Ivan Sascha Sheehan | International Policy Digest | December 12, 2018
Iran has been the center of international attention in 2018. In light of unprecedented, continuous protests and strikes at home, a faltering economy, growing regional and international isolation, and the imposition of massive US sanctions, there are growing signs that the status quo has become untenable and the regime is finding it much more difficult to contain the situation. The theocratic regime’s new onslaught against its opponents, most notably against the principal opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (PMOI/MEK), is a serious indicator of changing times in Iran. In addition to domestic repression, the multi-faceted campaign against the MEK entails terror plots in the West and massive disinformation and demonization in the media and on the Internet.
Continuation of protests: The new Iran
The most defining aspect of Iran in 2018 has been the continuation of anti-government protests. The wave of protests that started in the last days of 2017 and expanded to more than 140 cities in all 31 provinces shook the ruling theocracy to the core. That movement has continued in different shapes and forms over the past 11 months, despite a heavy crackdown, waves of arrests, and long prison terms for protesters.
After the first wave of protests between late December and mid-January, the situation has changed dramatically and protests have erupted in various parts of the country. After the first wave of protests, the big question was whether it was just a short-lived phenomenon that the regime was able to contain. The Iranian opposition maintained that the protests would adapt and continue. The past 11 months have clearly demonstrated the prescience of opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, who heads the opposition’s coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which includes the MEK. She correctly anticipated that the regime would be unable to turn the tide.
On October 14 and 15, teachers all across Iran took part in a nationwide strike covering more than 100 cities, including Mashhad, Marivan, Isfahan, Hamedan, Karaj, Homayounshahr, and Ahvaz. The teachers protested poor living conditions, problems with their jobs and heavy security measures imposed on their schools. They also called for the release of their jailed colleagues. According to human rights observers, the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards’ Security and Intelligence Departments have arrested or issued a summons for a number of teachers in various provinces across the country.
Truck drivers have taken part in four nationwide strikes in 2018, encompassing more than 300 cities. Some of these lasted as long as three weeks. This has created a major crisis since 90% of goods are transported by truck. The prosecutor general in Qazvin province, in central Iran, called for the execution of 17 detained truck drivers who were arrested during the third round of nationwide strikes in October.
According to information provided by the network of the MEK inside Iran, merchants in more than 50 Iranian cities went on strike and refused to open for business on Oct 8. The strike, which was preplanned and widely promoted across social media channels, protested rising prices and high inflation rates. According to MEK network, this movement spread to many of Iran’s major cities including Mashhad, Tabriz, Kermanshah, Gorgan, Zanjan, Baneh, Marivan, Tabriz, Sanandaj, Saqqez, Abadan, Urumiyeh, Zahedan, Arak, Kerman, Isfahan, Qom, Qazvin, and Sardasht.
In June, protests that had started in a number of other cities and towns spread to the capital of Tehran, where they continued for days. In July, a five-day wave of anti-government protests proved to be the largest since January and encompassed more than a dozen cities. In July, a five-day wave of anti-government protests proved to be the largest since January and covered more than a dozen cities throughout the country. And in August, Tehran and 26 other cities saw protests by angry people from all strata of society. This reflects trends that have been apparent since the mass uprising that marked the beginning of the year. What makes recent and ongoing protests different from earlier movements is that they are not limited to one part of the country or to any specific demographics.
The social base of the protests is growing. At first, it primarily consisted of those whom the regime describes as “the army of the hungry and unemployed.” Unemployment is at least 30 percent and in some cities and towns, it is greater than 50 percent for the youth. The overwhelming majority of Iranians are living below the poverty line, even as Iran remains a rich and resourceful country and one of the world’s principal exporters of petroleum and natural gas.
In April, heavy truck owners staged a nationwide strike for two weeks. In June, Bazaar merchants, the traditional backbone of the Iranian economy, took part in protests in Tehran alongside a large number of shopkeepers. That signaled that the middle class was frustrated and saw no future in the status quo. The youth and women have also played a very prominent role in the protests.
