By Hannah Somerville
November 19, 2021
“We’re going to kill you.”
“You don’t think we have enough graves? We do.”
These are the kinds of messages that Iranian human rights activists regularly receive on their Twitter and Instagram feeds. At a protest in Whitehall, London last week, they were photographed and filmed extensively as they held up placards calling for an end to impunity in the Islamic Republic. The activists knew well what the pictures could mean for them.
“I am one of the victims,” says Shadi Amin, co-founder of Justice for Iran, whose supporters were also present at the protest. “We live with the threats and with the fake news they spread about us [inside Iran] They make threats against our families in Iran.
“We have to deal with that. We can’t live in hiding because of the dangers posed by the Islamic Republic. No country has become a democracy without open struggle. We know what the consequences of being here are. But when people from Iran have come out onto the streets and risked their lives, it’s the least we can do to support them.”
Not so long ago, Maziar Bahari, editor-in-chief of IranWire, was warned that “he could always be taken back in a bag” by his torturer. “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is present all around the world,” the man said before handing back Bahari’s passport in 2009. “Remember this before criticizing us.” Bahari still has nightmares about the dark smile on his torturer’s face as uttered those words.
The threats described here are just a drop in the ocean: part of a massive, largely under-the-radar offensive the Islamic Republic has waged for decades on the psyches of Iranian-born people living overseas. This phenomenon is known as transnational repression: the government’s attempt to silence dissent among diasporas and exiles, through a range of underhand, mostly criminal means.
What does transnational repression mean in the context of Iran, and how is it carried out by the Iranian state? In a new series, IranWire will lift the lid on this heinous pattern of behavior and how it blights the lives of Iranians living all over the world.
One of World’s Worst Offenders Against Diaspora
One of the organizations to have carried out pioneering work in the field of transnational repression is Freedom House. The NGO lists the Islamic Republic of Iran among six countries – alongside China, Russia, Turkey, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia – known to be conducting aggressive campaigns against political opponents overseas.
In an interview with IranWire, director of research strategy Nate Schenkkan said: “There’s been a shift in the [global] order, whereby illiberal states are feeling more comfortable. You can get away with this. Iran is something of a pariah state and realizes that it can. There’s not much cost in terms of accountability.”
The Islamic regime, Freedom House observes, has an “expansive definition” of who poses a threat to the internal order. Independent journalists, media activists, advocates for human rights in Iran, and even ordinary citizens who simply chose to leave Iran of their own volition, are posited as threats to “security”, even “terrorists”. This is used as justification for the catalogue of violence, threats, rendition, surveillance, and psychological pressure it directs toward Iranians abroad.
Even for those Iranians whose lives aren’t directly touched by these actions, Schenkkan says, knowing it exists has consequences. “There’s a burden of feeling you’re under scrutiny. But also, you internalize it. You start to watch your own activities, and you start self-censoring.”
According to Freedom House: “The Iranian campaign is distinguished by the total commitment it receives from the state, the level of violence that it employs, and its sophisticated application of diverse methods against a similarly diverse set of targets.”
An overview of these tactics down the decades is below.
Assassinations and renditions
Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution the regime has been shown, time and again, to not be above silencing its critics in the most permanent way. Most infamous were the chain murders of the late 1980s and 1990s, in which Iranian state forces and their proxies forces killed more than 80 dissident intellectuals, artists and politicians. Many of the murders including those of the Shah’s former prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar (France), singer Fereydoun Farrokhzad (Germany) and opposition figure Kazem Rajavi (Switzerland) took place in other jurisdictions.
Albeit with less frequency the Islamic Republic still continues to assassinate Iranians abroad. Recent examples include Saeed Karimian, the founder of Gem TV, and dissident Massoud Molavi Vardanjani, both of whom were gunned down in Istanbul in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Foiled plots also periodically make the news: recently a scheme to bomb a 2018 MEK rally in Paris saw Vienna-based Iranian Asadollah Asadi and three others arrested and jailed.
There is also the abduction and forced repatriation of Iranians in exile, who face persecution – even death – back at home. Last year’s execution of dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam made headlines around the world. In 2018 the father-of-two was lured from his home in Paris to Baghdad, detained by the IRGC, spirited back to Iran and finally hanged in December 2020. Opposition figurehead Jamshid Sharmahd remains behind bars after being abducted from Dubai, as does Habib Chaab, who was kidnapped from Turkey last October. In July, the FBI indicted four Iranians over a plot to kidnap human rights defender Masih Alinejad from New York and transfer her to Venezuela by speedboat.
Coercion by Proxy
This refers to the tactic of using family members or loved ones to exert pressure on a citizen away from home. Masih Alinejad’s sister was forced to denounce her on state television, and her brother was sentenced to eight years in prison on trumped-up charges. The families of many Iranian Kurds have been pressured to bring them back from Iraq – or see them assassinated – in the past 12 months, as have the families of at least two journalists, Payam Masouri, based in Turkey, and Behrang Rahbari in Canada.
“Almost a year after I left Iran, the threatening calls to my mother and brother began,” Masouri said in August 2020. “They say, ‘We know where your son is, we can do whatever we want to him.’ Now if I don’t answer the phone, she worries. She can’t sleep… They know what my mother’s weaknesses are and scare her with calls or text messages.”
Threats, Espionage and Cyber-Crime
The same reporter also revealed the threatening messages he had received from Iran’s security agencies. Some read: “Keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll come and say hello to you and your family… Even though you have fled the country, you are not far away. We can be your uninvited guest. We’ve said what we had to. It’s up you.”
Threats and intimidation stalk the lives of some Iranians living overseas. In February 2020 Reporters Without Borders counted 200 Iranian journalists who had been threatened, including 50 who had received death threats, while working overseas. BBC Persian journalists filed a complaint with the UN that December about death threats received in the course of their work. Last July a bomb was thrown onto the porch of the Iranian-born Swedish Christian Democrat Party member Soheila Fors, who is openly opposed to the Islamic Republic. She had also received threatening phone calls prior to the incident.
The Islamic Republic is also known to recruit agents to get close to, and collect information on, Iranians who live abroad. In September 2018 an Iranian-Norwegian dual national, Mohammad Davoudzadeh Loloei, was arrested for spying on Iranian Arabs in Denmark ahead of a planned assassination. In November 2019, the Swedish authorities charged an Iraqi man in connection with the same on behalf of the Islamic Republic.
The knowledge that “moles” could be monitoring their behavior can be paralyzing for politically active Iranians abroad. IranWire’s own Mohammad Tangestani wrote this February of his shock on learning that a “friend”, Mehrdad Arefani, had been sentenced to 17 years in prison for his part in the attempted bombing of the Paris MEK rally. Arefani had spent years getting close to the MEK, filming their gatherings and offering to fix the computers of Iranians he knew in Belgium. “That day, I opened up all the electrical sockets in my house,” Tangestani writes. “I even opened up my toilet cistern and examined everything inside.” In April 2021 IranWire also revealed that the Islamic Republic’s supposed cultural hub in London, the Islamic Center of England, had been hoarding the details of Iranians for years without their consent, in breach of UK law.
Regime-affiliated networks also use spyware and spear-phishing campaigns to survey and target Iranians abroad. They have variously been targeted with fake emails from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a fake event for human rights activists in Spain that tricked participants into downloading malicious software, and a fake Persian-language driving license app in Sweden loaded with spyware. Representatives of minority groups in Iran, including more than 70 Azerbaijani activists in the US and Europe, have also been targeted by cyberattacks.