Iranian dissidents living in the West continually look over their shoulders, fearful of being kidnapped or murdered by spies working for the Islamist regime in Tehran.
Such fears were highlighted this summer when police arrested a man with a loaded AK-47 outside the Brooklyn, New York home of Iranian dissident journalist Masih Alinejad. “I don’t know anything about the person, but I know the Islamic Republic. I know that my first enemy is the Islamic Republic,” Alinejad said. This was not the first attempted attack on Alinejad on Western soil. In 2021, the FBI foiled an Iranian regime plot to kidnap her. Unfortunately, many Iranian dissidents experience threats like this from the regime.
They include Farhad Rezaei, an academic from Iran who now lives in Canada. After leaving Iran, as a dissident, Rezaei spent time in Turkey doing post-doctoral work. The Turkish government originally guaranteed his safety as a dissident, he said, but the government turned on him in an effort to improve its own relations with Iran. “I was interrogated by Turkish intelligence for over two months, and I knew that they wanted to develop a case against me to expel me back to Iran,” said Rezaei, adding that he barely made it out of Turkey alive.
“During all those horrible times, we had to stay home. I was scared to go out because, apart from the fear of being abducted, my wife and I also received death threat messages from Iranians. Messages from unknown people constantly reminded us that it’s not hard to pay 1000 Lira to someone willing to stab me 1000 times on the street,” said Rezaei. “If it wasn’t for my Jewish friends who saved my life and the life of my family, I wouldn’t be in Canada now.”
Rezaei still fears reprisals from Tehran thousands of miles from the Middle East. “Even in Canada, I’m still concerned about my safety, knowing that there are so many Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) affiliated people in Canada that are ready to act upon receiving the order,” said Rezaei. “They can find us. They can trace us and find our living places.”
According to Rezaei, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) admits that Iranian dissidents need to take extra precautions, but will not offer further protection. The RCMP obliquely confirmed to FWI that Iranian dissidents in Canada are the targets of harassment by Tehran.
“The RCMP has ongoing investigations relating to the intimidation of Canadians by representatives of a foreign state, including the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the agency told FWI. “As the RCMP is currently investigating these incidents, there will be no further comment on the matter at this time.” (See Note below.)
Rezaei and fellow Iranian dissidents have tried to get the Canadian government to designate the IRGC as a terror organization but have so far met with resistance. “It is extremely important that the Canadian government recognizes the threats emanating from Tehran. To put an end to these threats, it is essential that the Canadian government designate the IRGC in its terror list,” said Rezaei, adding that such sanctions will prevent IRGC members from obtaining Canadian visas and entering Canadian soil.
Jaleh Tavakoli, an Iranian-born regime critic, has experienced indifference bordering on disdain from law enforcement officials in Denmark. Tavakoli a former member of the City Council of Copenhagen now leads the organization Free Iran which held a protest against Iran after the stabbing of author Salman Rushdie earlier this year. Regime operatives attended, took pictures, and asked protesters what they were doing, she said, adding that the Copenhagen police begrudgingly attended. Officials told the protesters afterwards, “There was no need for us to be here,” Tavakoli said.
In fact, every single Iranian dissident who spoke to FWI for this story fears for the safety of themselves and their families and has experienced some form of targeting from the ruling regime in Iran. Some of them have taken extensive security measures.
Lawdan Bazargan, a former political prisoner in Iran, now lives in the US. She told FWI she has Iranian friends living in the US who fear for their lives. They have “purchased guns and now are trying to get permits for carrying them outside their homes. Based on the track record of the regime, none of us feel safe.”
Bazargan reports activists and Iranian reporters for Iran International, Radio Farda, Zamaneh, VOA Farsi and similar outlets live in particular fear. “Their families are under pressure, and they cannot travel to Iran or a country that borders Iran for fear of apprehension,” she said.
Bazargan heads the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists which has called on Oberlin College to fire Iranian Professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati for his alleged involvement in covering up the 1980s mass killing of dissidents in Iran. Mahallati has accused Bazargan of blackmailing him. With this, Mahallati may have put Bazargan on the regime’s radar.
“A few weeks ago, in an interview on Iran International TV, I said something critical of Shi’a Islam and said that the new generation has access to information and does not believe this nonsense,” she said. “The next morning the regime’s news agencies had reported my words and had spread that part of my interview with my name, mentioning that I live in California.”
Within a few days of Bazargan’s interview with Iran International, the same story appeared on Islamic Republic of Iran TV but this time as part of a collage of dissident stories, “The segment was attacking Iran International TV but had the pictures and videos of several of Iranian activists abroad criticizing Islam. All my friends are telling me now that I have to be extra careful,” she said.
The regime has also targeted Iranian-born academic Hamid Charkhkar. “There is a spying system on Iranians in exile who are vocal against the regime,” he said. Charkhhar lives in the United States, but felt the long arm of the regime when his brother who still lives in Iran was confronted by officials who told him that his U.S.-based brother must stop attending anti-regime protests in America.
The Daily Telegraph recently reported that the Islamic Republic uses mosques and political institutions in the United Kingdom as part of its “spying system” to target dissidents. Earlier this year, FWI reported on regime propaganda broadcast by the Islamic Education Center in Houston, Texas. The mosque taught its children to sing the regime’s new anthem of allegiance. The regime-tied institutions in the UK mentioned by the Telegraph also promoted the same anthem. The Islamic Republic’s weaponization of mosques has appeared in other places too. Tavokoli mentioned her concern over a regime-controlled mosque in Denmark, and in November the German parliament called for closing an Iranian-controlled mosque in Hamburg. Green Party leader Omid Nouripour noted its role in “spying on the opposition in exile.”
Hassan Dai, the co-editor of the Iranian-American Forum who has exposed connections between the National Iranian American Council and pro-regime activists in the United States, asserts the Islamic Republic’s aggression toward the Iranian diaspora community comes from a place of weakness, not strength.
“In the early ‘90s they started assassinating people after Rafsanjani became President of Iran,” he said. “They use terrorism abroad to silence opposition outside of the country. They do this to project power and help their base inside Iran.”
Dai says the Iranian diaspora “must be careful. The regime’s bullying will continue, but the Iranian people want regime change.”
Susannah Johnston is FWI’s investigative reporter.
Note: In its correspondence with FWI, the RCMP stated that Canadians who believe they are being harassed by agents of a foreign power should contact the local police. “Individuals may also contact the RCMP National Security Information Network by phone at 1-800-420-5805 or by email at RCMP.NSIN-RISN.GRC@rcmp-grc.gc.ca,” the agency told FWI via an emailed statement.