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Iran’s Killers in Our Midst

A suburban road at dusk

Caroline Parr/Moment Open via Getty Images

A suburban road at dusk, Ridgefield, Connecticut, undated.

They had told us:
“We will teach you that sacred word, but to hear it, you must suffer a harsh punishment.”
We suffered the harsh punishment for so long that the sacred word, alas, escaped us.

Ahmad Shamlou


The two people who knocked on our door in late August 2019 stuck out in the neighborhood like sore thumbs. In rural Connecticut, where tank tops and flip-flops are the vogue, no one shows up at someone’s door on a summer afternoon dressed in the gray suit and black leather shoes of a federal employee. After opening the door to them, my thirteen-year-old shouted, with the same insouciance he had used for the UPS man, “Mom, it’s the FBI!”

They stood at the threshold, brandishing their gold badges. I could but invite them in. Although the man did not strike me as a Steve, nor the woman as an Emily, as they introduced themselves, they appeared warm and genuine. We sat awkwardly together in the living room. My mind was racing, wondering what wrong I might have done to warrant a visit from the FBI. Sensing the need to allay such fears, Steve quickly dispensed with the small talk.

Their office had received intelligence that I was a target of the Iranian regime’s operatives in the United States. Like a pair of fortune-tellers reading tea leaves, they said that they knew nothing concrete or specific beyond a vague danger; they relied on me, with my knowledge of Iran’s past dealings with dissidents, to surmise that it could mean an assassination plot.

At first, I laughed. After more than four decades observing the ruling clerics in the Islamic Republic, it is sarcasm that precedes shock whenever I hear of yet another of their misdeeds. I waved the agents away: they must be mistaking me for someone else. Politely but insistently, they countered that they were certain I was, indeed, the target.

I suggested that perhaps they were misreading their Persian sources. In the early 2000s, in a series of so-called exposés that ran in Kayhan, Tehran’s official newspaper, titled “The Secret Army of Intellectuals,” about some of the leading Iranians in diaspora who were supposedly conniving against the regime, my name appeared as one such “soldier.” These articles read mostly like screeds from the pen of a frustrated J-school reject, concocting dire conspiracies between dozens of well-known women, from the former Pahlavi princesses to novelists and visuals artists. Such outbursts, I explained, were merely one of the regular quotas of official expletives leveled at those expatriates who do not fall in line.

Or possibly, I offered, they were seeing some outdated intelligence from when my nonfiction book, an account of an assassination carried out by Hezbollah in Germany, had appeared. At the time, the regime’s minions had orchestrated a campaign of cyber abuse against me. But that had been a decade ago. Since then, a new generation of Iranians, some leading activists among them, had come to the US and begun venting their criticism at the regime far more effectively than those who had come before.    

No, they told me. This was new. Finally, I insisted that I could not possibly be a threat to anyone, let alone a foreign government, when the worst I did every day was sit alone for hours, usually in my pajamas, at a desk in my basement office, composing sentences and polishing verses. Pointing to the yard where my most reliable visitors were deer and wild turkey, I asked if this setting resembled the headquarters of an aspiring political operative. Steve remained stone-faced, which seemed to oblige Emily to compensate with a sympathetic smile. That was the last of my bad nervous jokes. We were all somber after that, a prelude to the serious things they had come to say: without more specific intelligence, they could not offer any protection; it was simply their duty to inform me of the threat.

*

Already, I had a feeling I knew how I had drawn the ire of the Iranian regime. A few weeks earlier that year, the New York FBI had warned my friend, the activist Masih Alinejad, about a similar threat. In her case, it took a few months more for the FBI to gain specific information about the plot against her and then to place her under protection. Masih spoke out about her ordeal this past July, after federal prosecutors indicted four Iranian agents who allegedly planned to seize her in New York City, take her to Venezuela on a speedboat, then deliver her to Tehran.

Starting in 2019, I had collaborated with Masih—among expatriate dissidents, the most formidable thorn in the regime’s side. I had written about and publicly praised her work, particularly her campaign to end the compulsory hijab in Iran, an issue as totemic for the regime as its trademark anti-Americanism.

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Image from My Stealthy Freedom’s Facebook page, undated

The campaign began several years ago as a Facebook page called My Stealthy Freedom, where women, daring to defy the mandatory dress code laws, posted photos of themselves bareheaded in public spaces. At first, the page left me unimpressed. Grand social change, I thought, could not happen through someone’s social media account. Yet my skepticism paled against the thrill that washed over me each time the image of a scarf-less woman on a mountaintop near Tehran flitted across the monitor. I had climbed those mountains as a teenager and knew how exhilarating it was to reach the summit just to slip off the scarf and feel the wind through my hair. The images kept pouring in, and by 2018, when the page had become a movement with thousands of women contributing to it, I, too, had become a believer in the cause.

