Iran Targets The UK – OpEd


On the afternoon of Friday, 29 March, Pouria Zeraati was attacked by two men outside his home in south London.  Slashed again and again with a knife, he suffered multiple stab wounds and was rushed to hospital.  Fortunately he survived, and has since been discharged.

Zeraati is a journalist working for Iran International, a dissident TV news website broadcasting from London.  Established in 2017 it has, according to independent surveys, become the most widely watched news channel in Iran, attracting twice as many viewers as BBC Persian.  It is, of course, banned by the regime, and its audience has to access it via VPN, the virtual private network system familiar to many ex-pat viewers the world over.  

The programs and interviews transmitted by Iran International are frank, and outspokenly opposed to the Islamist regime and its excesses. Which is why Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) has declared the station, along with BBC Persian, a “terrorist channel”.  

It was on March 8, 2023, that Zaraati scored a media coup by persuading Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to be interviewed on air.  Faced with the opportunity of addressing the Iranian public directly, Netanyahu pulled no punches in his condemnation of the Iranian regime, its leaders and its policies.

As he spoke Iran was in the throes of nationwide political turmoil following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini the previous September.  Amini had been arrested by the so-called morality police.  Her crime was allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory Islamic dress code through inappropriate use of her hijab, or head covering. 

News of her death circulated rapidly on social media, and protests erupted at her funeral and then spread across the country.  The government’s attempts to quell them had little effect.  Many young women began appearing in public without head coverings, and demonstrators, often led by women and young people, targeted symbols of the Islamic Republic, burned pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and chanted “Death to the Dictator”.

During his TV interview Netanyahu commended the stand taken by the women of Iran, asserting that by claiming their right to freedom they were speaking for women the world over.  The Iranian regime, he said, was the enemy of freedom, while the brutal treatment of the women protesting for their freedom had unmasked Iran’s leaders as the radical Islamist thugs they were.  

He extended his condemnation specifically to the IRGC who, he said, were actively engaged in exporting terror across the world, and were even then heavily involved in plots to assassinate elected officials, journalists, and any public figure openly critical of the Iranian regime. 

Netanyahu was almost certainly aware that, as he spoke, London’s Metropolitan Police (the Met) were engaged in countering threats to public security from Iranian agents operating in the UK.  This has since been confirmed in an official announcement made on March 30, 2024.   “Counter-Terrorism Policing,” it ran, “continues to deal with threats projected into the UK from Iran. Since 2022, a number of plots to either kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the Iranian regime have been disrupted.”

One such occurred back in December 2023 when two Iranians, members of the IRGC, were found to be involved in a plot to assassinate two TV presenters from Iran International, and were sanctioned by both the British and US governments, acting together.  The journalists involved were not identified at the time on security grounds.

UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, said: “The Iranian regime and the criminal gangs who operate on its behalf pose an unacceptable threat to the UK’s security. Today’s package exposes the roles of the Iranian officials and gangs involved in activity aimed to undermine, silence and disrupt the democratic freedoms we value in the UK. The UK and US have sent a clear message – we will not tolerate this threat.”

Sanctions and warnings, however, did nothing to deflect Tehran from its terrorist intent. Its IRGC agents proceeded with its assassination attempt on Pouria Zeraati  regardless, and the next day a news website run by the IRGC said that Zeraati had incurred the state’s “wrath” for conducting an interview with Israel’s prime minister.  Under Zeraati’s questioning, Netanyahu’s outright condemnation of the IRGC as the world’s foremost fomenter of terrorism and tyranny could only have exacerbated the “wrath”.  Media reports suggest that the knife plot was a back-up scheme, after the initial idea of a car bomb outside the TV studio was foiled by the presence of heavy security.

This was not the end of the affair.  On March 30, Iranian journalist Sima Sabet revealed that she had been told by police to leave her home “until further notice”, because she was also an IRGC assassination target. Sabet hosted a talk show on Iran International, and previously worked for the BBC World Service. In a post on social media Sabet criticized the UK government for not standing up to terrorism perpetrated by the Iranian government.

“I must emphatically mention,” she wrote, “that the British Government has not taken sufficient, meaningful, decisive, and effective political action against the terrorism of the Iranian government.  As a journalist and a British citizen, I cannot hide my criticism and concern over this political and diplomatic negligence. Many of my journalist friends agree with this assessment.”

She went on: “London is our home. Britain must be a safe place for journalists across all media, and unsafe for extremists and terrorists receiving orders from Tehran. Our voice will not be silenced by threat and terrorism.  Journalism is not a crime; state terrorism is. Stop it.”

It is certainly true that the UK’s Home Office has been humming and hawing for more than a year over whether to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization – a BBC webpage, posted on January 3, 2023 and still live, asserts that “the UK is preparing to formally declare the Iran’s IRGC is a terrorist organization.“  Yet still no conclusion has been reached, despite intense lobbying by members of parliament supportive of the government.

Some commentators held that Britain’s Foreign Office believed that designating the IRGC would probably lead to the expulsion of the British ambassador and jeopardize Britain’s capacity to negotiate with Iran.  However the current sustained attacks on the world’s shipping by the Houthis, Iran’s agents, may have put a different complexion on the issue, while the blatant attempt to assassinate the journalist Zeraati on a London street could prove the clincher.  Time will tell.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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