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April 2 2024

Policy Briefs

Iran International Journalist Attacked

Andrew Ghalili

SENIOR POLICY ANALYST

The recent assault on Pouria Zeraati, a journalist for London-based Iran International, underscores the fears of many that the Islamic Republic may be escalating its campaign against anti-regime journalists and activists abroad. As the London Metropolitan Police explore the motives, suspicions of the regime’s involvement are amplified by their previous threats against many London-based anti-regime television channels The incident draws attention to the regime's history of targeting critics overseas, intensifying concerns over its transnational repression tactics. It also highlights the inadequacy of current international responses to regime threats and underscores the urgent need for stronger measures to safeguard freedom of expression.


The Bottom Line

  • Pouria Zeraati, an exiled Iranian journalist and a television anchor for the UK-based Iran International news organization, was stabbed outside his residence in London on March 29.
    • Iran International spokesman Adam Baillie said the incident was “hugely frightening” but that Mr. Zeraati was “doing very well.”
  • The London Metropolitan Police have yet to determine a motive for the attack, but the investigation is being handled by the Met’s counterterrorism command due to the numerous threats made against Iran International and other Persian language, anti-regime London-based television channels by the Islamic Republic regime plus the regime’s extensive history of transnational repression.
    • According to the Metropolitan Police, the three attackers fled in a getaway car, which was found shortly after, and fled the country via Heathrow Airport.
    • A former Iran International anchor who has also faced threats from the Islamic Republic and was told by authorities to evacuate her home after the stabbing of Zeraati, reported that the counter-terrorism unit determined based on their preliminary investigation that “the attack on [Zeraati] was a ‘targeted’ attack not a random street assault.”
  • The Islamic Republic's history of targeting dissidents and journalists globally through harassment, abduction, and assassination underscores a pattern of violent suppression. Should this recent attack be linked to the regime in Iran, it would serve as a stark reminder of its relentless pursuit to silence critics and highlight the West's prolonged failure to adequately address such aggression.

The Islamic Republic's Transnational Repression

  • The Iranian embassy in London denied any involvement in the incident, but, as Iran International spokesman Adam Baille noted, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “get in touch through proxies, they don't leave a paper trail… No one's going to call up from the IRGC and go 'hey, it's us', but families have been taken in for questioning and threatened." 
    • Iran International is unfortunately very familiar with the Islamic Republic’s brutal tactics. Last year their leadership reported they were temporarily moving from London to Washington, D.C. due to regime threats. 
    • The threats against Iran International reports follow a clear pattern of threats by the regime against other Persian language television stations and journalists, notably Manoto TV and BBC Persian. 
  • As the U.S. Department of the Treasury has stated, “A wide range of dissidents, journalists, activists, and former Iranian officials have been targeted for assassination, kidnapping, and hacking operations across numerous countries in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.“
    • Many of these acts of transnational aggression take place in the United States itself, as illustrated by a recent U.S. Department of Justice indictment against one Iranian and two Canadian nationals for a murder-for-hire plot in which they targeted two Maryland residents, one of which had recently fled Iran, from December 2020 through March 2021.
    • One of the notable examples referenced by the United States is the kidnapping of Jamshid Sharmahd, a German citizen and U.S. national, who was kidnapped in Dubai in 2020 and has been held hostage in Iran ever since, facing possible execution after a sham trial. A previous suspected attempt by Islamic Republic to assassinate Mr. Sharmahd in California in 2009 was foiled, but the arrested individual - who had been implicated in previous assassination attempts too - was permitted to leave the country less than two years later.
  • A recent study by Freedom House found that “the [Islamic Republic] regime has been linked to five assassinations or assassination attempts in three countries, and plots were thwarted in at least two others” since 2014.

The Western Response: What Should Be Done

  • The United States has repeatedly warned about Tehran’s transnational repression and arrested or sanctioned individuals for their role in such activities, but very little has been done to deter the regime from continuing its violent tactics. 
    • In January, the United States imposed sanctions on 11 individuals “for their connection to a criminal network that has targeted foreign dissidents and Iranian regime opponents for assassination at the behest of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).”
  • The United States should support the efforts of the Iranian people and their aspirations for a free, democratic country, and lead an international diplomatic campaign against the Islamic Republic by delegitimizing and deplatforming them on the international stage.
    • The United Kingdom and the European Union have yet to formally declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization despite clear evidence and mounting pressure, and the only reports about U.S. advocacy in this regard suggests the Biden administration may have discouraged European countries from doing so.
      • In response to the stabbing, British Conservative Member of Parliament Iain Duncan Smith stated, "The [UK] government must proscribe Iran's IRGC. The radicalism of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Groups is clear. We cannot allow a proxy war on British soil."
  • As NUFDI has previously recommended in its report, “Breaking the Trend: How to Combat the Hostage-Taking Business in Iran,” the United States should ban the travel of Islamic Republic officials to the United States. At the very least, regime officials visiting the United States should only be permitted to travel with limited staff - accomplished by denying visa applications for their vast entourage who have previously harassed journalists and Iranian-Americans on U.S. soil, including while visiting New York City for the United Nations General Assembly.
    • A bipartisan bill introduced by Reps. Joe Wilson and Jared Moskowitz, the “No Payday for Hostage Takers Act”, would allow the President to deny a representative of the United Nations diplomatic entry to the United States.

Image courtesy of Iran International.