As the campaign grew greater, so did the regime’s resolve to extinguish it at any cost. As outlandish as the scheme to abduct Masih sounds, the Islamic Republic has a history of assassinating, or kidnapping and executing, its enemies. Since 1979, of the hundreds of dissidents targeted by the regime with such plots, only two have survived the attempt: the first was the British-based Iranian satirist, Hadi Khorsandi; Masih is the second.

After Steve and Emily had told me all that they had come to tell, they still lingered as if burdened by the gloomy news they themselves had imparted. They offered advice on how to improve the safety of our home and be more vigilant, though we all knew that I was not up against amateur burglars. To make our home terrorist-proof, I learned a few days later from a security expert, would cost nearly as much as the house itself. Buying a gun, which the expert also recommended, was hardly an option either, given how efficient Iran’s assassins have been in the past and how clumsy I am, even with kitchen knives.

At first, I followed a few of the more manageable recommendations of the agents. I kept an eye on the rearview mirror to see if anyone was tailing me. I no longer parked my car in the driveway, nor did I mention my travel plans on social media. I also installed an unsightly bar that  I fitted under the knob of my front door—one of the few safety improvements I could afford. As I kicked the bar into place, I thought to myself that no assassin worth his salt would be deterred by such a crude device.

Exile is paired with melancholy. For exiled Iranians, the melancholy is laced with suspicion. A few years ago, a friend who reported on Iran for a leading US daily newspaper said to me in jest, “The Iranian diaspora isn’t for the faint-hearted.” The remark saddened me because I realized that our psychic bruises—as with our distrust of one another—were all too visible to outsiders. For years, Iran has methodically disseminated distrust and sowed division abroad. Therefore, the leeriness that permeates the expatriate community. Those who have been outside of Iran since the early days of the Islamic revolution in the 1980s often fear the newer Iranians settled in America as possible stooges of the regime. With equal disdain, the newcomers see these elders as responsible for the catastrophe of 1979—the ones who helped overthrow the Shah but then fled, leaving the next generation to suffer the consequences.

What caused those bruises are real traumas. From its inception, the ayatollahs’ regime murdered whomever it considered to be its enemy, often gaining access through a target’s own confidants. In 1991, the former prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, who had fled Iran days before the triumph of the Islamic revolution and whose son—a police intelligence officer in France—kept him under tight security, was stabbed to death in his own home in Paris by an assassin who had had the help of Bakhtiar’s most trusted assistant. Since then, the regime has only grown bolder and more bloody. In 2020, Ruhollah Zam, a journalist with a huge readership in Persian-language social media, was lured into Iraq with a forged invitation purporting to be from the Iraqi Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani: from there he was kidnapped, delivered to Tehran, and, after several public “confessions” aired on the official television, executed.

William Stevens/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A display at the funeral of Shapour Bakhtiar, Paris, France, August 14, 1991

There is indeed something terrifying about the regime’s more than forty-year quest to hunt down dissidents, but I also found myself oddly reassured that a previous generation had similarly suffered. Back in 1993, Iran’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Mansour Farhang, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “Iran Wants to Assassinate Me. Why?” Then, too, it was the FBI that had informed him of a regime plot: they had discovered his name on a hit list of some five hundred individuals Iran planned to liquidate. Farhang had also wondered why a university professor in a far-flung bit of New England would be deemed a threat. Ultimately, he concluded that the regime simply wished to prove that it had the power to destroy its critics, no matter how far they had tried to put themselves out of reach.

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International borders are no obstacle to Iran’s henchmen. Hundreds of opponents have been murdered on foreign soil since 1979, starting in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1980. Dissidents, satirists, writers, entertainers, and political figures all have been targeted or killed, no matter how far they got from Iran: in Bonn, Manila, London, Mumbai, Karachi, Istanbul, Vienna, Wembley, Larnaca, Geneva, Stockholm, Berlin, Sulaymaniyah, Tokyo, and Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. As a cofounder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which aims, among other things, to act as a repository for records of all the opponents whom the regime has imprisoned or assassinated, I am only too aware of this history. (And this, too, may have put me in the crosshairs of the regime.) Most of these dissidents died in near-obscurity, their political murders barely publicized at all. Even by 1988–1989, when Salman Rushdie became a household name and the word “fatwa” entered the global lexicon, these killings captured little public notice, in spite of Rushdie’s own efforts to speak of them. The European Union, especially, turned a blind eye, perhaps because a handful of dead refugees were not worth jeopardizing international trade relations over. Several of the perpetrators were arrested, but once their ties to Tehran were exposed, they were quickly extracted or deported without standing trial in the country where they had committed the crime.

