Iran’s Suspicious ‘Plot’ To Kidnap a Dissident in America

In a statement on July 13, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) accused four Iranian intelligence officers living in Iran of plotting to kidnap an Iranian political activist in New York in order to return her to Iran. The alleged victim is the controversial Iranian political activist Masoumeh Alinejad Ghomi, who is widely known as Masih Alinejad. A fifth person, Niloofar Bahadorifar, a woman of Iranian origin living in the greater Los Angeles area, was also accused of providing financial support to the alleged would-be kidnappers.

Before moving to the U.S., Alinejad, who was born in 1976 in a religious family in a small village in northern Iran, was a reporter for a number of Reformist newspapers, and was already a controversial figure. For example, she had revealed that conservative members of the Majles [the Iranian parliament] had been given large bonuses for the new Iranian year in March 2005, whereas they had claimed to have taken a pay cut.

From 2005 Alinejad was living in Britain, where she was active as a Reformist journalist in exile, and still wearing some sort of Islamic hijab. In 2009 she sent a letter to the US Embassy in London, asking to interview the newly-elected President Barack Obama. The US granted her a visa in April 2009. She returned home briefly and, unlike the claim that she "fled" Iran, she received her Iranian passport and left permanently in June 2009, right before Iran’s presidential elections and the birth of the Green Movement.

Even after she arrived in the US, Alinejad was not a leading exile, and for a while was still covering part of her head as a symbol of the hijab. A well-known analyst in Washington, who wished to remain anonymous, told the author that Alinejad even called him at that time and complained about the behavior of many exiled Iranians, their unpatriotic attitude towards their homeland, and the fact that they were trying to provoke a war in Iran.

Alinejad’s "star" began to rise when she was introduced to General David Petraeus, former CIA director, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and former Central Command commander responsible for all the US forces in the Middle East. It was after meeting General Petraeus that Alinejad began her work in the Persian division of Voice of America, the official US propaganda machine broadcasting into Iran. Whether the meeting with General Petraeus and Alinejad’s move to VOA were related remains unclear at this time. She has been producing a weekly program, which since 2017 has become the hotbed of activities for many exiled Iranians that advocate economic sanctions, threat of military attacks, and even separation of some provinces from Iran. Alinejad has received large contracts from the VOA for her work.

In 2019 Alinejad met with then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Given that Pompeo was the "architect" of the Trump administration policy of "maximum pressure" against Iran that has ruined its economy, the meeting was criticized by many prominent Iranians, as well as ordinary ones. In addition, both Alinejad and the media that publish her opinions and analyses have been criticized for not acknowledging that she works for the VOA and, therefore, her objectivity is highly questionable, not to mention her advocacy of hostility toward Iran.

The Islamic Republic does have a history of assassinating its exiled opponents, and abducting some to return them to Iran, with the latest example being Ruhollah Zam, who lived in exile in France and was highly active against Tehran’s regime. He was wooed to Iraq in October 2019, abducted and taken to Tehran, and then executed last year.

Due to her anti-government activities, there is no question that Tehran’s hardliners are after Alinejad. They arrested her brother Alireza Alinejad in 2020 after he allegedly warned her about a plot involving Iran’s security forces and Alinejad’s brother-in-law, who is said to be affiliated with the IRGC, to woo her to Turkey. He was sentenced to 8 years of imprisonment, although he was recently granted a furlough.

But many aspects of the alleged plot to kidnap Alinejad remain unclear. There are many questions that have remained unanswered, and some of the claims about the plot are, at the very least, absurd and hard to believe.

The alleged plot supposedly involved deceiving Alinejad to get her into a fast pleasure boat, traveling 4000 kilometers from New York to Caracas, Venezuela, and from there taking her to Iran. Even if the boat could move at 80 kilometers/hour, it would take 50 hours, more than two full days to reach Venezuela. On its way the boat would have had to reckon with the US Navy that could have intercepted it easily. It is also not clear how the boat was supposed to refuel. Surely, it could not have carried enough fuel for a nonstop 4000-kilometer trip. This is simply far-fetched.

