this courtroom sketch during an appearance in a Manhattan courtroom in New York on Tuesday.

In Tehran, an unexpected source is expressing doubt about the assassination plot laid out by US officials, alleging that Iran was behind plans to kill the top Saudi Arabian diplomat in Washington and blow up embassies.

Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive who in 1980 was the last – and only – US citizen known to have killed on behalf of Iran's revolutionary regime, on US soil, says the plot borders on the unbelievable.

Both strategically and operationally, in terms of Iran's worldview and its way of doing business, the information made public so far about the assassination plot does not add up, says Mr. Salahuddin, a black American convert to Islam, who was born David Theodore Belfield.

"For all the noise that comes out of this country, the Iranians know full well they are no military match for the Americans; they know that better than they know their names," says Salahuddin, who spoke to the Monitor by telephone from his home west of Tehran. "So the notion that [the Iranians] are going to bring that down on them, that just makes no sense at all."

"Why would the Iranians blow up embassies in Washington DC? The last thing the Iranians want is a war with the Americans," he adds. "This regime: They're interested in staying in power."

A 1980 assassination

That was also the case not long after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, when Salahuddin was recruited to assassinate Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a vocal critic of the fledgling religious regime.

Dressed as a mailman when he approached Mr. Tabatabai's residence in Bethesda, Maryland, on July 22, 1980, Salahuddin killed the former Shah-era press attaché by firing three bullets into his abdomen.

The homicide report described the shooting as a "political assassination," and stated that the victim had founded a group "whose goal was the overthrow of the present regime in Iran."

Salahuddin fled to Iran via Canada and Europe, and ever since has lived unhappily as a fugitive, mostly in Tehran. He fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, has worked as journalist and editor, and even played a role in the 2001 Mohsen Makhmalbaf film "Kandahar."

He has a host of contacts throughout Iran's regime and its intelligence services, but is often very critical of the Islamic Republic and the unfulfilled promises of its revolution.

Salahuddin's time in Iran – he speaks Farsi and is married to an Iranian – has given him particular insight into the workings of the regime. He has kept a close eye on world events, especially politics in his native United States. Salahuddin has in years past been contacted by US authorities, for a variety of reasons.

For him, the alleged assassination plot detailed by US officials this week portrays an unlikely Keystone Kops scenario that has been blown out of proportion by Washington as an election campaign gets underway.

President Barack Obama on Thursday slammed Iran's "dangerous and reckless behavior," and demanded "accountability" from Iran for any officials "engaging in this kind of activity."

US diplomatic missions around the world have been tasked with trying to convince their host governments to further isolate and pressure Iran, with special attention paid to Russia, China, and Turkey – all of which have been reluctant to add to four sets of UN sanctions already imposed upon Iran.

'Too many action movies growing up'

The US case centers around an Iranian-American from Corpus Christi, Texas, called Mansour Arbabsiar, and at least three members of the Quds Force, the elite branch of the Revolutionary Guard that handles covert operations abroad – apparently identified through intercepted communications and Mr. Arbabsiar’s confession.

News reports from Corpus Christi indicate that Arbabsiar is an unlikely Iranian 007, with his taste for whiskey and absent-minded demeanor.

"Do you think the Quds Force would choose a guy like that? I don't think so," says Salahuddin. "There is no real credible link between the guy and the government. ... I think he probably binged on too many action movies when he was growing up."

Arbabsiar "said he is the cousin of a famous general," but also conversed on open phone lines. The transfer of $100,000 to a US account, allegedly as a down payment to Mexican Zetas drug cartel hit men for the killing of the Saudi diplomat, is also strange, notes Salahuddin, because "every" Iranian knows that any transfer over $10,000 is reported.

"There is nothing in this guy's background that would prepare him for anything like that," says Salahuddin. "I mean, murder is something – you have to feel pretty intensely about something, in order to try that one. But here's a guy who, for all practical purposes, all he was interested in was making a living."

From black power to Islamic revolution

Salahuddin was a student of the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and was deeply affected by racial violence and the slayings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. He told The New Yorker in 2002 the he had been an “angry and alienated” black American: “I was primed for violence, and I thought about cratering the White House a quarter century before Al Qaeda did. It would be accurate to say that my biggest aspiration was to bring America to its knees, but I didn’t know how.”

Salahuddin respected the ideals of Islam as colorblind, as well as the stated aims of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution.

"I began reading the Koran when I was actually in university, at Howard University campus," recalled Salahuddin in a 2006 documentary called "American Fugitive." "I'd read the Bible, too, I'd been in church, catechism studies. But when I began to read the Koran it made sense to me. ... From that time on, I was hooked."

In the film, Salahuddin discusses the assassination he committed, and weighs it up against the Islamic injunction against killing anyone – much less a fellow Muslim believer.

But operationally, he says the 1980 murder offers little relevant experience when compared to the alleged Iranian plot today, because "everything has changed since then."

For one thing, since then Iranian hit squads have assassinated scores of regime opponents, across Europe and Iraq, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some were spectacular hits, but none in recent years.

Several attempts in the US that Salahuddin was aware of failed; after his successful hit, he says, "everyone else [in the US] went underground for 10 years, and started wearing bulletproof vests."

'Iranians killing Iranians'

"When you speak about Iranian terrorism, you speak about Iranians killing Iranians, you don't hear about Iranians blowing up an entire restaurant just to get one Saudi, or an Israeli embassy," notes Salahuddin. "Those are acts of war."

He says he has been surprised by the immediate and tough response from Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have ramped up their rhetoric for more sanctions, as some US lawmakers have called for more serious action.

"It's incredible. It makes me think, for all the so-called intelligence in the American administration, they have absolutely no imagination... they think that Iran is such an easy scapegoat," says Salahuddin.

"The only beneficiaries in a scenario like this, which I believe is absolutely false, are the Americans and the Israelis," adds Salahuddin. "It seems to me that the administration is playing to the public, instead of playing to reality. Because this notion is unreality, that the Iranians are going to be doing this kind of thing."

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