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The last alleged Iranian assassination plot on U.S. soil was a success

The Washington Post / Washington Post via Getty Images

Daoud Salahuddin, aka David Belfield,in 2006.

By Robert Windrem, NBC News investigative producer

U.S. Iran watchers continue to be puzzled by the alleged assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., wondering why Tehran would want to carry out an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., and risk consequences that could include war.


Manssor Arbabsiar is shown in a 1996 Nueces County, Texas, Sheriff's Office photograph.

Intelligence and security officials say that the case laid out Monday by the Justice Department, which alleges that three senior Iranian officials directed former car dealer Manssor Arbabsiar to arrange the killing of Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, is intriguing and reads like a spy novel. But they also note that in spite of years of bad relations, Iran’s security forces haven’t sought to carry out such an attack on U.S. soil since 1980.

And that attack, in July of that year, was quite different than what the Justice Department laid out on Tuesday.

It occurred midway into the Iran hostage crisis, and a little more than a year after Iran’s clerics had taken over in Tehran.  Tensions were high in both capitals as round after round of failed negotiations, punctuated by a failed rescue attempt, made for daily headlines. 

Ali Akbar Tabatabai had been the press attache for the Iranian Embassy in Washington under the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and was well known in the city, having become a popular organizer of embassy parties and somewhat of a celebrity himself. Once the shah fell, Tabatabai used his press contacts in the U.S. and elsewhere to push anti-Ayatollah Khomenei articles. Moreover, he was holding meetings of a counterrevolutionary group at his home in Bethesda.

Iran’s new Islamic government – or at least elements of it -- wanted him eliminated, but getting to Tabatabai was no easy matter.  The new government had few agents in the United States and U.S. security agencies were focused on making certain that no new ones entered the country.

One Iranian-American who drew attention from the FBI and other agencies was a Washington rug dealer, Bahram Nahidian.  He and his Connecticut Avenue shop were regular targets of surveillance and agents soon became interested in Nahidian’s ties to a group of young African-Americans. 

The agency’s interest had been piqued, ironically, on the very day U.S. embassy staff had been seized in Tehran -- Nov. 4, 1979.  On that day, Nahidian was arrested at the Statue of Liberty with five other men who climbed the statue, unfurled a banner bearing anti-shah slogans and then chained themselves to the railing and began chanting.

Among the five was 29-year-old Daoud Salahuddin, formerly known as David Belfield. Belfield was a North Carolina native who grew up on Long Island in a Baptist family.  He later claimed to have been radicalized first by watching television reports on the beatings of civil rights workers in Alabama.

By the late 1970s, he had converted to Islam and moved in with Nahidian at his home in Washington. Law enforcement officials later said that he would regularly recruit others in the Washington area to join him at Nahidian’s shop.  Among the places where he recruited Americans was the D.C. prison in Lorton, Md., where he would “bring the message of Islam to black inmates."

For a short time, he also worked at an Iranian diplomatic office in Washington as a security guard.

Then, on July 22, according to multiple accounts -- including his own -- Salahuddin, dressed in a U.S. Postal Service uniform, rang the front doorbell at Tabatabai’s Bethseda, Md., home.  When an associate of Tabatabai opened the door, Salahuddin told him he had a special delivery package for Tabatabai that required a signature. When his target appeared at the door, Salahuddin shot him three times in the abdomen. Tabatabai died 45 minutes later.

With apparent help from the Iranians, Salahuddin made his way through Canada and across Europe, finally landing in Tehran nine days later to a hero’s welcome.  Since then, he has lived a varied life in Iran, teaching English, fighting alongside the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, editing an English language website and, most famously, acting in one of Iran’s most honored motion pictures, “Kandahar.”

In the film, Salahuddin plays an American political activist turned medic in Afghanistan.  He aids an American woman who has returned to Afghanistan to rescue her sister, learning as she moves through refugee camps and cities about the damage wrought by the Taliban. 

In the last decade, there have been reports that he has been willing to return for trial or that he is willing to serve as a mediator between the U.S. and Iran. But Salahuddin, now 61, has for the most part remained in Iran. He did travel to Istanbul in 1995 for an ABC News interview in which he admitted killing Tabatabai, calling it an “act of war.”   He also said he had met with Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007. 

As for Nahidian, he later denied that Salahuddin had lived at his home or that he had converted him to Islam. He also denied any role in Tabatabai’s death, but told the Washington Post that he was “very happy this happened. (Tabatabai) is a man who says ‘why doesn't the U.S. bomb all of Iran.’ He wants Iran to be destroyed. … I have no fear of any of this. … The maximum they can take is my life, and I am more than happy to do that for the cause of Islam.”

Then NBC News reporter Brian Ross confronted Nahidian in a parking lot in November 1980, an encounter that was captured in this Nightly News story produced by the author of this post.

In this Nov. 7, 1980 report on NBC Nightly News, correspondent Brian Ross explores the presence of suspected agents of Iran's new Islamic government in the U.S., including suspected assassin Daoud Salahuddin.

Nahidian remains active in Washington area mosques and last year appeared at a rally in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Park, where he echoed the Iranian line that the Sept. 11 terror attacks were part of a U.S. conspiracy to justify the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan “and now Pakistan.” “They plot and they scheme and no doubt God is plotting and scheming against them too,” he told the crowd.

There are, of course, substantial differences between the plot alleged this week by the Justice Department and what took place in Bethesda in 1980 although both did involve assassination.  The key difference is that, in 1980, it succeeded.