By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh*
Negotiating with a rogue regime such as Iran, whose modus operandi is anchored in carrying out assassinations, kidnappings and terrorism, will only empower it. In fact, the Iranian regime has become so emboldened that it allegedly attempted to kidnapa New York journalist — an Iranian-American citizen — who has been critical of the theocratic establishment.
US prosecutors last week charged four Iranians — Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, aka Vezerat Salimi and Haj Ali, 50; Mahmoud Khazein, 42; Kiya Sadeghi, 35; and Omid Noori, 45, who are believed to be intelligence operatives for the Tehran regime — with plotting to kidnap the journalist. A fifth person, Niloufar Bahadorifar, a California resident originally from Iran, was charged with providing financial assistance for the plot, conspiring to violate sanctions against Iran, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering.
Audrey Strauss, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the Iranian operatives “monitored and planned to kidnap a US citizen of Iranian origin who has been critical of the regime’s autocracy, and to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best.” It is extremely concerning that Tehran has agents in the US.
The Iranian regime is said to have hired private investigators in Manhattan to surveil the intended victim, and were planning to send her to Venezuela by boat, and then on to Iran. The Justice Department explained the operation in detail, stating: “As part of the kidnapping plot, the Farahani-led intelligence network also researched methods of transporting Victim 1 out of the United States for rendition to Iran. Sadeghi, for example, researched a service offering military-style speedboats for self-operated maritime evacuation out of New York City, and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a country whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran. Khazein researched travel routes from Victim 1’s residence to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn; the location of Victim 1’s residence relative to Venezuela; and the location of Victim1’s residence relative to Tehran.”
The Iranian regime has a good relationship with Venezuela and it has been expanding its military, political and economic ties there. The Iranian leaders appear to be using it as part of a larger agenda of increasing Tehran’s influence and the presence of its proxies in Latin and North America. Caracas has granted many passports to Iranians, enabling them to travel to North America and Europe.
The US has evidently become increasingly concerned about the presence of Iran’s proxies in Venezuela. Ambassador Nathan Sales, coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, said in January: “We’re concerned that (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro has extended safe harbor to a number of terrorist groups … supporters and sympathizers of Hezbollah.”
This is not the first time that the Iranian regime has attempted to kidnap or lure dissidents and journalists back to Iran, silencing their freedom of expression. A well-known figure who was executed in Iran in late 2020, the dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam, lived in exile in France and was kidnapped by operatives working for the Iranian regime shortly after he left the country for Iraq in October 2019. Zam ran the online news site Amad News and his channel on the messaging app Telegram reportedly had more than 1 million followers.
Tehran is attempting to instill fear around the world and send a warning to its population that any opposition to the political establishment will be harshly dealt with.
In other cases, Iran has assassinated dissidents on foreign soil and attempted to carry out terror attacks. In July 2018, a foiled attack in Paris targeted a large convention that I attended, along with speakers including former Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird. A few months later, an Iranian diplomat and several other individuals of Iranian origin were arrested in France, Belgium and Germany for their roles in what French intelligence officials concluded was a bomb plot sponsored by the Iranian regime. In another incident, Ahmad Mola Nissi, a Dutch citizen of Iranian origin and a critic of the regime, was shot dead at his front door in November 2017. The Dutch authorities acknowledged there were “strong indications” that the Iranian government had commissioned the killing. Another of Tehran’s political opponents, Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi, was killed in similar circumstances in Amsterdam in 2015. He had apparently been targeted for his opposition to the Iranian government since the 1980s.
In conclusion, the Biden administration and the EU must not negotiate with a regime that engages in terrorism and kidnaps and assassinates political dissidents on their soil. Talks must end until the Iranian regime changes its behavior.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh