From that first meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, when recruiting agents offered him $600,000 and a new house in Tehran, Fariborz Karimi seemed a most unlikely assassin. The Iranian agents asked him to kill a man who was his mentor and surrogate father.
But it was precisely that close relationship that so attracted the Iranian secret service agents. Few prospective recruits had such easy access to the man they wanted eliminated--the exiled former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, whose public criticism of the Islamic regime had earned him a death sentence.
One recruiter handed Karimi a small vial half-filled with white powder.
"He told me to mix it in Bakhtiar's vodka," Karimi said. "He said: 'It is colorless. No one will know. They will think he had a stroke.' "
Karimi recalls with vivid dread the chill he felt when the vial was thrust on him. "I laughed like it must not be real, but I was terrified," he said.
He was even more frightened later by the calls he received from Tehran, from Ali Fallalian, then chief deputy of VEVAK, the Iranian secret service. The Iranian spy boss grew impatient as time passed, making Karimi worry that he might become a target of retaliation if he failed to commit the murder.
Finally, faced with an order from Tehran to complete the job--"do the act"--Karimi fled to the United States.
Today, in Los Angeles--one continent and an ocean removed from the scene of what he regards as his harrowing ordeal--Karimi, the reluctant assassin-recruit, still lives in fear.
Not because someone might tap him again to complete the lethal assignment. Bakhtiar is already dead. He was killed in a Paris suburb by a three-man Iranian assassination team that slit his throat in 1991, nearly two years after Karimi refused to poison the old man's vodka.
Now Karimi fears retaliation because he has agreed to testify in the Bakhtiar murder case on trial in Paris and because he has already provided extensive information about Iran's secret service to the FBI and French anti-terror investigators.
In a confidential 185-page investigative report submitted to the French Justice Ministry last spring, Karimi's account of early VEVAK contacts was cited by the French investigative magistrate, who declared the Iranian government had a direct role in the conspiracy to kill Bakhtiar.
The Times reported earlier this month that the investigative report and interviews with French investigators disclosed allegations that Iran operates an international terror network that targets dissidents and resistance leaders around the world.
Iran denies those claims. And the cases against some of the accused Bakhtiar assassins and accomplices continue in a Paris court, where Karimi is expected to testify by the end of the month.
The full untold story of Karimi's encounter with Iranian secret service agents sheds new light on Tehran's long-suspected role in ordering and carrying out political assassinations around the world. It also provides a rare first-hand account of the recruiting methods of Iran's increasingly sophisticated, KGB-model spy network.
He agreed to tell his story on condition that some personal details be omitted that would identify where he lives and works.
Karimi was born in 1961 to a politically active family--advocates of Iranian democracy, critics of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, open supporters of Bakhtiar even in the days when he was imprisoned by the shah's regime.
And Karimi was barely 18 years old when the Islamic revolution toppled the shah and swept Bakhtiar, the shah's last desperate choice for prime minister, from office. Karimi's family was no less critical of the new regime. Two years later, Karimi's father and an uncle were arrested and subsequently executed by the revolutionary government.
Karimi himself was arrested twice before fleeing to France, where the exiled Bakhtiar had already set up the National Iranian Resistance Movement. He was immediately part of the movement's inner circle, director of its youth organization and a member of the executive council. Bakhtiar paid him a monthly wage of about $2,000.
"I had a good life in Paris," Karimi said.
Manoushur Akasheh, then in his mid-40s, had also worked for Bakhtiar's resistance movement, first in Kuwait and then Paris, where he and Karimi became good friends. They often enjoyed the night life of Paris in their off hours. But the older man had a family and increasingly burdensome debts. Apparently in financial distress, Akasheh finally returned to Iran and the assistance of relatives.
Some months later, in the fall of 1989, Karimi heard from his friend. Akasheh was traveling to Frankfurt and wanted Karimi to meet him in Germany. Karimi was puzzled. How could it be that such an open opponent of the government was now free to travel in and out of Iran so easily?
Bakhtiar, already suspicious that Akasheh had made some sort of peace with the Tehran government, told Karimi bluntly that his friend was "working with them now."