Until 1997, Iran had largely gotten away with these assassinations. But in April of that year, the highest criminal court in Berlin named Iran’s top leadership, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the masterminds of the assassination of four Iranian Kurdish leaders at a restaurant in Germany five years earlier. Only then did the EU finally stand firm, recalling its ambassadors and cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, albeit briefly. 1997 was an election year in Iran. Faced with the need to overhaul their country’s image in order to resume relations with the West, Iranians elected to the presidency reformist Mohammad Khatami, a little-known former minister of culture who had remained until then an obscure candidate. His election brought about a dramatic political shift in Iran, the dawning of the reform era that followed. Reform did not ultimately succeed, but the EU’s move helped bring about a hiatus in Tehran’s near twenty-year killing spree, giving dissidents a temporary reprieve.

The rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan once again is expected to bolster other terrorist groups in the region. In retrospect, the spying, assassination, and terrorism operations that Iran carried out in the West for the first fifteen years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic may have similarly inspired other militant groups that were to launch their assaults on the continent in the 2000s. On one hand, Iran had rewritten the rules of diplomacy by taking Americans and Europeans hostage in exchange for whatever it needed. On the other hand, to kill dissidents, Iran recruited operatives from many different Shiite communities—in Lebanon, in Algeria, in the US—and established mosques and front businesses to sustain its recruits, thereby creating a blueprint for others. Would the subsequent much larger jihadist operations—such as the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the July 2005 London bombings, the 2015 Paris attacks—have occurred as they did without Iran’s earlier example, and if the Iranian assassins and their Hezbollah collaborators had suffered real consequences rather than enjoyed relative impunity? At the very least, tracking, apprehending, and prosecuting the culprits of assassinations of Iranian dissidents would have prepared Western security and intelligence communities better for what was to come.

The hiatus in Iranian operations ended a decade or so later, as the country’s regional ambitions grew and it gained the support of notorious allies (like Syria) and superpowers (like Russia). Now Iran, along with a handful of other autocracies, is again on the hunt for its critics in exile. Many in Washington seem not to see Iran’s transgressions as part of a global trend of autocratic regimes aiming ultimately to prove that democracy is unviable.

Washington tends to be particularly myopic, if not narcissistic, when it comes to Iran: it considers itself the prime mover of Tehran’s actions, rather than viewing the escalation of Iran’s aggression as in line with the country’s own designs. Each time a hardliner becomes president—most recently, Ebrahim Raisi—it is somehow a response to a US administration. But when a reformist fails to implement even the most minor reform—something as small as allowing women into soccer stadiums—no one asks why the moderation the US had forecast never materialized.

In the crude binarism of most Western commentators, there is no consideration that perhaps Iran’s constitution cannot allow real reforms, especially not through voting, as the bloody aftermath of the 2009 presidential election, suspected of widespread vote-tampering and fraud, proved. Nor is there an explanation for why two of the most brutal crackdowns of protests have occurred not under the rule of Iran’s hardliners but under the very two reformist presidents who were to be champions of dialogue and tolerance: the first in 1999 under President Khatami, the second in 2019 under President Rouhani. Despite all evidence, the convenient belief lingers that change can come to Iran only if America fosters the reformists—a delusion that allows Americans to hold onto their arrogant view of their own importance in the lives of other nations.

The narrative of two opposed factions makes Iran more intelligible for the American public because it evokes the US two-party system. But this mischaracterization of the reformists and the hardliners creates the illusion that Iran’s political system resembles that of the US, and helps place Iran in the realm of normal political actors worthy of negotiating with. Even when Iranians chant the slogan “Hardliners! Reformists! The game is over!” or the nation’s most renowned human rights leader, the Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, once a reformist herself, declares reformism dead, American experts and lawmakers continue to speak of Iran not as a despotic power with its own regional ambitions and grand agendas, but as a minor actor whose fortunes or misfortunes are decided in Washington.

