Government prosecutors yesterday charged that money allegedly used to pay for the July 1980 assassination of a prominent Iranian exile in Bethesda was arranged by an Iranian student who worked unofficially for the Iranian Interests Section at the Algerian Embassy.

The prosecutors made the allegation during their opening arguments in D.C. Superior Court in the trial of three men indicted in connection with the killing of Iranian diplomat Ali Akbar Tabatabai, who was shot in the doorway of his home by a man disguised as a postman.

The Iranian exile, identified as Mehdi Safiri, then a graduate student at George Washington University, was not listed officially as an employe of the Iranian Interests Section. But prosecutors said they believe the triggerman, Daoud Salahuddin, also known as David Belfield, who worked as a security officer in the interests section, reported to Safiri in the course of his duties. Salahuddin left the country after the assassination and is believed to be in Iran.

Safiri, described by prosecutors as the "money man," has not been indicted and also is believed to have left the country shortly after the assassination. Prosecutors did not say why Safiri was not indicted. They also did not say how much money was paid for the killing, but said that Salahuddin at one point instructed one of the plotters to call Safiri for a $2,000 payment after the killing.

The three men on trial are accused of conspiring with Salahuddin to kill the exiled diplomat. Ahmed Rauf, also known as Horace Butler, allegedly helped Salahuddin obtain a U.S. Postal Service truck so that Salahuddin could pose as a mailman and lure Tabatabai to the door of his home in Bethesda. Rauf is also accused of disposing of the murder weapon, a 9-mm pistol.

Prosecutors also claimed that Ali Abdul-Mani, also known as Lee Curtis Manning, rented the vehicle used for the escape and that William Caffee Jr., also known as Kalid, wiped the car clean of fingerprints and abandoned it in the District of Columbia.

In outlining the prosecution's case to the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Ogren alleged that the three men were involved in a complex plot to kill Tabatabai, which might have succeeded but for the testimony of one of the conspirators, Al Fletcher Hunter, also known as Abu Bakr Zaid Sharriff.

Hunter, who was convicted with Caffee of the burglary of a D.C. liquor store after the shooting, agreed to testify about his role in the killing, which included driving Salahuddin to Canada after the shooting, in exchange for a grant of immunity in this incident and six other armed robberies.

Hunter, Ogren said, "is the one person who can tell the story from beginning to end." Ogren emphasized, however, that the prosecution will call many other witnesses who would "corroborate his story."

Defense attorneys appointed by the court to represent the three men all emphasized Hunter's lengthy criminal record. Ed Wilhite, Caffee's attorney, said that Hunter had lied many times in the past to authorities. The defense attorneys believe Hunter and the postman who allowed his jeep to be used in the killing, Tyrone Frazier, will be the government's key witnesses.

Defense attorney Thomas Abbenante, who represents Rauf, emphasized that the trigger man, Salahuddin, was not on trial, nor were "the people who paid" for the killing. Bruce McHale, attorney for Abdul-Mani, argued that neither Hunter nor Frazier nor any other witness could "put my client at any meeting planning the murder of Tabatabai, nor at the scene of the murder, nor at Butler's Rauf's apartment," which the government alleges was the "launching pad for the conspiracy."