In early August, an Iranian human rights organization released a report on the lengths the Ayatollah regime goes to quash dissent. The report highlighted how agents of Iran’s intelligence ministry interrogated family members of dissidents living abroad and threatening to kill the person in question if they continue to spread anti-government sentiments. While these reports are shocking, they are not unique. The Iranian regime has a longstanding history of threatening and kidnapping dissidents, journalists, and activists living in Iran and abroad. These practices have become commonplace as Iranians grow increasingly vocal against the regime. 

On August 9, agents of Iran’s intelligence ministry interrogated the father and brother of Arsalan Yarahmadi, the chief editor of Hengaw – Iranian human rights organization. Hengaw is considered a critical source of information on government arrests and intimidation tactics deployed by the Iranian regime against Kurdish dissidents. What’s more alarming is that the agents phoned Yarahmadi using his relative’s phone and issued death threats against him. 

Yarahmadi’s case is not unique. Instead, it reflects the regime’s decades-long practice of silencing dissidents who oppose their ideals. Last year, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned Iranian-born journalist and activist Masih Alinejad of an Iranian intelligence plot to kidnap or kill her. Alinejad is a vocal critic of mandatory hijab-wearing and hosts a show on Voice of America’s Persian-language service. In 2009, she left Iran in exile and settled in the United States. After her exile, the Iranian regime launched numerous targeted smear campaigns against her, including using state television to circulate allegations that she was a drug addict and a spy for the West. The regime also routinely harassed and threatened Alinejad’s parents and siblings, who remained in northern Iran. After the government threatened to sabotage their employment opportunities, the family agreed to go on live television to criticize Alinejad.

Last month, the FBI revealed that Iranian intelligence, via a misguided private investigator, were surveilling Alinejad and her circle, taking pictures of her family and friends, and monitoring her hourly movements. These activities were part of a conspiracy to kidnap Alinejad on U.S. soil and return her to Iran forcibly. According to an official release by the FBI, the group charged four Iranian intelligence agents for attempting to abduct Alinejad to prevent her from influencing public opinion in Iran and around the world. Alinejad’s case was notable as it was the first widely discussed Iran-led kidnapping case on U.S. soil.

One common tactic the Iranian government has begun deploying to abduct Iranian dissidents living abroad is to lure the activists to a country near Iran that shares good relations with the regime. Once the dissidents are in the country, government agents capture them and bring them back to Iran. For example, the Iranian regime forced Alinejad’s family members to invite her to Turkey for a family reunion so that Iranian agents could abduct her. Her brother warned her of a potential trap. He was arrested in 2019 and sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiring against and criticizing the country and its Supreme Leader.

In many forcible return cases, the dissidents are arrested and placed on death row. In December 2020, the Iranian government executed renowned dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam after returning him to Iran. Zam was captured by Iranian agents when visiting Iraq. Upon returning to Iran, he was tortured and abused and given an unfair trial before being placed on death row. The regime viewed Zam as a threat as he operated a popular telegram channel named Amadnews, which provided critical coverage of the 2017-2018 Iranian protests, encouraging dissent. 

According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, a human rights organization based in Washington, DC, Iranian security forces have killed or abducted 540 individuals while they were abroad over the last four decades. The organization stated that the regime demonstrated a decades-long tendency to engage in intimidation, extrajudicial killings, and abduction of dissidents who oppose critical religious and political groups in Iran to silence opposition movements in the country and around the world. 

Dissent against the Iranian regime has increased significantly over the past several years. Iranian citizens have grown increasingly discontent with the regime’s oppressive and conservative laws, corruption, and the government’s role in funding terror organizations and proxy groups that sew conflict and instability in the region. In addition, Iran’s economy has been in shambles for several years, especially since the United States reintroduced sanctions against the country in 2018. Given the economic constraints, employment and economic mobilization opportunities have eroded. Between 2017 and 2019, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest the economic situation in the Persian nation. More recently, government mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have wreaked further havoc on the nation’s economy, sparking protests. 

This steep rise in dissent has made the Iranian government more paranoid and has increased its efforts to quash critics and dissenters. Indeed, Iranians living abroad, including Iranian Olympic athletes, have called on the international community to step in and do more to protect dissidents and pressure the Iranian regime to change its practices. 

Iranians are growing more disillusioned with the Iranian government. Given the uproar, the regime has become paranoid, expanding its practice of surveilling, capturing, and killing dissidents, journalists, and activists living abroad and in Iran. In order to protect dissidents and activists abroad, it is imperative that governments protect Iranians from the Ayatollah’s regime. 

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