SPITZER: As the Libyan government threatens civil war against its own citizens, violence continues to spread throughout the region. In Iran this weekend, thousands of security forces met a wave of demonstrators with batons, pepper spray and gunfire. But the protesters aren’t backing down and they’re finding a lot of support among Iranian Americans.
PARKER: One vocal opponent runs an Internet talk show here in the states. You may not have heard of him, but in Iran, he’s considered a terrorist. And according to recent diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks, the Islamic regime may have paid an assassin to take him out. CNN’s Drew Griffin is here now with exclusive details behind the story.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT CORRESPONDENT: Kathleen and Eliot, it’s a crazy story, really. The Iranian agent, if that’s who he was, was arrested right here in the U.S. where we picked up his trail.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): It’s the type of California town you dream of. Sunny skies, green mountains, palm tree-lined streets. Glendora, California, is not the type of town you’d expect paid assassins plotting international killings ordered by a totalitarian regime. But according to this diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, that is exactly what happened here. A conclusion supported by Glendora’s police department. Would-be killers, a mastermind and a hired hit man holed up for four days in a low budget motel plotting, stalking, and on the verge of carrying out their elaborate plot.
(on camera): It was July 28th, 2009, the morning the murder was to take place. But the hit man got cold feet and instead pulled into this gas station, picked up his cell phone and dialed 911. And an international assassination plot unraveled.
LT. TIM STAAB, GLENDORA, CA POLICE DEPT.: This person went on to tell us that for the past four days they together had been scheming how to assassinate, how to kill a Glendora resident.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): To say it was a shock to Glendora Police Lieutenant Tim Staab is an understatement. The man hired to be the hit man offered proof too. Details of a plot involving a cheap van purchased at a local car dealer to be used accidentally to run down and kill the target. A payoff to his mother overseas, and a wad of $100 bills suspiciously wrapped.
STAAB: They were crisped, new, $100 bills and there was a stack of them. They’re all sequentially numbered. And around it they had a bank wrapping around it, and the writing was in Farsi.
GRIFFIN: The money had come directly from an Iranian bank. And soon Lieutenant Staab was arresting the mastermind. His name — Reza Sadeghnia, an unemployed house painter from Michigan. And the plot was rapidly thickening.
STAAB: Our informant was Iranian. The person, the suspect, the mastermind of this assassination attempt, if you will, was also Iranian. And those two wanted to kill the Glendora resident who not only was Iranian but he hosted an Internet talk show in Glendale, and just happened to live in Glendora.
GRIFFIN: And that led police to the next shock. The victim, and what the WikiLeaks cable suggests was the motive.
(on camera): This was an Iranian government plot?
JAMSHID SHARMAHD, IRANIAN DISSIDENT: Yes.
GRIFFIN: On American soil to assassinate you?
GRIFFIN: Scary? I mean, you’re laughing. That seems pretty serious.
SHARMAHD: This is serious. This is clear.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Jamshid Sharmahd is an Iranian-American who opposes the current Iranian government.
(on camera): And let’s be clear, your mission, your purpose is to overthrow the regime?
SHARMAHD: That’s clear, yes.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Sharmahd is the radio voice of an Iran dissident group called Tondar. The group says it is behind a grassroots movement in Iran that has led to massive anti-government protests. The Iranian government says Tondar is a terrorist organization.
(on camera): Any doubt in your mind that the Iranian regime was behind this assassination plot?
SHARMAHD: No doubt.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): And that is supported in this, this leaked diplomatic cable written from the U.S. embassy in London to the State Department in Washington. The cable says the alleged mastermind, Reza Sadeghnia, admitted his surveillance of Sharmahd and more. He also plotted to kill a Voice of America commentator in London.
(on camera): The overall plot was to kill you, get you out of the way and hijack your radio, your television, your movement.
SHARMAHD: That’s right.
STAAB: After looking at all the information, it sure adds up that the person that we arrested back on July 28, 2009 was a true bad guy.
GRIFFIN: That real bad guy was arrested and convicted, put behind bars last year for attempting to carry out an international assassination on American soil.
The end of the story? Hardly. It’s just the beginning.
SPITZER: Unbelievable, Drew, this is like a thriller chapter one and chapter two is coming up right after this break.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) PARKER: Back now with Drew Griffin’s exclusive special investigation — Drew?
GRIFFIN: The alleged Iranian assassin is in jail in southern California. He’s entered a plea of guilty on a charge of solicitation of murder. But playing out at almost the same exact time, another drama involving a different Iranian-American. Take a look.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): It was 2008. California businessman Reza Taghavi was on a trip to Iran finalizing a deal. As a favor, he also delivered $200 cash to the friend of a friend. A casual task, or so he thought.
