An Iranian official suspected of instigating the killing of an Iranian dissident in 2019 has been arrested in Turkey, Reuters has reported.
Quoting unnamed sources, Reuters said it had confirmed a report by Turkey's Sabah newspaper that Mohammad Reza Naserzadeh was detained earlier this week on suspicion of planning the shooting of Masud Molavi Vardanjani, a critic of Iran's political and military leadership.
Sabah reported that Naserzadeh worked at the civic registry department of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul. Reuters said it could not independently confirm that information.
The incident could strain ties between regional powers Turkey and Iran. Iran's Foreign Ministry called the newspaper report "baseless."
Vardanjani, a former Iranian intelligence operative who exposed corruption involving Iranian officials, was shot and killed in Istanbul on November 14, 2019 -- a year after leaving the Islamic republic. He had been put under investigation by Iranian authorities.
A Turkish police report published in March 2020 said Vardanjani had an “unusual profile.” It said he had worked in cybersecurity at Iran’s Defense Ministry before becoming a vocal critic of the Iranian regime.
Two senior Turkish officials told Reuters in 2020 that Vardanjani's killing was instigated by intelligence officials at the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul.
At the time, one of the Turkish officials identified the two suspects by their initials. One set of initials matched Naserzadeh's.
A senior U.S. administration official said in April 2020 that Washington had grounds to believe that Iran's Intelligence and Security Ministry was directly involved in the killing of Vardanjani.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh denied that any consulate staff had been involved in Vardanjani's shooting death.
The Foreign Ministry's website said Iran was in talks with Turkish officials to shed light on the issue.
Last week, a Belgian court sentenced an Iranian diplomat to 20 years in prison on charges of planning an attack on an exiled opposition group.
It was the first trial of an Iranian official on terrorism charges in Europe since Iran's 1979 revolution.