The West should take Khamenei's threats very seriously

More attention needs to be paid to Iran's clandestine operations across Europe and America

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meets students in Tehran last week. EPA
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The words were chilling and also shocking in the way they dropped in the context of a social media thread.

In a week when the focus of what’s been said on Twitter was focused on new boss Elon Musk and his plans, another significant user of the site used it to vow a very definitive form of lethal revenge.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a message to the world that the country was determined to avenge the loss of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander in 2020. “We will never forget the martyrdom of Martyr [Qassem] Suleimani. They should know this. We have spoken about this and we are firm on it. It will happen at the proper time and in the right place, God willing,” he wrote.

The tweet was placed among a burst of messages from Mr Khamenei about Iran’s hostility to the US and the mission to challenge American power that he traces to the 1950s.

In fact, the Suleimani message should not be read in this context at all. The Iranian capacity to “punch” – as Mr Khamenei puts it – has a character all of its own.

He has laid something bare that should serve as a wake-up call for governments, particularly in Europe, to take how Iran operates much more seriously. The evidence is that soft-pedalling on how Tehran builds its influence in foreign countries is a major weakness. The Iranian regime has enjoyed an open goal to menace and harass targets far beyond its borders.

The range of Iranian underground operations extends globally despite the country’s isolation and strained resources.

The Iranian capacity to 'punch' has a character all of its own

In the UK, there is a well-known set of centres that are funded by Mr Khamenei’s offices. Some of these addresses saw protests triggered by the demonstrations in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in Iranian police custody. Leather-jacketed thugs quickly emerged to force the ordinary people away. At one Iranian centre in London, a cleric used a YouTube platform to describe those protesting in Iran as terrorists.

There have been large protests in Germany and other European countries to offer solidarity with the women-led demonstrations in Iran. Police have been forced to protect the marchers when hundreds-strong groups of men descended to beat and kick the peaceful protesters.

These displays of strength have occurred outside the Iranian embassy in Berlin. Witnesses described how several men, disguised by scarves across their faces, tore down flags and banners from a caravan parked outside and then clashed with police at the building.

For years, German domestic intelligence reports at the national and provincial level have provided an annual update on Iranian spying activity in the country. These described what the German interior ministry defines as a threat to the country’s government system, as well as a security and proliferation risk.

The reach of this network runs from an Iranian trade bank in Hamburg that facilitates Tehran’s payments to the advanced engineering technologies that are procured or stolen for dual-use equipment supplies. Just recently, Germany was one node in an assassination plot that saw an Iranian diplomat in Vienna run agents in the Netherlands and Belgium to carry out an attack in Paris.

Success in trying to crack these Iranian operations is coming in Sweden. The courts there recently convicted Hamid Noury, a prominent regime official. He was described by the court as “sadistic” having selected the prisoners to be brought before a "death commission" that oversaw notorious massacres in Iran in 1988. His arrest came after arriving in Sweden in 2019 to oversee Tehran’s community activities there.

Since then more arrests have been made, including a set of brothers who were double agents working for both the Swedish intelligence and Iran. They were described as the most senior moles exposed in Sweden in living memory. The slow burn of Tehran’s approach was underlined when the prosecutors said the Iranian-born brothers became Swedish citizens in 1994.

The decades-old Iranian plot against the author Salman Rushdie finally came to fruition in upstate New York this late summer. The perpetrator finally fulfilled one of the Iranian state’s main policy goals and the writer is still undergoing treatment having suffered grievous injuries.

At around the same time in the US, there was a swoop carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on two different plots to kill former national security adviser John Bolton and Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad, who was a contributor to the US-funded Voice of America Persian.

The arraignment document in these cases includes chilling transcripts showing, among other details, how the Iranians worked to recruit and cultivate killers in America to carry out their attacks.

When Mr Khamenei says that Iran has not forgotten, it is already manifestly obvious from these transcripts what he means. The intent is laid out that Iran wants to orchestrate a strike to show it must not be crossed. The ability to set up a long-range operation is also obvious. The regime is not just offering words that could intimidate a non-committed state to appease it.

With the structures in place, it should not be discounted that the messages from Mr Khamenei will translate into action. But who will notice? Politicians in Germany called on the government to act to designate the IRGC a terrorist organisation last week before it was too late.

With Mr Khamenei’s orders now online, it would be remiss of governments around the world not to take much tougher action.

Published: November 07, 2022, 5:00 AM