In an interview with the satellite TV Iran International, which is linked with Saudi Arabia and is broadcast into Iran, Alinejad said she was moved by the FBI three times over an eight-month period, because they feared she would be kidnapped. That means each time she was moved, the alleged kidnappers, or their accomplices, could easily find out where she was. Does that not imply that the Islamic Republic has a powerful spying network in the US? Moreover, why not reveal the alleged plot after the first time that she was moved?

In the same interview, Alinejad said that the FBI was watching her home "every day from 5:00 pm to midnight." Does that mean that she was not in danger when she was out of her home before 5:00 PM? How about after midnight? If Alinejad’s home was not being watched during the day, would that not have provided an opportunity for the alleged kidnappers, or their accomplices, to get inside and hide there? Or were the alleged kidnappers tending to their own business during the day, and only worked part time on kidnapping her in the evening, and then go to bed at midnight? The claim is strange, to say the list.

According to Alinejad, the FBI car was in front of her residence in the afternoon-midnight periods, "with its lights flashing." That is also absurd. If the FBI wanted to keep an eye on her and arrest any would-be kidnapper, would it not be more rational to do it under cover, in order to be able to arrest the would-be kidnappers?

Alinejad also claimed that the alleged kidnapper had hired private detectives to watch her, and had even gotten into her residence. If so, who are the detectives, and why have they not been arrested?

It has been claimed that the FBI has screenshots of the computers of the accused four in Iran, showing that they were searching sea routes from New York to Venezuela. This sounds more like a science fiction movie.

If the purpose of kidnaping Alinejad was taking her to Iran, putting her on some sort of show trial, and then execute her, like what was done to the late Zam, and if the kidnapper and the people that they had hired could penetrate her residence, and also find out where the FBI was hiding her, would it have been easier to simply assassinate her right at home, instead of taking her 4,000 kl to Caracas, and then another 12,000 kl to Tehran?

In her interview Alinejad said that the plot was discovered 8 months ago. It is true that for a while she attracted considerable attention. But the Trump administration left office and before the recent allegations, she had largely lost her place as a center of gravity within the exiled opposition, as a result of many missteps that she had taken. These include meeting with Pompeo who is greatly despised not only in Iran, but also by many exiled Iranians; attacking her critics very harshly, and calling for boycotting Iran’s sports team, when Iran’s athletes have nothing to do with the policies of Tehran’s hardliners.

In addition, Alinejad’s program on VOA no longer has the audience that it had at the very beginning. Several young women inside Iran who had sent her videos and other information regarding her anti-hijab campaign have been arrested and imprisoned, prompting a number of activists inside Iran to criticize her, saying while she is living comfortably in New York, she was contributing to sending young people to jail for her ambitions.

Thus, if the alleged plot goes back 8 months, why are we hearing about it now? Does it have anything to do with the fact that she was no longer the "darling" of Iran’s exiled pro-war, pro-sanction opposition and, therefore, those within the U.S. government that support her wanted to give her a new lease on life? Does it have anything to do with the fact that the Biden administration is interested in negotiating with Iran and returning to the nuclear agreement, which would lead to lifting the economic sanctions?

In December 2019 Alinejad sued the Iranian government for harassing her family in Iran and her in the US, asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Aside from the absurdity of the lawsuit, since the US courts do not have any jurisdiction over what happens in Iran, does the timing of announcing the alleged plot have anything to do with the fact that the trial for the case may soon begin?

The DOJ and the FBI have claimed that Bahadorifar was involved in the plot by providing financial support to the alleged kidnappers. This is a serious charge. Yet, she was released after posting a simple bail. Why? Alinejad has said that the FBI had banned her from traveling abroad. But it is known that over the same time period she had traveled to Southern California, where a very large number of Iranians, including some supporters of the Islamic Republic live. Did that not pose any threat to Alinejad?

It could be that every one of such questions has a reasonable and rational answer. But, until such answers have been provided, the entire allegations are suspect, and read more like a bad B movie, whose sole purpose is to provoke a new confrontation with Iran, while the Iranian people are suffering from US economic sanctions, mismanagement of the economy, corruption, political pressure by the hardliners, and lack of vaccine for Covid-19.

Interestingly, since the original announcement of the DOJ on July 13, nothing has been said about the case.

Muhammad Sahimi, a Professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, analyzes Iran’s political developments, its nuclear program, and its policy in the Middle East.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.