By TAMARA AUDI
LOS ANGELES — Amid the ongoing war of words between the U.S. and Iran, one of the more unusual broadsides from Tehran is that a terrorist organization bent on overthrowing its government has for years used America’s second-largest city as a safe haven.
Iran alleges that the group, Tondar, has raised funds and organized attacks freely from Los Angeles, including a 2008 bombing that killed 14 people. In their limited indirect contact with U.S. diplomats and other Americans, Iranian officials have repeatedly raised concerns about the group.
The two men who run the group’s Los Angeles-based media operations say Tondar isn’t a terrorist organization, and the U.S. State Department doesn’t classify the group as terrorist. The two men acknowledge that Tondar has fighters who want to replace Iran’s Islamic regime with a secular monarchy. On its Facebook page, Tondar—which in Farsi means “thunder”—calls for “the overthrow of the Islamic regime…by ALL MEAN[s]!!!!”
But the Los Angeles members, says spokesman Iman Afar, have nothing to do with attacks in Iran. “We are not soldiers,” Mr. Afar said. In the group’s Los Angeles-based radio and television broadcasts, he added, “we simply reflect what is going on in [Iran] and what Tondar is doing.”
For two nations embroiled in a diplomatic showdown over issues such as nuclear weapons, the situation is playing out as a peculiar sideshow. Amid the array of Iranian dissident groups opposed to the current government in Tehran, Tondar is viewed as a minor player by Iran analysts, who dismiss its agenda as extreme and unrealistic.
Iran, however, says Tondar is a terrorist organization responsible for an April 2008 mosque bombing in southern Iran that killed 14 people, including two children. Tondar did claim responsibility for the attack, but it said the target was a military installation, not a mosque, and that 24 military members were killed, not any civilians.
Iran also blamed Tondar for the January murder of an Iranian scientist in Tehran. Mr. Afar said Tondar didn’t kill the scientist. Afterward, Iran called on the U.S. through Swiss intermediaries to shut down Tondar’s Los Angeles operations and extradite its leaders.
A State Department spokesman dismissed the accusation. “I think allegations that a group in the United States is somehow responsible for an assassination in Iran is outrageous,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in January.
Mr. Afar said that far from organizing attacks in Iran, he and Djamshid Sharmahd, who runs Tondar’s Los Angeles-based radio and TV programming, fear for their lives at the hands of Iranian agents. Their former Los Angeles office was broken into twice. Last year, an Iranian man living in Los Angeles was convicted of trying to arrange the murder of Mr. Sharmahd, according to state court documents.
The man, Mohammad Sadeghnia, denied any connection with the Iranian government, his attorney said. “He’s no hit man,” said the lawyer, Michael Zimbert. “He was drinking and talking stupid.”
Mr. Afar said he believed the threat against Tondar members in Los Angeles was real. “The regime feels we are their top enemy,” he said.
It’s unclear just how big Tondar is, or who leads it. Mr. Afar said the group had about 100,000 members in the U.S.; Iran experts, in contrast, figure there are maybe a few hundred world-wide.
For several years, the group, which is also known as Kingdom Assembly of Iran, appeared to be led by an Iranian exile in London named Frood Fouladvand. Mr. Fouladvand broadcast television programs from London and organized small but flashy protests in Europe—including a 2005 incident when about 60 protestors refused to disembark from a Lufthansa flight to call attention to their cause.
Mr. Fouladvand left London in 2007 and stopped broadcasting in 2008. He was last heard from as he approached the border of Iran, leading to speculation by some supporters that he had been captured and perhaps jailed or even executed.
Mr. Afar said Mr. Fouladvand was free but operating underground for safety reasons.
Since then, the organization has had no singular leader, according to Mr. Afar. “There is no leader,” he said. “The youth inside Iran took over the leadership and we the ones outside supported them.”
The group bases its media operations in Los Angeles, where many Iranian exiles flocked after the fall of the Shah in 1979. While many do not support the current Tehran government, the large immigrant community is divided among a host of groups with varying agendas. Some want to see the monarchy restored; others are pressing for a more Western-style democracy in Iran.
Iran has made Tondar a sticking point in meetings with a former U.S. diplomat attempting to negotiate the release of Reza Taghavi, a 70-year-old retired businessman from Orange County, who was arrested after the 2008 bombing while visiting family in Iran. Iranian officials say Mr. Taghavi gave $200 to a Tondar operative in Iran. Mr. Afar and Mr. Taghavi’s family insist he isn’t part of Tondar.
During meetings last month in Tehran, Pierre Prosper, Mr. Taghavi’s lawyer and a diplomat during the George W. Bush administration, said Iranian officials pressed him to raise Iran’s concerns over Tondar with U.S. officials.
Mr. Prosper said he told the Iranians he was prepared to encourage U.S. authorities “to take the appropriate steps” regarding Tondar.
“What was clear to me,” Mr. Prosper said, “is that Tondar is a top concern for Iran. They view it as a terrorist group.”
Officials at Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations didn’t return requests for comment.
What steps the U.S. might take is unclear. Defining terrorist groups has been a difficult proposition for governments.
“The U.S. should be against all forms of terrorism, which you can define largely as attacks on innocent civilian populations,” said John Bolton, former Bush administration ambassador to the United Nations. “That doesn’t mean that groups that seek to overthrow authoritarian governments are terrorists.”
Iran analysts said Tehran government may be pointing the finger at Tondar because it is politically expedient. Iran “likes to blame the internal dissent and tumult on outside forces,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle Eastern affairs analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Write to Tamara Audi at firstname.lastname@example.org