Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad says she refuses to live in fear, despite having been the target of an alleged assassination plot by an organisation with ties to Tehran, the second attempt foiled by the US in as many years.
Two of the men allegedly involved in the plot appeared in a New York federal court on Wednesday to face charges of murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire, among other offences.
But the Iranian-American journalist, who has been relentless in her criticism of Iran, told The National that she will not live in the shadows.
“If I stopped and thought about being in their crosshairs, then I’d never leave my house,” she said.
“The trick is to live your life to the full and accept to worry only about what you can control. I am now going to do more to destroy the Islamic Republic to avoid living under this fear.”
Alinejad, who left Iran in 2009 and has been living in the US since 2014, became an international phenomenon when she launched a Facebook page inviting Iranian women to post pictures of themselves without a hijab.
At first, she said, people dismissed her campaign, but the hijab is a “red line” for the clerics in Tehran.
“It’s like the Berlin Wall — once you remove compulsory hijab, the Islamic Republic of Iran would fall, too,” she said.
With a social media following of more than eight million, Alinejad views herself as “a channel for the voiceless” and wants to make sure the world “hears it”.
The FBI uncovered the alleged plot on Alinejad's life last year. It followed a separate kidnapping attempt in 2021, in which a different group of operatives tied to the Iranian regime were arrested.
The three men involved in the assassination plot were charged with murder for hire, conspiracy to commit murder for hire, money-laundering conspiracy and unlawful possession of a firearm.
Rafat Amirov, the alleged leader of an Eastern European criminal organisation based in Iran, and New York resident Khalid Mehdiyev pleaded not guilty to the charges on Wednesday.
A third man, Polad Omarov, was arrested in the Czech Republic and is awaiting extradition to the US.
Mr Amirov and Mr Mehdiyev were funded and backed by Iran in the murder-for-hire scheme, prosecutors said.
According to the US Department of Justice, officials in Iran hired Mr Mehdiyev to conduct surveillance of the journalist after supplying Mr Amirov and Mr Omarov with details about Alinejad’s New York residence.
Mr Mehdiyev was arrested last July outside Alinejad's New York home, armed with an AK-47-style assault rifle, according to a criminal complaint filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
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Police said the rifle, which had an obscured serial number, had a round in the chamber and a magazine attached, along with a second magazine with about 66 rounds of ammunition.
In 2021, the FBI foiled the plot that federal prosecutors say involved kidnapping Alinejad from her New York home and bringing her to a waiting speedboat.
The boat was meant to carry her to Venezuela and later to Iran.
Undeterred by their 2021 failure, Iranian leaders allegedly devised a new plot by recruiting Eastern European criminals.
Alinejad's 2018 memoir, The Wind in Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, her work with the US-funded Voice of America Persian Service and her constant online advocacy have reportedly enraged Tehran.
When asked what she needed to tip the scales and get western leaders to do more, she responded: “The US should treat [supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei the same way that they treated [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. Nothing less.”
She added that the idea of a “benign regime” in Tehran has been pushed for years but it is merely a smokescreen.
Alinejad added she would like to see President Joe Biden's administration be clear in setting out its Iran policy rather than simply issuing “sanctions against individuals who have no assets in the US” and formally declaring the nuclear deal as “dead”.
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In addition, she accused European leaders of lacking courage and morals, and urged them to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity.
Last week, the European Parliament called on the EU and member states to blacklist the IRGC. However, EU officials have said that listing the group as a terrorist entity would further dampen prospects for reviving the deal meant to curb Iran’s nuclear activities.
“There is a war going on in the heart of Europe and the EU should impose sanctions on countries helping Russia’s aggression,” she said.
She added that the EU should pressure its 27 member states to recall their ambassadors from Tehran.
Action now is critical, she said, as months-long protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody have reached “the tipping point”.
“The revolution has started and like all revolutions in history, protests come in waves,” Alinejad said.
“We have had the first wave and now we are catching our breath, regrouping for the next wave.”