*

When Agents Steve and Emily left, my thoughts turned to my father—not with the melancholy I usually feel when remembering his loss, but with relief. Having got us out of Iran in the 1980s, away from the terror of the regime and the endless war with Iraq, he was proud to have accomplished what he thought of as the most important work of his life: delivering his family to safety. He knew America did not have to be our final destination, but decided that, for him, it would be. He loved the United States, though he spent his days composing poems about his longing for Iran. After the FBI agents’ visit, I was relieved that he was not there to see his life’s work coming undone.

Still, I tried to reassure my children, however falsely, that I was not worried—to which one of them, having inherited his mother’s penchant for untimely humor, said he wasn’t either, because the killers were only after me, not them. We all laughed at that. Nowadays, few things remind me, as my son did at that moment, that I am not from here, that I am not the American that he, having been born here, is. Very little gives me away any more: not my accent, appearance, or manners. Yet, at rare moments, a feeling of unbelonging can still overwhelm me. Though native-born Americans know plenty of their own suffering, it is in the incurable nature of this particular affliction—this unsheddable past, this relentless hunt—that everything I’ve done and become since I left Iran vanishes, along with my confidence in the safety of my citizenship.

The next day, I decided to confide in a few friends who I hoped could advise me. At our neighborhood Starbucks, I met an acquaintance who had close ties to the state’s political leaders. As I recounted the tale to her, I could see a puzzled expression in her face give way to apprehension, and finally disbelief, as if she thought I had gone mad. Restless to leave, she promised to contact a few people on my behalf—though not until September, once everyone had returned to their offices from summer vacation. Since that afternoon, I have not heard from her.

Then there were the two friends who always came to visit for a day or two on their way to Cape Cod. They arrived that evening, and over dinner, I told them what had happened. The next morning at dawn, they were in the driveway, stuffing their suitcases into the trunk of their car, offering excuses for cutting their stay short. As if I had switched on the light in a dark damp cellar, everyone, at least in those early days, seemed to run away from me. It saddened me, but I understood. It was a relief when the pandemic hit: while the rest of the world was retreating into their homes to avoid Covid-19, I was already quarantining from a plague of my own.

Of all my initial security precautions, only the door bar remains now. For, in time, I found that constant vigilance soured the carefreeness of my life in America—that first, most visceral experience, which bonded me to this country when so much else was foreign. It has taken me two years to decide to talk openly about this incident, even though I have always believed that the yearning to speak up is what drives a writer to write.

In the end, though, I am my father’s daughter. I, too, think of America as my final home, and it is as a concerned American that I act. I have no claims on Iran, having spent most of my life in the United States—no remaining relatives, wealth, or property in the country. My only claims are to its language, and to the truth of my memory of what I have witnessed. Perhaps my very lack of claim is an advantage: it allows me a more clear-sighted view of the tragic events that have devastated the cradle of one of the world’s greatest civilizations, which is also my birthplace.

If Iran could reach into our lives, and sow terror here in the heart of our nation, I worry not only for ourselves, but for the security of my fellow Americans, and the well-being of our democracy. By now, we know that Iran, like Russia, has tried to meddle in US elections; it has hacked the US cyberspace; and it has schemed to undermine US influence in the Middle East. What only few Americans realize is the insidious penetration of Iran and its agents into our public space. The thwarted plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad provides only a glimpse of this. It is possible that Iran’s most influential intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian, is being provocative when he boasts that the spies he plants in the West are no mere gumshoes, but polished professionals in the guise of businessmen and journalists. But can America afford to dismiss this claim?

Godspeed to all the diplomats hoping to negotiate with Iran, if not to bring about a reconciliation between our two countries then at least to restore an agreement on nuclear development. But in doing so, let us not underestimate Iran’s intentions. There are many lessons that US policymakers will be drawing from the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, and one is surely that the Taliban was preparing for war all the while they seemed to be negotiating for peace. Iran has been similarly deceptive. In the early 1990s, when Germany was peddling the notion of Iran as a reformed regime and spearheading an initiative called the “critical dialogue” to restart relations between Iran and Europe, Iranian operatives were traveling the continent assassinating dissidents.

It should alarm every American that even as Iranian officials were in Vienna negotiating the original nuclear deal with the United States, the regime’s agents were in New York scheming to abduct Masih. If we turn a deaf ear to Iran’s “Death to America” mantra, or treat its offenses as mere infractions, we do so at our own peril. Today, Iran may take aim at the dissidents living here, but given the regime’s ever-growing ambitions, the dissidents will not be its last targets.

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