Iranian intelligence plot reaches US soil — and should complicate negotiations

Iranian intelligence plot reaches US soil — and should complicate negotiations
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In mid-July, the Department of Justice charged that the Islamic Republic of Iran directed four intelligence operatives to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American journalist, from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. The alleged plot against the Voice of America reporter is the most audacious on American soil since Iran sought to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States in 2011 at a restaurant two miles from the White House.

The Biden administration has downplayed the kidnapping plot, lest it disrupt nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Rather than denouncing the alleged plot as an act of terror directed at a U.S. citizen, administration officials have presented it as a regrettable attempt to curtail free expression and silence journalists. The administration risks signaling to Iran that it can act with impunity throughout the world — including in the United States — if it fails to respond appropriately.

Indeed, the reported plot against Alinejad underscores how far the clerical regime in Tehran is willing to go to advance its revolutionary mission. But operating an intelligence cell on foreign soil is not the only way the Islamic Republic has sought to conduct terrorist attacks abroad. Even Iran’s diplomats plot and execute acts of terror around the world. Unchecked, both manifestations of the same terrorist threat only grow bolder. The administration need not look further than Vienna, the very city where the nuclear talks have been taking place, for proof.

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The Austrian capital served as the European home base for Assadollah Assadi, a counsellor at the Iranian embassy. In February, a Belgian court convicted Assadi of attempted terrorism, sentencing him to 20 years in prison for plotting to bomb an Iranian opposition conference outside Paris in 2018 where American VIPs were present.

Assadi ostensibly worked for Iran’s foreign ministry. He had used a diplomatic pouch to brazenly transport explosives and other bomb-making materials on a commercial flight from Tehran to Vienna for use in the attack. But in reality, Assadi served as an operative in Iranian intelligence’s Directorate for Internal Security, which the European Union lists as a terrorist organization.

This was no rogue operation. Belgian intelligence confirmed that “the planned attack was conceived in the name of Iran and at its instigation.” No plot of this magnitude is pursued without the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Indeed, the regime’s history of targeting embassies, foreign diplomats, and perceived enemies of the revolution dates back to the very inception of the Islamic Republic when student thugs violently took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979: 52 American hostages were held in captivity for 444 days.

Since the revolution, Iranian leaders have routinely directed more attacks when the international response proved tepid.

In 1997, for example, a German court determined the highest levels of the Iranian government — including then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, then-Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian, then-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the Supreme Leader himself — approved the assassination of four Iranian exiles at the Mykonos restaurant in a Berlin suburb. The dissidents were on the regime’s death list of 500 “enemies of Islam.” Germany issued an arrest warrant for Fallahian and expelled Iran’s then-ambassador and 14 other diplomats.

Three years earlier, diplomats posted at Iran’s embassy in Argentina allegedly facilitated the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Fallahian was among those indicted for the attack that killed 85 men, women, and children. Interpol still has red notices for those implicated in the bombing.

The long reach of Tehran’s terrorism has not faded over the last decade. In 2012 alone, authorities Thailand and Kenya foiled plots against American and Israeli diplomatic targets.

Even during the presidency of so-called “moderate” Hassan Rouhani, regime operatives plotted attacks and carried out assassinations. In November 2019, Iranian intelligence agents posing as diplomats at the Istanbul consulate directed the assassination of former defense ministry official-turned-dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani. In 2020, U.S. authorities notified Lana Marks, then-U.S. ambassador to South Africa, about a threat to her life from Tehran. This year, Iranian sleeper cells plotted attacks against the diplomatic missions of the United Arab Emirates in Ethiopia and Sudan, according to the Defense Department.

In practice, the distinction between moderates and hardliners in Tehran ends at the water’s edge.

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Still, the Biden administration argues that re-entering the outdated nuclear accord — many of whose restrictions will soon sunset — would be followed by negotiations to address Iran’s other malign activities. Yet, Tehran has demanded the U.S. remove terrorism sanctions and release billions of dollars to the regime as part of the negotiations. Acquiescing will provide an injection of cash that no doubt will fuel future terrorism around the world. 

As U.S. officials return to Vienna for round seven of the nuclear talks, they should be clear-eyed about the many faces of Iranian terrorism. That requires acknowledging that Iran’s negotiators are part of the same apparatus that for decades has used diplomats as intelligence agents and embassies as launching pads for terrorist attacks.

The most recent proof, should they need it, is the audaciousness of the plot against Alinejad — seeking to abduct an American citizen from U.S. soil.

How this administration responds to Iran’s recent conduct will test the veracity of Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken speaks with Sudan's prime minister after African leader's detainment Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping Senate confirms four Biden ambassadors after delay MORE’s statement that President BidenJoe BidenBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day Business lobby calls for administration to 'pump the brakes' on vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping MORE “is committed to a foreign policy … centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.”

If the U.S. returns to the negotiating table and there are no consequences for the attempt to kidnap Masih Alinejad, will the message that Supreme Leader Khamenei receives be that there is no red line Tehran cannot cross? Surely that would not be in America’s national security interests.

Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Dylan Gresik is a government relations analyst. Follow Toby and Dylan on Twitter @tobydersh and @DylanGresik. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security.