Iranian agents are getting bolder abroad

Events this week have shown the ferocity with which the regime is pursuing its enemies

Iran is a dangerous place to discuss oppression. Throughout the eight-year term of former president Hassan Rouhani, known in its early days as the "Hope Government", countless journalists and publications were shut down, particularly those advocating women's rights. The country's new president, Ebrahim Raisi, has been sanctioned for his alleged role in mass political executions during the 80s. He is unrepentant.

The habit of targeting opposition figures is now spreading beyond the country's borders. On Tuesday, US authorities charged four Iranian intelligence officials with conspiracy to kidnap Iranian-American journalist and women's rights campaigner Masih Alinejad, and take her back to Iran. With hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, Ms Alinejad has for years been showing the world footage of Iranians resisting regime oppression. Now she is reportedly the target of what would be the first known Iranian plot to kidnap an American citizen in US territory.

Other journalists have not been saved. In 2019, Ruhollah Zam of Amad News, a Telegram channel that shared footage from protests and other material damaging to government officials, was lured from his home in France to Iraq. From there, he is thought to have been kidnapped and taken to Iran, where he was executed last December.

File - In this June 2, 2020 file photo, journalist Ruhollah Zam speaks during his trial at the Revolutionary Court, in Tehran, Iran. Iran. Tranian state television and the state-run IRNA news agency say Ruhollah Zam was hanged early Saturday, Dec. 11, 2020, just months after he returned to Tehran under mysterious circumstances. (Ali Shirband/Mizan News Agency via AP, File)

Earlier this week, details emerged of an Iranian cyber group's attack on the British university SOAS. Agents have taken interest in universities for some time, often stealing their intellectual property. But the attack, which faked emails from a genuine scholar at the institution in an attempt to access personal credentials of those wanting to attend a policy discussion, threatened anyone in a foreign capital, Iranian or non-Iranian, with an interest in the country's politics.

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Events of this week have broken a number of precedents, widening the type of people abroad that the regime targets, as well as the sophistication and daring of the means they use to do so. The country's diaspora is particularly threatened. It is not hard to see why. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that more than 4 million Iranians live abroad, many of whom have not been back since the revolution of 1979, but whom the government still judges as citizens of the current state. This group extends to all corners of the globe, with a particularly high number of Iranian-origin people thriving in western societies, a difficult ideological circle to square for a regime that since its inception has defined itself against these same parts of the world.

We should laud the bravery of those Iranians who are dedicated to exposing the reality of life in their country. But sympathy is not enough. In an interview with The National, Ms Alinejad laid out the sacrifices she has been forced to make because of her work. When the FBI came to her house last December to warn her of the plot, she, by her own account, did not take their warning seriously. That ended abruptly when agents showed her Iranian intelligence material of pictures of her and her loved ones at home. She was forced to upend her family life, move to a total of three different safe houses over eight months, not leave the country and even fear going outside to tend to her garden.

This is the sort of sacrifice that keeps the hope of a fairer Iran alive. But it is also the sort of action that is becoming increasingly dangerous for Iranians, even those who live abroad. News over the past few months has shown that there are few idle threats when it comes to the regime. They must, unfortunately, always be taken seriously.

Published: July 16th 2021, 3:05 AM
Updated: July 27th 2021, 7:09 AM