Iran’s Deadly Message to Journalists Abroad

Published by the Atlantic

On March 29, a friend of mine, the Iranian journalist Pouria Zeraati, was crossing the road outside his Wimbledon home in southwestern London, to get his car. A man approached him and asked for change; then another man, with his face covered, gave Zeraati a bear hug while the first man stabbed him several times in the back of his thigh.

This was no petty street crime. The assailants left Zeraati’s iPhone, brand-new AirPods, pricey watch, and wallet full of cash untouched. With the help of a driver, they fled the scene and then the country, to an undisclosed destination, according to British authorities. The London police are investigating the attack as a potential case of terrorism. Its methods suggest that the assailants’ intention was not to kill Zeraati but to hurt him in a way that would warn all of us Iranian journalists working in the West: You could be next.

The Islamic Republic chose Zeraati as a target for a reason. For the past three years, he has been a lead anchor on Iran International, a Saudi-funded Persian-language broadcaster based in London and Washington. Launched in 2017, the channel has made itself a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime. (Some of my friends were among the channel’s founders, and I have done occasional work for it as a writer and commentator.) Iran International was an unapologetic champion of the nationwide protests that broke out in Iran in September 2022; the network spread the opposition’s message and gave airtime to its would-be leaders. In short, it played a similar role to that of Al-Jazeera during the Arab Spring of 2011.

The regime’s response was ferocious. The minister of intelligence declared that Tehran considered the channel to be a terrorist organization. In November 2022, with no hint of subtlety, a major Iranian news agency published a wanted: dead or alive poster emblazoned with faces of four anchors from Iran International. Zeraati was one of them. Since then, he has only added to the government’s fury: He interviewed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel in March of 2023 and continues to host harsh critics of the regime on his show.

Another face on the poster was that of Sima Sabet, a journalist who had worked for BBC Persian for more than a decade before joining Iran International in 2018 as a lead anchor. Back in December, an ITV News investigation uncovered a plot, commissioned by associates of Iran’s closest ally, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, to assassinate Sabet and a fellow anchor on the channel, Fardad Farahzad (also a friend of mine). Sabet and Farahzad got lucky: The people-smuggler hired to do the job turned out to be a spy working for a Western intelligence agency, and he broke the story to a British outlet.

When Sabet first heard about the attack on Zeraati, she felt “shock and rage,” she told me in a phone conversation. “An indescribable anger: How can you be in your own home in Britain and be attacked right outside it?” Shortly afterward, police told her to leave her residence. I spoke with her more than a week later, and she still hadn’t been able to return home.

Farahzad now runs a popular Iran International show from Washington, where we met for coffee recently. “To be honest,” he told me of the London attack, “I was hoping that this was just a criminal action by local gangs. But the evidence so far shows that this is probably not the case.”

This month, the Indian-born British American novelist Salman Rushdie will publish Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, his first book since the attempt on his life in August 2022. Hadi Matar, the young man who tried to kill Rushdie with a knife and cost him his left eye and use of one hand, was from New Jersey, born to immigrant parents from Lebanon. But his inspiration was unmistakable: a 1989 fatwa by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which continues to be supported by Tehran, complete with a promised bounty of $3.3 million.

With all the murder and mayhem that the Islamic Republic causes inside and outside its borders, the thankfully unsuccessful attempts on the lives of Rushdie and my friends from Iran International might seem secondary. But the fact that such attacks could take place on Western soil, in leafy Wimbledon or sedate Chautauqua, makes them especially harrowing.

They also fit a disturbing but familiar pattern. The Islamic Republic has tried to kill its opponents abroad ever since its founding in 1979. In 2020, the State Department counted that the Iranian regime had carried out as many as 360 assassinations in about a dozen countries over the past 45 years. Most of the victims were Iranian dissidents who threatened the Islamic Republic in one way or another: A social-democratic former prime minister, diplomats from the Shah’s regime, Marxist leaders, and a TV showman are on the long list. In 2019, the regime shocked Iranians by luring Ruhollah Zam, a prodemocracy journalist based in Paris, into Iraq before kidnapping him and sending him to Iran. He was executed two years later.

Attempting to gun down opponents abroad is very on brand for the Islamic Republic. The pace of such activities slowed for several years but then picked up again over the past decade, during which time the regime has kidnapped or assassinated several of its opponents on European soil as well as plotted to bomb an opposition gathering. A Belgian court sentenced the Iranian agent responsible for the bombing plot to 20 years in prison, only to release him last year as part of a prisoner exchange.

On U.S. soil, perhaps no one has been the target of more Iranian plots than the activist Masih Alinejad, who is best known for her effort to organize Iranian women against the compulsory hijab. The FBI has documented at least two plots to kidnap or kill Alinejad since she moved to the United States in 2014. These have included a plan to send her on a fast ship to Venezuela, or for mercenaries to simply kill her in the United States. Hired killers even showed up at her apartment in Brooklyn and were caught on CCTV. In 2021, the U.S. Congress passed the Masih Alinejad HUNT Act, imposing sanctions on foreign nationals who harass human-rights activists on behalf of Iran’s government.

The Iranian regime’s renewed interest in pursuing its opponents abroad is an ominous sign of the times. Authoritarian regimes—Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a prime example—are leaving nothing to chance, preferring instead to chase down their critics even far from their borders. And the Islamic Republic in particular may well imagine that, having mired the West in multiple interlocking disputes, including those over its nuclear program and its support for terrorist groups in the wider Middle East, it has exhausted the energy or attention its rivals might pay to the abuse of Iranian citizens at home and abroad.

Iran’s regime clearly feels threatened by the journalism of exiled reporters who break its monopoly on truth. And yet, if the threat of assassination was meant to silence these voices, it has failed, and even invigorated those targeted instead. Zeraati is already back on the air. The very fact the Iranian regime is attacking journalists, Farahzad told me, shows how necessary their work is. Sabet has since left Iran International but continues to report; she told me, “We know that the spread of information is the biggest threat for the Islamic Republic. Thanks to the media outlets abroad, there is little that goes on in Iran today without people knowing about it.”

She’s right. Millions of Iranians count on satellite channels based abroad for news because they can’t trust the state media. When I was an anchor on one such London-based channel, a traffic official from northern Iran once contacted me and begged for us to share relevant information about road closures on the air. “It’s on the state broadcaster, but no one watches that!” he said. The Islamic Republic knows that Persian-language media operating abroad have reach and power, and so it now seeks to intimidate these journalists, to injure them, kidnap them, and perhaps to kill them.

When I think of what Western countries might do to counteract Iran’s campaign of terror against its citizens abroad, I recall one of Tehran’s most egregious acts on European soil. In 1992, in a Greek restaurant in Berlin, agents of the Islamic Republic killed Sadegh Sharafkandi, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran alongside three of his associates. Sharafkandi was there to meet some leaders of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, including a former prime minister, but the Swedes canceled at the last minute. If they hadn’t, the Iranian regime might have killed them, too. Perhaps for that reason, in April 1997, a German court issued arrest warrants, not just for the perpetrators at the scene, but for their masters in Tehran. The verdict implicated Iran’s foreign minister, intelligence minister, then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That ruling was a devastating blow to the regime and likely changed its calculus. A long lull in state-sponsored assassinations abroad followed, ending only around 2015.

The German response offers a model for other Western countries to follow when the Islamic Republic violates their sovereignty in order to persecute its enemies. As Farahzad told me after the knife attack on his colleague, Iran’s authorities are watching to see whether Western governments will play along with their games of deniability or make Tehran pay for its role: “If they know it comes with a high cost, they’ll probably think twice before doing anything.”

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