Iranian threats palpable in London business park after TV channel forced to close office

Journalists have been moved to the US or ordered to work from home after Tehran's threats

A man walks through tight security at Chiswick Business Park where Iran International's newsroom was based. Photo: The National
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“Welcome to Chiswick Park. We do things differently here,” reads a sign greeting office staff heading to work in the West London suburb.

That message runs true at the office complex operating under an anti-terrorism operation where about 100 staff of Iran International worked until last weekend. The Persian language broadcaster took the decision to send some journalists to the US and order others to work from home as concerns for their safety grew.

Dozens of police and private security guards are on duty. Anyone wishing to enter the building where the newsroom was located must pass through airport style security gates.

Security staff check the number plates of every vehicle before waving drivers through. Another team of officials are stationed behind a two-and-half metre high fence.

During a walk around the park by The National, the simple act of taking a photo on a mobile phone prompted an officer sitting in a police van outside the empty newsroom to react. The Metropolitan Police said a man had been charged with “collecting information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.

Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev, a 30-year-old Austrian, was detained and charged by the Met's Counter-Terrorism Command in Chiswick Business Park on February 11.

The National's visit to the business park followed Iran International’s decision to abandon the base. The move came months after several members of the British team had received death threats from the Islamic Republic, prompting round-the-clock police protection.

What would normally have been a bustling newsroom broadcasting live coverage of events in Iran to thousands of viewers around the world was empty.

A source in the broadcaster told The National: “We’re on air, uninterrupted, broadcasting from our DC studios.” The insider said newsgathering from the UK team is “operating normally” while staff are working from home.

Iran International’s decision to move some of its journalists to the US prompted James Cleverly, the UK's Foreign Secretary, to summon Iran's most senior diplomat.

Vijay Rangarajan, the Foreign Office's director general for the Middle East, held a meeting with Iranian Chargé d’Affaires Mehdi Hosseini Matin on Monday to make clear the UK would not tolerate threats to life and media freedom.

The talks were held as the UK announced sanctions on a further eight individuals who the UK says are responsible for human rights violations in Iran.

“The UK will always stand up to countries who threaten our fundamental values of freedom of expression and the media,” Mr Cleverly said.

“I am appalled by the Iranian regime’s continuing threats to the lives of UK-based journalists and have today summoned its representative to make clear this will not be tolerated.

“As part of wider efforts to hold Iran to account, the UK has today also sanctioned a further eight individuals responsible for horrific human rights violations in Iran, including the killing of children. We will never allow the regime’s threats to go unchallenged.”

The latest names to appear on the UK's lengthy list of sanctioned individuals will be subjected to asset freezes and travel bans.

While the UK has sanctioned dozens of Iranian individuals and groups over the regime's treatment of protesters, Rishi Sunak's government has resisted calls from cross-party MPs to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation.

The channel's move also prompted a warning from Tom Tugendhat, Minister of State for Security.

“The Iranian regime’s threats to assassinate UK-based journalists and harm their families are beyond contempt,” he wrote on Twitter. “Their efforts to silence Iran International TV are a direct attack on our freedoms and an attempt to undermine our sovereignty. They will not succeed.”

As well as the fence outside the building, concrete blocks at the entrance to the park were also among the new introductions since The National last visited the area in November.

Back then, Aliasghar Ramezanpour, executive editor of the channel, said staff were “feeling that they are working in a kind of war zone.”

The Persian language TV channel offers uncensored news and programmes to viewers in Iran and abroad. While the majority of its content focuses on Iranian affairs, it also covers international news and sports.

The channel was co-founded in the UK in 2017 by Mr Ramezanpour, who had worked for BBC Persian.

He said journalists had been threatened over the channel's rolling coverage of the mass anti-government protests that have rocked Iran since the death of Mahsa Amini last September. The 22-year-old Kurdish woman died after allegedly being beaten following her arrest by Iran's morality police for not wearing her hijab properly.

The rallies that have since sprung up in towns and cities across the isolated nation pose one of the most serious challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

On Monday, parents appeared unfazed as they pushed children in strollers and walked dogs along tree-lined paths.

While many staff at companies in the area have for months opted to work from home instead of their offices, Raju Ali is among those who has carried on with his routine despite the threat.

Mr Ali, who works in the building next to Iran International, said he would not be cowed into avoiding his office because he felt reassured by the presence of police.

“I come to work every day,” he told The National. “[The police] are taking very good care of it. We haven’t seen any suspicious behaviour or anything like that but, of course, it’s a delicate situation.

“I think it’s a very safe place to work and I would recommend it if anyone asked me if they should work from here because you can see the [police] response and everyone is co-operating. [The police] gave very good protection and in these circumstances they cannot do any better than that.”

He said despite the abnormal work circumstances, the mood among his colleagues is “absolutely fine”.

However, local businesses would disagree with his assessment.

Julian, who runs a coffee station at the edge of the business park, said his shop has been hit hard by the presence of police in the park over the past months and the decision taken by many officer workers to stay at home.

“We are 30 per cent down in customers,” he said. “I started to notice the change last year as soon as there were some police. The regulars are coming less and less.

“It was quiet in January because people were going on holidays but it is now February and is still quiet. I am hopeful that the people will be coming back. I think the business will survive.”

A kebab stall that was operating from a nearby pavement when The National visited late last year was nowhere to be seen.

Rob Kasenski, a cafe manager, said his lunchtime influx of office workers has suffered significantly because of the security threat.

“We used to get a lot of people from Chiswick Park at lunchtime. There has been a reduction of at least 80 per cent because people are very scared about it,” he said as he flipped vegetables on a griddle. “To be honest, we cannot do much about it.”

Eweline Forney, who works at a nearby cafe, said she had also noticed a dip in the number of diners.

“There are about 30 to 50 fewer customers coming each day,” she said. “Lunchtime was usually our busiest time but we are selling less now. We have had to cut our orders.”

Out on the street the presence of a journalist and cameraman was enough to arouse the suspicion of passers-by.

Marco Scarpelli of Kew, who had dropped his son at a nearby nursery, said the colossal police operation should leave people under no illusion about the threat Iran poses to those whom the regime perceives as enemies.

“I feel sorry for the journalists,” he said.

“Why is Iran poking their nose in journalism? Well, I can imagine why.

“It concerns me about the role of Iran in general in the world.”

The EU on Monday imposed sanctions on a further 32 Iranian individuals including government ministers, intelligence officials and politicians as part of the bloc’s latest punitive measures against the regime over its treatment of protesters.

Two organisations and dozens of officials were hit by asset freezes due to their involvement “in serious human rights violations in Iran,” Brussels said in a statement. The individuals have also been subjected to travel bans.

Updated: February 20, 2023, 5:07 PM