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CNN exclusive: Plotter of foiled 'hit' was allowed to return to Iran

By Drew Griffin and David Fitzpatrick, CNN Special Investigations Unit
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Alleged assassination plot foiled
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Police: Reza Sadeghnia pleaded guilty in plot to kill an Iranian-American dissident
  • He was allowed to return to Iran, but his deadline to return to U.S. passed months ago
  • WikiLeaks cable: He had been linked to a previous plot involving a London dissident
  • Sadeghnia's would-be target believes he was let go in a prisoner swap with Iran
RELATED TOPICS
  • Iran
  • Police

For more on this story, Watch "Parker Spitzer" tonight on CNN at 8 p.m. ET.

Glendora, California (CNN) -- It's the kind of Southern California town made for daydreaming: Quiet streets and sunny skies, a place where tranquility seems rarely to be disturbed.

But according to police, as well as classified U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, the Los Angeles suburb of Glendora was the scene of an international assassination plot. The scheme involved would-be killers hiding out in a low-budget motel and an elaborate plan that, at first, involved shooting the victim, but later centered on running him over with a van, police documents disclose.

"I've been a police officer here for more than 20 years, and I've never investigated anything like this," said Glendora police Lt. Tim Staab.

It all unraveled on a late summer day in 2009, when a would-be hit man hired by an Iranian national named Reza Sadeghnia got cold feet and called police from a local gas station.

"This person went on to tell us that for the past four days, they together had been scheming how to assassinate, how to kill another Glendora resident," Staab said.

Police said the target in Glendora was Jamshid Sharmahd, an Iranian-American dissident who is the radio voice of a small group called Tondar, devoted to the overthrow of the Iranian government. The Iranian government calls Tondar a terrorist group, but the U.S. State Department says it is only a propaganda outlet.

According to police reports, the informant offered proof: the purchase of a cheap van from a used-car dealer that would be used to run down and kill the target. He told detectives he had been paid $5,000 to kill Sharmahd, with another $27,000 delivered to his mother back in Iran.

The plotters decided to use a van after deciding that buying a gun would be too risky, the reports state.

The informant told police that Sadeghnia, the mastermind, had fled Glendora and was about to leave Los Angeles on a plane. Staab said Glendora detectives found him in an airport hotel under his own name and arrested him in his room.

Along with his laptop computer, police seized $2,100 in cash.

"They were crisp $100 bills. There was a stack of them. And around it was a bank wrapping, and they were all written in Farsi," he said.

According to those leaked American diplomatic cables, this wasn't the first time Sadeghnia had been implicated in an assassination attempt.

A prominent Iranian dissident in London, Ali Reza Nourizadeh, "had been targeted by Iranian intelligence," according to one cable. Nourizadeh is a prominent Voice of America commentator based in London, and Sadeghnia had contacted him several months before his California arrest, claiming to be a "big fan," the January 2010 account states.

But Nourizadeh became suspicious of Sadeghnia after he took large numbers of pictures -- photos that later turned up in the office of a deputy intelligence minister in Tehran, the cable states. He stopped taking Sadeghnia's calls "and heard nothing more about the matter until he was visited by UK anti-terror police January 14," according to the cable.

According to the cable, Sadeghnia had tracked the London dissident at the same time he was making plans to assassinate the California dissident. The arrest by Glendora police brought a halt to both plans.

"Nourizadeh is a well-known figure both inside and outside Iran, and is an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, so it is unsurprising that the regime would want to keep a close eye on him," the document states. "If, however, the regime has targeted Nourizadeh for assassination, as it appears to have done with Sharmahd, it marks 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."

Sharmahd said there was "no doubt" that the plot against him involved the Iranian government. He said the motive was not only to kill him, but also to replace both Tondar's website and its radio broadcasts with fakes in an attempt to hijack the movement.

Sadeghnia ultimately pleaded guilty to a charge of solicitation of murder and was jailed for eight months. But the story doesn't end there.

After he was released from prison in 2010, Sadeghnia applied for permission to leave the United States while he was on five years' probation and visit Iran for one month "to visit his dying father," according to probation reports. His first application was denied, but a second request was granted a few weeks later on the condition that he return no later than October 27.

He has not been seen in the United States since. Probation officials would not comment on the decision.

Meanwhile, another Iranian-American -- a 71-year-old California businessman named Reza Taghavi -- was being held in an Iranian prison. He had been jailed for more than two years after Iranian authorities said he had given $200 to an Iranian dissident group: Tondar, the same group based in Glendora.

Taghavi denied any association with Tondar. The money, he said, was to be given to a friend of a friend.

Within weeks of Sadeghnia's arrival in Iran, Taghavi walked out of Evin Prison.

Taghavi said he believes there was "no connection" between his release and Sadeghnia's arrival. His attorney, a former Bush administration ambassador, Pierre Prosper, said he doesn't think there's a link, either.

"But it's an interesting coincidence, isn't it?" Prosper said in a telephone interview.

The State Department told CNN that there was no link between Sadeghnia's return to Iran and Taghavi's release. But back in Glendora, Sharmahd said there's no doubt in his mind that there was a swap in which the United States traded the man who orchestrated his attempted murder to Iran in exchange for the jailed businessman.

"You give my man back. I give you your man back," he said.

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