New Evidence in Iranian-Linked Assassination Plot

In November of 2011, it was reported that a plot to kill U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, was uncovered.  At that time, it was known that other U.S. officials were also targeted, but recently new information regarding the overall plot have emerged.

The initial details, according to a probe carried out by U.S. and Azerbaijan investigators, included information illuminating a dual plot:  the involvement of snipers and silencer-equipped rifles and the use of a car bomb, ostensibly intended to kill embassy employees.

The two-fold scheme originated in Iran.

Many of the known details were never made available to the public and the story receded after Azerbaijani authorities took into custody just short of two dozen individuals.  Recently, however, The Washington Post revealed that officials in the Middle East and the United States have uncovered what was a much broader threat to Americans and others.  Iran-linked operatives had concocted a plan to kill foreign diplomats in at least seven countries, over the course of 13 months.  Several Americans were targeted.

In an official report, summing up evidence collected via the would be assassins’ coordinated travel arrangements, forensic tests, phone records and cell phone SIM cards, the assassination attempts can be traced directly back to Iran proxy, Hezbollah. Iranian officials, to nobody’s surprise, deny the accusations and have instead pointed the finger at Israel and the United States, maintaining the two countries carried out an assassination campaign against officials working on the Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s attempt to deflect the focus away from its alleged involvement is likely due to upcoming talks regarding its nuclear program. “There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to calm things down ahead of the talks,” a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.  “What happens if the talks fail — that’s anyone’s guess.”

And, the Obama administration also appears to be backing away from making a public accusation against Iran for fear it could interfere with the nuclear negotiations.  “The idea that Iran and Hezbollah might have worked together on these attempts is possible,” a senior U.S. official commented, “but this conclusion is not definitive.”

According the The Washington Post:

“The most recent threat came to light after a foreign spy agency intercepted electronic messages that appeared to describe plans to move weapons and explosives from Iran into Azerbaijan. Some of the messages were traced to an Azerbaijani national named Balagardash Dashdev, a man with an extensive criminal background and, according to a Middle East investigator involved in the case, deep ties to a network of intelligence operatives and militant groups based inside Iran.

Working from inside Iran, officials said, Dashdev in late October began coordinating the shipment of explosives, weapons and cash to Azerbaijani contacts, including relatives and former criminal associates. As U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence deepened their surveillance, they began to discern what the Middle Eastern investigator described as a “jumble of overlapping plans,” some specifically aimed at Azerbaijan’s small Jewish community and others targeting diplomats and foreign-owned businesses in Baku, the country’s sprawling capital on the Caspian Sea.

During the late fall and early winter, the weapons were smuggled into the country along with at least 10 Iranian nationals recruited to help carry out the plot, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said.

The Azerbaijani participants had been paid a cash advance and were beginning to conduct surveillance on a list of targets — including a Jewish elementary school, a U.S.-owned fast-food restaurant, an oil company office and ‘other objects in Baku,’ according to a brief statement issued by the Azerbaijani government after a series of raids in which about two dozen alleged accomplices were arrested between January and early March.

The alleged plot leader, Dashdev, would tell investigators that the planned attacks were intended as revenge for the deaths of the Iranian nuclear scientists, attacks that Iran has publicly linked to Israel and the United States. Iran vehemently denied involvement in any assassination plot inside Azerbaijan, and the Iranian Embassy in Baku suggested in a statement that the plot was fiction.

‘We believe that the glorious people of Azerbaijan understand that this part of the script of Iranophobia and Islamophobia is organized by the Zionists and the United States,’ the statement read. Attempts to contact Iranian officials for additional comments for this article were unsuccessful. Dashdev, who confessed to his role in a videotaped message broadcast on Azerbaijani television, remains in custody and could not be reached for comment. Baku officials have repeatedly accused Iran of stirring up unrest among pro-Iranian extremists to drive a wedge between Azerbaijan’s population and its government, which cooperates closely and openly with Western counterterrorism agencies.”

Additionally compelling evidence demonstrates that the Azerbaijan plot fits a modus operandi seen in numerous other recent attempts linked to Iran, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials. For example, the thwarted assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington involved a similar plan to hire criminal gangs (i.e. Mexican drug cartels) to kill a top diplomat in a public setting.

The report, presented to U.S. officials last month, outlines extensive links between assassination attempts of diplomats in five other countries: Pakistan, India, Turkey, Thailand, and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The attempts were carried out by abettors with direct ties to Iran or Hezbollah and directed against diplomats from countries hostile to Iran.

-Candice Lanier