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Iran Says It Detained Leader of California-Based Exile Group

2020-08-01 19:55:32

TEHRAN — Iran on Saturday said it had detained an Iranian-American leader of a little-known, California-based opposition group for allegedly planning a 2008 attack on a mosque that killed 14 people and wounded over 200 others.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry also asserted that the detained man, Jamshid Sharmahd of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, planned more attacks around the Islamic Republic amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the United States.

Mr. Sharmahd’s reported arrest comes as relations between the U.S. and Iran remain inflamed in the wake of President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw America from the 2015 multinational nuclear deal. In January, a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad. Iran responded by launching a ballistic missile attack on U.S. soldiers in Iraq that injured dozens.

Iran accused Mr. Sharmahd, 65, of running Tondar, or “Thunder” in Farsi, a militant wing of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran. The circumstances of his capture are unclear; the Intelligence Ministry called it a “complex operation,” without elaborating. It published a purported picture of Mr. Sharmahd, blindfolded, on its website.

Iran’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, later appeared on state TV, saying Mr. Sharmahd had been arrested in Iran.

Requests for comment sent by email to the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, based in Glendora, Calif., were not immediately answered and a telephone number for the group no longer worked.

According to a recent report published by the U.S. State Department, Mr. Sharmahd had been targeted for assassination. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Iranian state television broadcast a report on Mr. Sharmahd’s arrest, linking him to the 2008 bombing of the Shohada mosque in Shiraz. It also said his group was also behind a 2010 bombing at Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s mausoleum in Tehran that wounded several people.

The state TV report also alleged, without providing evidence, that Tondar plotted attacks on a dam and planned to use cyanide bombs at Tehran’s annual book fair.

State TV aired footage of Mr. Sharmahd interspersed with footage from the moment of the 2008 explosion at the Shiraz mosque. Mr. Sharmahd’s face appeared swollen and the style of the footage resembled that used in one of the more than 350 coerced confessions that a rights group says the broadcaster has aired over the last decade.

The Intelligence Ministry has not said what charges Mr. Sharmahd will face. Prisoners earlier accused in the same attack were sentenced to death and executed.

The Kingdom Assembly of Iran, known in Farsi as Anjoman-e Padeshahi-e Iran, and Tondar seek to restore Iran’s monarchy, which ended when the fatally ill Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fled the country in 1979 just before its Islamic Revolution. The California-based group’s founder disappeared in the mid-2000s.

Iranian intelligence operatives in the past have used family members and other tricks to lure targets back to Iran or to friendly countries to be captured. An alleged Iranian government operative who is accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill Mr. Sharmahd disappeared in 2010 before facing trial in California, likely having returned to Iran.

According to a 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable from London, later published by WikiLeaks, a Voice of America commentator said that same operative had earlier been in contact with him. The British antiterror police later warned the commentator that he “had been targeted by the Iranian regime,” the cable said.

The two cases represented “a clear escalation in the regime’s attempts to intimidate critics outside its borders, and could have a chilling effect on journalists, academics and others in the West who until recently felt little physical threat from the regime,” the cable said.

Mr. Sharmahd last appeared in an online livestream video on Dec. 29, according to his group’s website, speaking in Farsi while sitting in a black chair in front of a black background.

“We are not only seeking the liberation of the homeland, but we are also moving toward a special direction, and that is to be Iranian,” Mr. Sharmahd said at one point in the video. “Because we have heard that once upon a time some people were living in the region who were able to build an empire.”

The Kingdom Assembly is overshadowed by other exiled opposition groups. But Iran reportedly brought up the group multiple times while negotiating the terms of the 2015 deal, in which Tehran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, Abbas Mousavi, reacted to the news of Mr. Sharmahd’s detention by criticizing the U.S. for allowing him and other militant opponents to live in America.

The U.S. “must be responsible for supporting terrorist groups which are inside of this country and carry out and lead terrorist acts against the Iranian people,” state TV quoted Mr. Mousavi as saying.

A statement attributed to Tondar claimed the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in 2010 by a remote-control bomb, though the group later said it wasn’t responsible. Suspicion long has fallen on Israel for a string of assassinations targeting scientists amid concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, which the West fears could be used to develop a nuclear bomb. Iran has long maintained its program is for peaceful purposes.


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