REZA TAGHAVI, SOLUTIONS2GO.COM: They arrest me after a month. Exactly a month after that, they arrest me.
GRIFFIN: Taghavi would spend the next 29 months in Iranian jails.
(on camera): For $200?
TAGHAVI: For $200, yes.
GRIFFIN: And you spent —
TAGHAVI: Twenty-nine months in jail.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): He was being accused of giving that money to an Iranian dissident group, Tondar, terrorists the government said who had bombed a mosque. He denies it all and believes the Iranian government had other plans.
TAGHAVI: I’m pretty sure they knew I don’t have anything to do with these terrorist people. They knew, but they hold me. Maybe they get something out of it.
GRIFFIN: What happened next was straight out of a spy thriller. Those involved say Iran and the U.S. engaged in a swap. The Iranian hit man, Reza Sadeghnia, jailed in California for plotting the assassination of a member of the Iranian dissident group Tondar, served just eight months in prison. He was released last July and placed on five years probation.
LT. TIM STAAB, GLENDORA, CA POLICE DEPT.: While on probation, he petitioned his probation officer to be able to leave the country to visit Iran. And he hasn’t been seen since.
GRIFFIN: The Iranian mastermind was now back in Iran. Two weeks later, American businessman Reza Taghavi was allowed to go home to California. Taghavi insists the puzzling release of a known Iranian assassination operative and his release have nothing to do with each other, but the target of the assassination insists it was nothing short of a swap.
GRIFFIN (on camera): No doubt in your mind?
JAMSHID SHARMAHD, IRANIAN DISSIDENT: I give your man back, you give my man back.
GRIFFIN: You were the target of this assassination. Is that fair to you?
SHARMAHD: I’m still alive.
GRIFFIN: How sensitive is this case? So sensitive that the prosecutor here in Los Angeles that put this man in prison refuses to even discuss it with CNN. Not on camera, not on background. Not even off the record.
(voice-over): Requests for comment have also been denied by the FBI and the U.S. State Department. Jamshid Sharmahd says the reason is simple. Iran played the U.S. Jailing an innocent American businessman and using the American as a pawn to negotiate the release of a man claiming to work for Iranian intelligence. A deal Sharmahd says undermines the U.S. in dealings with a totalitarian regime.
SHARMAHD: If you start to trade with terrorizing regime, you’re tolerating them. This is a big mistake in the last 30 years. And tolerating means of a small part cooperating.
GRIFFIN: Once again, the State Department will not comment on this, Kathleen and Eliot, but I just want to say that that target and the target in London both believe that they, indeed, this was a swap that took place between these two governments.
PARKER: Well, it’s just an amazing story. And as you say it’s like a spy thriller except it’s sort of, I don’t know, the stakes seem a little smallish, you know. I mean, this radio fellow.
GRIFFIN: Right. It does seem small. Tondar is outside. You know, they’re on the fringe of the anti-Iranian government group. But the Iranian government considers them a terrorist organization and they have gone to great lengths to silence or marginalize every single group opposed to them.
SPITZER: Here we have evidence of the Iranian government plotting assassinations in the United States. This evidence, you look at that, there’s not a lot of doubt about that. They’re doing this.
GRIFFIN: That’s right. We’ve got the money, right? The money that came directly from an Iranian bank. We’ve got this cable from the U.S. embassy in London to the State Department of the U.S. which says, look, the guy’s photos, the surveillance photos were taken was found in Iran on an intelligence minister’s desk. It seems pretty darn clear that the Iranian regime was involved in this on American soil. And as these critics say, why are we doing any kind of swap with a regime like this?
PARKER: Well, I suppose we should feel gratified that their assassin was sort of inept.
PARKER: But what if he had been successful? What would that have meant?
GRIFFIN: Well, if he was successful and caught, hopefully the guy would still be in prison.
SPITZER: Are there assassinations that we think may have been successful? In other words, this was not going to be clearly an assassination. He was going to hit by the side of the road and there’s not going to be evidence. How many other individuals who are working against the interest of the Iranian government have died under mysterious or not such mysterious circumstances here, which means this might be going on as we speak?
GRIFFIN: You know that’s a good question.
PARKER: Hard to know.
GRIFFIN: I don’t know the answer to that. And I wouldn’t know if this fellow was hit by that truck, as you said, as it was planned out. He might have been just changing his tire. Would we have known? Would we have put that puzzle together? I’m not sure of it.
SPITZER: Unbelievable. Drew, thank you for that fascinating story. That is our show for tonight.
PARKER: Good night from New York.
“PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT” starts right now.