At first, Masih Alinejad didn’t believe the F.B.I. The Iranian-born journalist and activist thought that she was safe after going into exile, in 2009, even as government propaganda continued to target her from afar. State television variously reported that she was a drug addict, accused her of being a spy for Western governments, and claimed that she had been raped in a London subway. Her parents and siblings, who remained in their village, in northern Iran, were repeatedly harassed, threatened with loss of employment, and instructed to lure Alinejad to neighboring Turkey for a “family reunion,” so that agents could supposedly “just talk” to her, she told me last week. In 2018, Alinejad’s sister was forced to go on prime-time television to say that the family was disgraced by Alinejad’s behavior; they disowned her. After the show, her sobbing mother, who is illiterate and had been married off at the age of fourteen, called Alinejad to report that the government had tried to get her parents to appear on the program, too. “Stalin would have been proud,” Alinejad recounted in an Op-Ed in the Times, in 2018. Her brother, Alireza, warned her about a potential trap. In 2019, he was arrested, and the next year he was sentenced to eight years in prison—five for “assembly and collusion for action against the country’s security,” two for insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader, and another year for “propaganda against the regime,” his lawyer reported. Amnesty International condemned the relentless persecution. “Arresting the relatives of an activist in an attempt to intimidate her into silence is a despicable and cowardly move,” a representative for the organization said. Alinejad’s brother remains in jail.
Yet the warning from the F.B.I., late last year, struck Alinejad—who now has five million followers on Instagram, a million on her Facebook campaign against compulsory hijab-wearing, a quarter million on Twitter, and a show on the Voice of America’s Persian-language service—as too bizarre even for the Islamic Republic. In September, F.B.I. agents showed up at her home in Brooklyn, where she was living with her husband and stepchildren, to report that they had uncovered a plot by Iranian intelligence to kidnap or kill her. “My first reaction was laughing. I was making a joke,” she told me. “I told them, ‘I’m used to it. I received death threats daily on social media.’ ” The agents then revealed that private investigators, allegedly hired by an Iranian intelligence network, had been closely surveilling her for months. They showed her photographs that the operatives had taken of her hourly movements, and also pictures of her family, friends, visitors, home, and even the cars in her neighborhood. “When I saw my photos—they even took pictures of my stepson—I was shocked. I got goosebumps. He’s fourteen,” she said. She agreed to go to a safe house—first one, then another, then a third, over several months. It was the beginning of a series of traumas that included separation from her stepchildren, helping the F.B.I. agents create traps for the Iranian network, and the demise of her unwatered houseplants.
On July 13th, the Department of Justice disclosed the details of the “pernicious” caper. “This is not some far-fetched movie plot,” the F.B.I. assistant director William F. Sweeney, Jr., said. “We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a U.S. based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran.” Four Iranian intelligence agents, or “assets,” led by Alireza Farahani, were charged with conspiring to abduct Alinejad to stop her from continuing to mobilize “public opinion in Iran and around the world to bring about changes to the regime’s laws and practices,” the U.S. announcement said.
The Iranian kidnapping scheme—which appears to be the first publicized case on U.S. soil—dated back to at least June, 2020. According to the D.O.J. announcement, the plotters had identified travel routes from Alinejad’s home to a Brooklyn waterfront, researched a service offering military-style speedboats for maritime evacuation out of New York, and studied sea travel from New York to Venezuela, which has close ties with the Islamic Republic. In a detailed e-mail, Kiya Sadeghi, another of the four indicted Iranian intelligence agents, even instructed the private investigators to take pictures of the envelopes in Alinejad’s mailbox. “Kindly be discreet as they are on the look out,” he wrote. The private investigators were told that they were tracking a missing person who had skipped out on debt repayment in Dubai. Last week, the F.B.I. insisted that it had foiled Iran’s scheme in the United States. “Not on our watch,” Sweeney said.
Ironically, the nefarious plot has only exposed the regime’s profound insecurities and paranoia, four decades after ousting Iran’s millennia-old monarchy. “Even now, they are scared of their own people,” Alinejad, the author of “The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran,” told me. “They can censor papers. They can arrest journalists. They can shut down any party, or any women’s-rights organization. But they cannot do anything to people sharing stories with me about how they are being oppressed.”
