An Expat’s Letter from Iran: A Super Cop, a Revolutionary Prosecutor and Dumb Diplomacy

Dawud Salahuddin
Dawud Salahuddin
[Editor's note: David Belfield, who took the Islamic name of Dawud Salahuddin, carried out the assassination of the Shah of Iran's former spokesman, Ali Akbar Tabatai'e on July 22, 1980 in Bethesda, Maryland. Salahuddin was under orders of a Fatwah issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. He escaped to Tehran. Joe Trento was first introduced to Salahuddin by former Washington D.C. Detective Carl Shoffler who tried to convince federal law enforcement that Muslim fundamentalism was the major issue facing the United States. Trento, rather than Shoffler, would travel the world to meet Salahuddin.  For more details about the Shoffler/Salahuddin relationship see Trento's book Prelude To Terror (Carroll and Graph/Avalon).

Because of the increasing tension between Tehran and Washington, Trento asked Salahuddin to reveal for the first time how politics got in the way of a chance for Iran and the United States to work together on a problem plaguing both countries - narcotics.

Since arriving in Tehran Salahuddin has worked as a journalist, which remains his profession.]  

TEHRAN – Four months after arriving in Iran in the last days of July 1980, I found myself living in the city of Bushehr, the provincial capital of the province of the same name on the Persian Gulf. At that point in my life the nearly equatorial heat was an entirely new experience – really sweltering – and I swam in that strategic waterway daily in mid-December. Rather glad to be there too, because at home I would have been a guest in a State of Maryland penal colony.

Port Bushehr was also the site of Iran’s nuclear power plant that Siemens of Germany had abandoned unfinished with the onset of the political storm that was Iran’s Islamic Revolution. The city was also home to one of Iran’s major airbases and a naval post. The airbase was a major staging area for aerial strikes into Iraq to which I had amazingly free access, as I did also at the unfinished nuclear facility.

Iran was several months into defending itself against Saddam Hussein assisted by most of the Arab world, the West, and Moscow, with the United Nations studiously ignoring its mandate and hoping the Islamic Revolution would simply go away. In 2007 the Islamic Revolution is still with us. And in the last days of 2006 Saddam was executed by the Iraqis for the Americans before he had a chance to tell the world who made his 30-year reign of terror possible.

In those days the city witnessed a constant stream of national political figures, many of whom I had the opportunity to meet and talk with. They included a president, a prime minister – who after succeeding that president was literally obliterated in an explosion within weeks of taking office – and Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, the head of the Iranian Judiciary, who was widely heralded as the organizational brain behind the nascent revolution.  Beheshti was also quite dead by June of 1981 in the explosion that took 72 lives of Iran’s top ranking officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran Party. The party was in control of the parliament and just about every other facet of Iranian political life at the time.

But the one official whose acquaintance turned into a genuine friendship was that of Habibollah Mogheissi, a young cleric-my age in fact–who was the head of the Revolutionary Court in the city. I quickly took by him as he was enormously personable, remarkably handsome and well built, enjoyed a good laugh. Perhaps the best measure of his undeniable magnetism was that any time he walked the dusty streets in that backwater gulf port, a gaggle of street urchins would seemingly appear from nowhere. As they started to shout his name, more of their ragged brethren would come streaming out screaming like banshees. Mogheissi would never fail to engage them with good humoured chiding, handshakes, sometimes grabbing them by the arms and swinging them around or cuffing them affectionately on the back of the head but always aware that his behaviour was affecting them and in turn he being closely scrutinized.

Having walked those streets with him on numerous occasions, whenever he was accosted by his young fans I would stand aside and marvel that this was the head of the Revolutionary Court and these were the poorest of the poor in that city that were getting his attention and both sides loved it. And yes, it was hard to juxtapose all the complexities of Mogheissi’s character into seamless order because for all his genuine humour and human compassion he made very hard decisions every day that would render most men catatonic in a month. Mogheissi, you have to understand, literally exercised the administrative power of life and death in Bushehr. If he reasoned circumstances warranted it, he would have you executed.

This was the man and this was my friend and co-religionist. In the years to come that bond was to save me a lot of grief especially when I started what was to be nine years of border crossings into Afghanistan beginning in late 1986-many of them absolutely illegal.

In those years he had been promoted to the head of the Revolutionary Court in Mashaad, a city in the province of Khorasan. The city was the dark heart of the largest heroin transit-way in the world leading from neighbouring war-torn Afghanistan, into Central Asia, Turkey and on to Europe and America. It was a posting that had him overseeing the administration of justice for some of the most perverse of human behaviour imaginable and even things one cannot imagine.

