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What to Do About Iran’s Transnational Criminality

The regime uses kidnapping and assassination as foreign policy tools.
August 6, 2021
What to Do About Iran’s Transnational Criminality
Masih Alinejad in 2018. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Women in Cable Telecommunications)

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of Shapour Bakhtiar by three Iranian agents. Bakhtiar was the Shah’s last prime minister, and by 1991 he had been living in exile in France for over a decade. The assassins entered Bakhtiar’s house in a suburb of Paris and killed him and his bodyguard with kitchen knives. Two of them fled to Iran; the third, Ali Vakili Rad, was arrested, convicted in 1994, and sentenced to life in prison. But in 2010, France issued Vakili Rad parole in exchange for the release of a French journalist arrested for reporting from Tehran about the Green Movement. Vakili Rad returned to Iran and was greeted by state officials as a hero.

Transnational criminality has always been an instrument of policy for Iran’s regime. Kidnapping and killing are relatively cheap, relatively low-risk, relatively deniable.

Just last month, it was reported that Iran had been plotting the kidnapping of Masih Alinejad, a Brooklyn-based Iranian-American journalist and a vocal critic of the regime. Alinejad especially got on the regime’s nerves by becoming the leader of the anti-compulsory-hijab movement, which sparked off “White Wednesdays”—in which, every Wednesday, Iranian women would take off their hijabs and the more courageous ones would stand on a platform while holding a white hijab on a stick as a protest. For this attack on orthodoxy, Alinejad became a supervillain to the regime and a hero to its critics.

After news of the kidnapping plot broke, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Alinejad on the phone, and both of them tweeted encouragingly about the call. The secretary’s tweet is admirably strongly worded—

—but note that it omits any mention of the offender, the regime in Iran—a bizarre lapse.

Tehran had in the past come close to state-sanctioned crime inside the United States, especially with the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, but abducting a U.S. citizen was apparently a bridge too far. The plot to kidnap Alinejad was daring even by Iran’s standards. One reason Iran was considering acting with such impunity is that the regime has never paid a significant price for its transnational crimes, and the Biden administration seemed unlikely to punish Iran over this—after all, the United States and other countries have put up with Iran’s transnational crimes for four decades. Just a few of the many examples:

  • In 1992, Kurdish-Iranian leaders were assassinated in a restaurant in Berlin by Iranian operators.
  • Regime critic Fereydoun Farrokhzad was assassinated at his house in Bonn in 1992.
  • In 1994, Iranian forces bombed the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, killing 86 and injuring hundreds. Then in 2015, the prosecutor of the case, who had linked the 1994 bombing with Iran, was assassinated.
  • In 2007, a colorful opposition TV personality and British citizen, Fat’hollah Manouchehri, was lured into Turkey, where he was abducted and never heard from again.
  • Abbas Yazdi, another British citizen, was abducted and killed in 2013.
  • Rouhollah Zam, a refugee with French residency, was abducted in Iraq in 2019 and executed last December.
  • Gholamreza Mansouri, a defector judge, died in Romania under mysterious circumstances.
  • Jamshid Sharmahd, a California resident with German citizenship, was abducted in Dubai last year and remains in Iran.

And examples don’t stop at the Iranian opposition. Iran’s proxies have killed liberal activists and politicians from other countries, as well.

Nothing beyond individual arrests came out of these cases, and sometimes not even that.

There is a striking imbalance between Iran’s use of transnational crime and the international response to it. For Iran, transnational crime is a foreign policy strategy, but foreign countries tend to treat these actions only as crimes and only prosecute the operators instead of going after the state. Apparently, the level of punishment imposed—the imprisonment of the regime’s individual, expendable operators—is simply insufficient to dissuade Tehran. This is especially true when the regime takes foreign nationals as hostages to get its operators released, as was the case for Vakili Rad, in addition to the prisoner swaps with the United States as a part of the Iran nuclear accord in 2015 and most recently with Australia.

Rob Malley, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, is busy in Vienna negotiating a return to the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite its name, the JCPOA was hardly a comprehensive agreement. It failed to put a comprehensive ban on Iran’s nuclear activities, and it included no clause on Iran’s non-nuclear rogue practices. Yet, it gave up all the leverage the United States had on Iran.

The first step to fixing this problem is to treat it as the foreign policy issue it is.

At a time when the regime is vulnerable, giving it relief while asking so little in return is a mistake. Any new agreement with Iran must include a provision in which Iran promises an end to its rogue practices—or the agreement must refrain from lifting sanctions and unfreezing assets. Further, the United States must pressure allies and partners whose domestic laws are violated by Iranian state-actors to sever diplomatic relations with Iran. U.S. and E.U. officials ought to meet with the dissidents targeted by Iran to help elevate their status.

Crucially, the travel and diplomatic visas granted to Iranian nationals must come under greater security scrutiny, and individuals with ties with the regime must be denied admission to foreign countries to prevent abduction and assassination plots.

It is also time to consider not swapping prisoners with Iran. And it might be wise for ministries of foreign affairs to issue guidance against traveling to Iran and make it clear that, even if taken hostage by the regime in Iran while inside the country, their governments would not come to their rescues.

Such measures can help discourage future abduction and assassination plots by making the cost greater than the benefits.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.