Iranian intelligence agencies “are ready to take ruthless action” to attack adversaries in Western countries or try to lure them back to Iran, MI5 head Ken McCallum said in a remark on Wednesday.
The threats are mounting amid widespread unrest in Iran, sparked by the brutal death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody in September. The authorities have responded with a wide-ranging crackdown, beating, shooting at and arresting protesters and sentenced at least five protesters to death this week.
Protesters arrested in Iran face a judicial system against them
Targeting Iranians abroad “is a pattern of behavior that is escalating in the context of this insurgency,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East-North Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House.
“It really speaks to the state’s perception that Iranians are really fomenting dissent abroad. … They feel if they can silence this diaspora or send strong messages, it can resonate domestically,” she said.
Some of Iran’s main targets have been journalists working for Persian-language media such as BBC Persian and Iran International, the latter of which has come under criticism for its alleged ties to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival. Iranian officials have accused both UK-based media outlets of inciting unrest and “supporting terrorism”.
Iran International’s parent company, Volant Media, in a November 7 statement condemned the “escalation of a state-sponsored campaign to intimidate Iranian journalists working abroad.”
Iran International News Director Mehdi Parpanchi said in an interview on Wednesday that media outlets close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its most powerful security organization, have threatened the station before — but never so seriously.
Police told Parpanchi the outlet’s London office is under surveillance, as are the homes of two employees. They declined to provide further details, Parpanchi said.
The British Foreign Secretary also summoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires in London on November 11 “to make it clear that we do not tolerate threats to life and intimidation of any kind towards journalists or anyone else living in Britain”.
Reporting in Iran could land you in jail. This socket does it anyway.
In other incidents, anti-government protesters outside Iranian embassies were attacked.
In Berlin on October 30, three people were injured when three men with covered faces attacked a group holding banners reading “Iranians want democracy” and “Woman, life, freedom,” the Associated Press reported. In late September, at rallies in support of the uprising, police in London and Paris clashed with protesters trying to reach the Iranian embassies.
In recent weeks, Iranian athletes have also used international sporting events as a platform for protests – fueling fears for their safety upon return to Iran. Authorities are concerned about protests or shows of solidarity during the upcoming World Cup in Qatar.
The Islamic Republic also has a long history of attempts to kidnap or kill its citizens abroad. Members of opposition parties and minority groups, such as Iranian Arabs and Kurds, have been frequent targets.
In July 2021, US federal prosecutors charged four Iranian agents with conspiring to kidnap New York-based journalist and activist Masih Alinejad.
In another shocking case, Iran lured France-based dissident Ruhollah Zam, who founded a popular Telegram channel, back to the country in 2019. He was executed the following year.
In 2017, masked assailants shot dead Saeed Karimian, director of GEM Group, a Persian-language media conglomerate, in Istanbul.