Dissidents in London on high terror alert despite sanctions on Iran's IRGC

'We have to be lucky all the time', say UK-based journalists under threat from Tehran

Fardad Farahzad and Sima Sabet, Iran International TV presenters in London who were the targets of a plot. Photo: Iran International
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Vigilance against threats from Iran has increased significantly despite sanctions being imposed, journalists threatened by Tehran have told The National.

Officials at the London-based Iran International TV channel, which has found itself in Tehran's crosshairs, say they “have to be lucky all the time” to avoid violent attacks.

Security at the channel's headquarters has been boosted, with counterterrorism police now in regular contact. The latest alert was raised hours before Britain imposed sanctions on senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders on Monday, after US troops were attacked on the Syria-Jordan border, sources told The National.

Anti-Iranian dissidents in Britain have been warned by counterterrorism police that they face an increased risk of violence.

Tensions have heightened with the likelihood of a strong American response to the death of three US soldiers in a drone attack launched by Iran-backed militias in Jordan.

“The UK authorities are not complacent and are very alive to the threat,” said Adam Baillie, spokesman for Iran International. “We are on very, very high alert because we have to be lucky all the time and we can't afford to make mistakes.”

Iranian dissidents across the capital are being warned by the security services of an increased risk of violence or kidnap due to the rising Middle East tensions.

Sources have alleged to The National that the IRGC is using London-based criminals as proxies to carry out attacks against opponents of the Tehran regime.

There is also concern that if Britain and Europe become more involved in conflicts in the Middle East, then Iran could increase its operations abroad, said Dr Sanam Vakil, a Middle East expert at the Chatham House think tank.

Foreign Office officials said the Iranian officials hit by sanctions, including IRGC general Mohammed Reza Ansari, were linked to Unit 840, which an ITV investigation found had been involved in plots to assassinate two Iran International TV presenters on British soil.

The Foreign Office said Tehran delivers its threats via criminal gangs across the world, and identified Naji Ibrahim Sharifi-Zindashti as the head of an international criminal and trafficking ring linked to the murder of an Iranian dissident in Istanbul in 2019.

“Currently, Iran’s objectives are much more regional in terms of countering the US and Israel, and finding opportunities through regional chaos,” Dr Vakil told The National. “But if European countries, including the UK, begin to co-ordinate in a more effective way against Iran, potentially we could imagine a response as an unknown known.”

She said the alleged Tehran plots were intended to address concerns that the diaspora could contribute to the protest mood in Iran, which has experienced large-scale demonstrations over the past two years.

“The targeting of individuals and entities abroad is a reflection of that domestic threat,” she added.

Staff at Iran International said they had been visited by officers from the Metropolitan Police’s new hostile state threat unit, who gave advice on how to avoid attacks or abduction.

Iran has been accused of more than 10 violent plots against dissidents over the past two years.

Mr Ballie said staff at the channel were on “instant high alert” the moment they left the building, as they knew that the IRGC was carrying out surveillance through “third parties”, believed to be criminal gangs in London.

Last year, an Austrian citizen of Chechen origin, Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev, 31, was sentenced to nearly four years in jail after being convicted of plotting to fatally stab two presenters at Iran International, Fardad Farahzad and Sima Sabet, in return for $200,000.

Mr Farahzad, a former BBC reporter, told ITV that people could not underestimate the threat level posed by Iran, and said the case had demonstrated the seriousness of the dangers.

Britain on Monday announced sanctions against a network of IRGC-affiliated spies, including Unit 840, suspected of involvement in the plot against the presenters.

Vahid Beheshti, an opponent of the Iranian regime who for almost a year has been demonstrating outside the Foreign Office, calling for the IRGC to be officially listed as a terrorist group, said he had been advised by British police to “reduce his activity” and campaigning against the regime.

Mr Beheshti, who was born in Iran, was arrested twice in the country before relocating to Britain more than 24 years ago.

He was approached by counterterrorism police at a London airport earlier in January after returning from a trip to Israel, where he had addressed the Knesset, saying both countries' people needed each other in their fight against Iran’s “terrorist regime”.

“They [police] warned me. Their advice was ‘reduce your activity’, which I am not going to do. ‘Do not protest. Do not be active on your social media. Don’t give interviews’,” Mr Beheshti told The National.

“I said, this is exactly what they want. This is what they are after. They are increasing their pressure and threats in order to deactivate us.

“I am not going to play on the path that they lay for me. I will continue.”

Updated: January 30, 2024, 3:14 PM