Predictably, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the U.S. charges. “This is not the first time that the United States resorts to such Hollywood-like scenarios,” the Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a local news agency. But Iran’s ambitious campaign to silence critics in far-flung places is far from over. The same Iranian intelligence network is also targeting Iranian-born activists living in Canada, Britain, and the United Arab Emirates, the Department of Justice said last week. The Islamic Republic has already succeeded at suppressing other dissidents abroad. In 2019, Iran lured Ruhollah Zam from exile in Paris to Iraq on false pretenses. Like Alinejad, Zam used social media—through Amad News, which he launched, and the messaging platform Telegram—to amplify public anger and activism, with messages and videos sent to him from inside Iran. He gained more than a million followers on Telegram after posting videos of protests over deteriorating economic conditions, in 2017. He thought that he was safe as long as he was outside Iran. When he arrived in Iraq, Zam was abducted by agents of the Revolutionary Guard and taken back to Tehran, where he was convicted of “corruption on earth” last year. He was hanged, at the notorious Evin Prison, in December.
Alinejad was not the first American citizen to be targeted. Since the 1979 Revolution, dozens of Americans, and also dual nationals, have been detained in Iran or by its proxies in Lebanon. Four are still being held in Tehran: the businessman Siamak Namazi; his elderly father, Baquer Namazi; the environmental conservationist Morad Tahbaz; and the businessman Emad Sharghi. Worldwide, Iran is increasingly aggressive against exiles, foreign social-media platforms, and other governments. On Thursday, Facebook announced that it had taken down some two hundred accounts run by a group of Iranian hackers, known as Tortoiseshell, who were targeting U.S. military personnel and employees at major defense agencies. “This activity had the hallmarks of a well-resourced and persistent operation, while relying on relatively strong operational security measures to hide who’s behind it,” Facebook said.
The hackers created sophisticated fictitious profiles—often across multiple platforms—in order to collect information, install malware, and trick targets into providing personal information. They pretended to be recruiters in American defense, aerospace, medical, travel, and journalism companies, including CNN. One of the fake job-recruitment sites was modelled on the job-search Web site for the U.S. Department of Labor. They even created fake accounts for branches of the Trump Organization. Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Alphabet also reported detecting operations by the Iranian group on their sites; Twitter said that it was investigating. The Facebook investigation traced a portion of the malware to Mahak Rayan Afraz, an I.T. company in Tehran linked to the Revolutionary Guard.
The alleged kidnapping and hacking operations come at a tenuous juncture for the Biden Administration, which in the spring reopened diplomacy to revive the 2015 nuclear accord between the world’s six major powers and Iran. Donald Trump had withdrawn the United States from the deal—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—in 2018. The negotiations, in Vienna, have been stalled since their sixth round, in June. Over the weekend, Iran announced that it would not participate again until after the inauguration of President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line former chief of the judiciary, and the accompanying transfer of power, in early August.
U.S. officials are concerned that the next Iranian government will reject the deal currently on the table—and try to start from scratch, which is unacceptable to the Biden Administration. Tensions escalated over the weekend, after the lead Iranian negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, tweeted that the U.S. should not link the nuclear deal to an exchange of prisoners. Iran, the United States, and Britain could immediately exchange ten detainees, he claimed, without specifying how many from each nation or their identities. In the last major swap, in January, 2016, Iran released five Americans and the United States dropped charges against seven Iranians. The State Department spokesman Ned Price lambasted Iran’s delay as “an outrageous effort to deflect blame” for the diplomatic impasse. Araghchi’s comment about an imminent exchange of detainees, he said, was “just another cruel effort to raise the hopes of their families.” He added, “If Iran were truly interested in making a humanitarian gesture, it would simply release the detainees immediately.” The Administration is already facing calls by Republicans to suspend the negotiations altogether.
Meanwhile, Alinejad is still under police protection. The night of the U.S. announcement, she tweeted a video of herself—now back at home—sitting next to a window, with a police car, lights flashing, outside. The four Iranian intelligence agents indicted by the U.S. are still in Iran. The only person arrested was Nellie Bahadorifar, an Iranian-born woman living in California. She was charged with multiple counts of facilitating the plot by providing access to the U.S. financial system, paying the local investigators, and dealing with cash deposits of almost a half million dollars on behalf of the Iranian intelligence network. The prospect of real justice seems elusive. So does any respect for human rights by the Iranian regime.