I always made it a point to visit him when I was entering and exiting Afghanistan and it always struck me what an incredibly difficult task he awakened to each and every day. Yet the door to his office and his home were always open to me and when I would appear his personal warmth was rendered that much more touching because I knew what he was touching from sunrise to nightfall.

One of the most simple and yet profound human realizations is that beyond race, ethnicity, ideology, geographical distance and a million variants of predilection and foible, people are people. At rock bottom human nature prefers amity to aggression unless debilitated by mental unbalance.

That truth makes for strange bedfellows. And so it was with Carl Shoffler and me. Shoffler, a D.C. detective who specialized in intelligence, vice and homicide began his career in military intelligence in Vietnam. A few short years later he was the arresting officer at the Watergate complex break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in that unforgettable summer of 1972 that undid the White House Plumbers and ultimately the presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon-and he was much involved past the initial arrest. That was his outstanding exploit for the public record.

Carl Shoffler  ABC News
Carl Shoffler ABC News
What he did under the radar for long years thereafter probably trumped that. And though no one gives him credit for it, he intuited a 9/11 type-event at least 15 years before the fact. Among his colleagues he was a legend of tenacity, eight-day weeks, honesty and trustworthiness with colleagues and perpetrators alike.

One of his intimates says that he was a philosopher who happened to be a cop. I did not know him until the late summer of 1993 but he was my case officer, charged with finding and apprehending me. Despite that extreme adversarial relationship we became trusted and abiding friends-albeit at a distance of 10,000 miles.

He had me under surveillance for seven months in D.C. from late 1979 through mid 1980. I laid eyes on him only on television-the venue a January 1996 ABC 20/20 episode, made possible by Joe Trento that we both appeared in. Friends who saw that invariably commented Shoffler had obvious empathy for his quarry. In the three years from 1993 until the summer of 1996 we maintained regular, long-winded telephone contact and at one point reflected that had we met the day I left America, odds were we would have tried to kill each other.

For all that camaraderie and it was real enough, there was still the underlying nature of our relationship-he the law enforcement agent committed to bringing me in and me the fugitive. Over time that faded into the background though he did offer me attractive terms of surrender that in today’s climate of the Bush administration’s huge misadventure into the world of Islam look positively idyllic-and he came pretty close to getting me to agree. Though my voluntary surrender was not the gist of our relationship, as he told me one day he had enough notches in his gun and did not need another. When Carl Shoffler shared a thought with you, you believed it and in the event there was one situation where had he wanted to, he could have had me taken down but it was simply not on his mind or rather it was beneath his code of honour.

Our primary interest turned out to be mutual education. He telling me about the real down and dirty of law enforcement-not skimping on the ugliness and me giving him insights into what way the wind was blowing in the Muslim world-and that with the blessing of a genuine luminary from that same world, one of its brightest lights.

But Shoffler already came armed with a surprising wealth of information about Islam and a respect for the same that only comes through study and reflection. As for American law enforcement, I was not entirely ignorant of how it all too often did not work in black communities while my interlocutor was versed in the same deep into his bones. My impression is that knowledge weighed a ton on him.

A lot of what we discussed dealt with how to overcome culture divides and the reciprocal misperceptions and animosities bred by misunderstanding that roiled then and even more so today the pulsating antagonism between Tehran and Washington. Of course that agenda was impossible of accomplishment but at least the two of us gave it our best shot.  Looking back, Shoffler was much more visionary, imaginative, generous, intelligently patriotic and better versed in how the real world revolves and how its complex functioning can be improved upon than were the overwhelming majority of the pinstripe set that inhabits Foggy Bottom.

We also shared an ongoing dialogue into the deteriorating state of black America. Both of us were convinced it was an American Achilles heel though he had traveled in many ways a more difficult route in reaching that conclusion than I, sojourning as he did from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Vietnam to the streets of D.C. as an undercover cop. And the man was big enough to confess that he had at one significant point in his life been a convinced racist. Over the years that melted away and in its place had emerged a highly evolved and extremely thoughtful human being who spent significant time tutoring black high school kids and looking after them in a variety of ways.

And yes, we often talked of American government policy and the black community. I would question him about COINTELPRO and he would answer with characteristic frankness. We both shared a pet peeve about Louis Farrakhan who played a major role in the 1964 assassination of Malcolm X and the 1973 slaughter of the Hanafi Muslims in D.C. Baltimore’s Ronald Everett (a.k.a. Maulana Ron Karenga) who sent so many Black Panther Party members to the grave did not escape our scrutiny either. When I labeled them major federal assets with an agenda to mislead the people they claimed to be leading, he never contested the assertion and he was a bulldog of a detective conversant with their files.

Fact is he considered Farrakhan an organized crime leader, not a religious savant and was literate enough in Islam to understand with great clarity and no small measure of profound disdain that Louie was a later day Elmer Gantry whose religious claims would have seen him executed for blasphemy if he preached in the Muslim world what he did in America.

Dedicated a lawman as he was, Carl Shoffler could always see the forest and the trees and as a result had not one illusion about how badly government policy could be conceived and executed. That knowledge often got him into trouble with his superiors.

The improbable web of my friendship with the super cop and the revolutionary prosecutor reinforced my understanding that when you need to get something done close personal relationships are imminently superior tools to lumbering and often self-blinding bureaucratic protocol where all too often the baby gets thrown out with the bath water. The catalyst for buttressing that insight was narcotics, specifically heroin trafficking that I had started to watch since the late 1960s and was amazed at its power to debilitate African America. Today it is one of the factors that make the American black male the only social group in the developed world with a declining life expectancy.

Shoffler called me in mid-summer of 1995 and asked did I know anyone on the Iranian side working narcotics and if I did, was I in position to run a name past him. The answer was yes on both counts. The name was that of an Iranian-American who was thought by police to be operating a major heroin import ring connected in part to a café in Washington D.C.

I told him to give me a few days. In the event, I got the information in a few hours. I traipsed over to Mogheissi’s office now in Tehran at the Revolutionary Court where he was the number two in the narcotics division – Iran a major transit-way for Afghan heroin to Europe and America. My arrival was unannounced and when I told him there was a question I needed his help with, he stopped what he was doing and gave me his undivided attention.

I explained the situation and the source of the inquiry and when I gave him the Iranian name, he recognized it immediately and told me to wait while he checked his files. Five minutes later he returned and told me he had a confiscated personal check from the man worth USD 2.5m. He then made a request of me. Could I arrange for him to meet Shoffler? Given the heroin case and how both men knew it so well, chances were perhaps scores of other smack kingpins were profiting mightily from the fact that the Iranians and Americans were simply not talking to each other.

Iran is in the crosshairs of the herion trade  from Afghanistan to the West (Map - DOJ)
Iran is in the crosshairs of the herion trade from Afghanistan to the West (Map - DOJ)
I got back to Shoffler with the message that Mogheissi was prepared to meet him anywhere in the world to cross check their files and begin to get a grasp of how large the illicit Iran-America traffic was. He was all for that and thought the two of them were about to do a significant piece of police work that could leak into a diplomatic breakthrough at least in terms of law enforcement. What he did not factor in however, was how hidebound the Clinton administration State Department was.
From the summer of 1995 until his death in July of 1996 he could not get authorization from State to meet Mogheissi. Mogheissi for his part was regularly asking me for updates on when the meet could take place and he had full authorization to travel on immediate notice.
Assistant Undersecretary of State for South Asian affairs Robin Raphael traveled to the region in the spring of 1996. Her utterly ridiculous pronouncements about Iran sitting on it hands vis-à-vis heroin transshipment was a master stroke of diplomatic ignorance or perhaps disinformation given the fact that Iran was suffering more security force fatalities than any country in the world in the drug war.
I responded by writing her a letter politely informing her she was way off base and that Carl Shoffler had been sitting on his hands for nearly a year waiting in vain for a response from her organization to get directly involved in what she said Iran was refusing to do. Would she be so kind to do expedite this? I was not surprised that there was no response or that Carl Shoffler never got the green light on Iran-U.S. law enforcement cooperation.

I took it all in as the inefficiency of government bureaucracy, mindless arrogance and a clear case of government inability to try something new and in the bargain possibly actually doing something effective.

Carl Shoffler died suddenly that summer of a pancreatic malfunction. Habibollah Mogheissi followed him to the grave two years later-a cancer victim at age 48-a stress disease that struck down the physically and psychologically powerful individual. I have always thought both men, extraordinary civil servants, were literally killed by their jobs. Till this day I wonder, what progress we could have made if my two friends had been allowed to meet?