Iranian agents holding diplomatic passports murdered a dissident in Istanbul in November 2019. However, the killing was hushed up so as not to embarrass Iran. It has many of the hallmarks of the murder of Saudi Arabian dissident and former insider Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered in 2018.
But a major difference is that while Turkish, Western and Qatari media put Khashoggi on the cover for weeks, the murder of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani was ignored.
A Reuters report revealed the murder of Vardanjani. He was warned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to stop speaking out against the regime and stop sharing any expertise he had with others.
Iran eventually murdered him on November 14, 2019. Two intelligence officers from Iran's consulate reportedly did the killing. It leads to questions about why Turkey didn't speak out about the murder before.
The dissident left Iran, much like Khashoggi had left Saudi Arabia. He settled in Turkey, believing he would be safe. He was an expert in cybersecurity and had worked with Iran's Defense Ministry, reports say.
Vardanjani was a critic of Tehran's regime and spoke out on social media. "I will root out the corrupt mafia commanders – pray they don't kill me before I do this," he wrote. Some of the details about Vardanjani's role are murky and it is not clear if claims about his background are accurate.
On November 26 of last year, Iran was accused of the murder of Vardanjani, at the time referred to as "Massoud Molavi" in press accounts. "The Iranian regime continues to export cruelty outside its own borders," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time. His killing was one of many targeted assassinations of dissidents carried out by the Iranian regime worldwide, including in Europe.
However, it appears that Turkey hushed up the killing. Unlike with the Khashoggi affair, where the highest levels of Turkey worked to expose the involvement of Saudi Arabia and held near-daily discussions with the press, there was no attempt to mention this killing in Ankara.
Turkey, increasingly an ally of Tehran, had little to gain by embarrassing Iranian officials.
This is because Turkey is increasingly an ally of Iran and Russia and had little interest in embarrassing Iranian officials. Now the Turkish officials have told reporters they would raise the issue with Iran.
Turkey apparently detained suspects who said they acted on orders from intelligence officers at the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul. This also conjures up the Khashoggi killing because Saudi Arabia allegedly used its consulate to target him.
Like the Saudis, the Iranians who ordered the attack carried diplomatic passports and allegedly left afterward. It is almost as if the Iranians planned and modeled the attack after the murder of Khashoggi.
The victim was warned by Iran not to discuss drone projects with Turkey. This raises questions about the victim's expertise. According to Reuters, he had been in contact with the US and "European states."
Iran tried to lure him to its embassy in Ankara. According to Reuters, he met Americans instead. Turkish officials who spoke to Reuters compared the murder to Khashoggi. How was Vardanjani murdered? It turned out that Turkey did review footage, looking for information about how it happened.
He was gunned down on the street in Istanbul, in the Sisli neighborhood about a kilometer from the First Bridge (15 July Martyrs Bridge). It appears the murder was planned at the consulate because the report names a certain Ali Esfanjani as a culprit who was "spirited across the border into Iran three days later."
So how did the murder of Vardanjani pass under the radar? Social media accounts linked to dissidents say they warned for months about the killing. Why didn't Western media care, ask Iranians. Vardanjani had a Twitter account and a website. He said he was a PhD in studies of artificial intelligence and an Iranian scientist and inventor. He hadn't tweeted much since August 2019.
Iran's regime has carried out many targeted assassinations of dissidents worldwide.
His Twitter account is not particularly interesting, but a read of his 1,300 tweets, mostly in Farsi, shows that he was in touch with other dissidents. Of interest is a second Twitter account, which he was accused of also being linked to that tweeted about dissidents being sent to Evin Prison.
He responded to tweets by the account supporting dissidents, but later wrote he had nothing to do with the account. The second account stopped tweeting the day that Vardanjani was killed.
Of interest is the fact that the second account tweeted about missing American Robert Levinson in the summer of 2019, noting that Levinson was still alive and held at a certain location. That account also revealed details about Iranian hacking of UAVs, as well as Saudi Arabia using cyber technology.
According to reports last November, he was also involved with a Telegram channel called "black box," which disclosed details about Iran's regime. BBC Persian also reports the Black Box connection. It detailed corruption allegations against Iranian regime elements.
He was also allegedly interested in and even an expert in technologies relating to UAVs or drones. Much of the information posted online about him is difficult to confirm, however, including claims he studied at universities in the US.
Vardanjani allegedly sought to reveal other details about Iranian agents in the West. Turkish and other media have presented him as either a dissident or a "cyber spy."
A hashtag in Farsi for Vardanjani has many comments about him. Some critiqued Turkey's government for not doing more when he was murdered.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.