Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps attend a rally marking the annual Quds Day in Tehran, Iran, on 14 April 2023.

The West’s Response To Iran's Terror Abroad Remains Ineffective

Monday, 04/01/2024

The assault carried out by several unidentified individuals wielding knives against Pouria Zeraati, an Iran International TV host, served as a glaring wake-up call that should have resonated four decades ago.

The first notable incident occurred on July 22, 1980, with the assassination of Ali Akbar Tabataba’i, the press attaché of the Iranian embassy in Washington DC during the Pahlavi government.

Prior to the establishment of the Islamic regime in February 1979, Islamist terror targeted Iranian officials and Western citizens in Iran, resulting in the deaths of two prime ministers and historian Ahmad Kasravi. Following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the pattern continued domestically to eliminate rivals and opponents, eventually extending to international operations.

Rather than treating these attacks as assaults on human rights and the rule of law, foreign governments, particularly Western ones, often viewed them as diplomatic tensions or standard law enforcement matters. This response, characterized by media coverage and condemnations, has inadvertently perpetuated acts of terror.

The same pattern unfolded in Zeraati's case: following media and professional associations' reactions, several lawmakers in Britain and other Western nations condemned the attack, while former officials pointed fingers at the government sponsoring terror. However, current officials opted to stay silent. While civil organizations also condemned the attack, they lacked the leverage to exert pressure on the government regarding this matter. For dissidents in Iran, particularly journalists, observing this process feels like watching the same movie on repeat.

Pouria Zeraati, the television host of the "Last Word" program on Iran International, at hospital following a knife attack in London (March 30, 2024)

The Islamic Republic has never faced consequences for its assassinations abroad over the past 45 years. During Hossein Mousavian's tenure as ambassador in Germany, 23 assassinations were orchestrated under his supervision, with the third floor of the Iranian Embassy in Germany serving as the main operational hub. Despite this, Mousavian was later recruited by Princeton University, effectively rewarding a perpetrator of such crimes. Furthermore, even when perpetrators have been apprehended, tried, and convicted, the Islamic Republic has often released them through hostage swaps, symbolically welcoming them with wreaths upon their return to Tehran airports.

The Iranian authorities have not only failed to learn from cases like the Mykonos restaurant group assassination in Germany, where regime leaders were convicted, but they have also openly defended such actions. In a 1992 report by Reuters, it was revealed that Hossein Mousavian implicitly supported Khomeini's fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie, and in a radio interview, he advocated for issuing a fatwa to execute individuals for apostasy. Additionally, Mousavian criticized Germany for jeopardizing business interests with Iran by calling for the withdrawal of the fatwa.

According to a report by the US State Department, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, “Iran’s global campaign of terror has included as many as 360 targeted assassinations in other countries and mass bombing attacks that killed and maimed hundreds.” “The Iranian regime has been implicated in assassinations, terrorist plots, and terrorist attacks in more than 40 countries,” the report says. Senior Iranian officials have not been shy of these actions and “declared that Iran follows and constantly surveils Iranian dissidents in other countries to crack down on them and strike decisive blows.”

In the last 45 years, Iranian state agents have kidnapped, forcibly disappeared, and killed a significant number of individuals whose activities they deemed undesirable outside of the country. The actual number of victims of extra-territorial extrajudicial executions by the government of Iran is not known. Nonetheless, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran has so far identified over 500, suggesting a much higher figure for instances in Iran. The perpetrators of these crimes have continued to repeat their crimes due to immunity. There is a “special department” in Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to guide and carry out this operation.

A Written Testimony by Michael J. Abramowitz, President of the Freedom House to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing states that IRI is among the top ten countries responsible for 80 percent of the transnational repression cases.

Assassinations abroad began with the targeting of officials from the Pahlavi era. Over time, they expanded to include opponents of the Islamist regime from various backgrounds, including singers and human rights activists. In recent years, with the rise of Persian-language media abroad, these assassinations have extended to network managers and journalists. Examples include Saeed Karimian, director of Gem Network in 2017, and Masoud Mowlavi, a Telegram channel administrator in 2019, both in Turkey, as well as Ruhollah Zam in 2020 and Pouria Zeraati in 2024.

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