Maryam Rajavi is a thorn in the side of Tehran. (Maryam Rajavi)
Some of the public frustration is reflected in reports by international media. The Associated Press reported on September 13 from the Tehran Bazaar:
Elsewhere in the market, some even defended Trump, like Mahdirashid Mohammadzadeh, whose small stall in the jewelry section of the bazaar has seen customers eagerly buying gold as a hedge against the falling rial…Asked what caused the economic woes, Mohammadzadeh blamed Iran’s costly foreign intervention in Syria. “This is the people’s money,” he said. “We have done nothing wrong to deserve this, but they are sending all our money to Syria.”
Radio France Inter, reported on October 21 from Tehran:
Sarah, 34, designer, mother of a 6-month-old baby: “It is getting to be very very difficult for us. Sometimes I don’t even have money to buy diapers or milk for my daughter. The price of diapers has tripled. It’s really expensive. Sanctions have made us poorer, but I can tolerate this situation because I hope that this regime will be overthrown and will be replaced by a better government…”
Reporter: Do you think Trump is doing the right thing by re-imposing the sanctions?
Sarah: “This is not a good thing, but if you look at it at a high level, I think he is doing the right thing because these pressures can lead to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. If all these things would lead to the downfall of the regime, I am prepared to sleep on the streets for six months with my husband and my daughter.”
Unified, popular demands are growing
At first, the protests were over dire economic hardship, exorbitant prices of basic staples, high unemployment, runaway inflation and the lack of some of the most basic social services including running water and electricity. But protests quickly became political with people calling for an end to dictatorship, since the regime was unable and unwilling to respond to any of their demands.
People demanded that the regime stop supporting terrorism, meddling in affairs of other countries like Syria and proliferating ballistic missiles and that it focuses instead on their acute problems, which have steadily been getting worse. They also demanded freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. Women, especially young women, played a key role in demanding an end to institutionalized discrimination.
One of the regime’s state media outlets said on August 8 that when the protests started in late 2017, it took a day or two for people’s demands to become political. In June and July, it took a few minutes. This was the direct result of a catastrophic economic situation, which has been exacerbated by rampant corruption and the regime’s blatantly misplaced priorities.
Precarious economic situation
The Iranian economy has been in free-fall and is getting more precarious. The national currency, the rial, has lost about 75 percent of its value in the past seven to eight months. According to Steve Hanke, a professor of Applied Economics at John Hopkins University, the inflation for basic staples was more than 110 percent last year.
This is despite the fact that the regime was able to export up to 2.7 million barrels of oil per day until recently, with virtually no sanctions in place prior to July 6. The regime received about $100 billion dollars of unfrozen assets and dozens of European companies went to Iran for business.
The main cause of the economic collapse is the regime’s policies. The lion’s share of the government budget is allocated to the apparatus of domestic repression and to financing terror and warmongering abroad. For instance, the Iranian regime has spent, on average, somewhere between $12 to $15 billion dollars annually in Syria propping up the Assad regime even as it slaughtered the defenseless people of Syria.
Another cause is rampant corruption and embezzlement. The situation has gotten so out of control that recently the First Vice President of the regime said corruption has reached the highest echelons of the government. Very tellingly, in his speech on August 13, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged the main reason for the economic woes are the regime’s mismanagement, policies, and corruption. He referred to one case where “$18 billion dollars of the country’s currency” was plundered.
Fourteen financial holdings control almost every aspect of the Iranian economy, and these holdings are all controlled in turn by the supreme leader or the Revolutionary Guards. Khamenei has a personal, off-the-books hedge fund called the Setad that was worth $95 billion dollars as of 2013, according to an estimate by Reuters. This is used as a slush fund for Khamenei’s sinister objectives. These 14 holdings, through their control of every major sector of the Iranian economy from oil and gas to transportation, ports, and telecommunications, are plundering the country.
In light of this, international sanctions will be able to choke off the regime’s ability to finance its repression at home and its belligerence abroad. Already, some 100 companies based in Europe and elsewhere have pulled out of the Iranian market following the US withdrawal in May from the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This is one of the greatest sources of anxiety for Tehran, as it threatens to cut off the regime’s chief instruments of plunder.
International isolation and the re-imposition of US sanctions
President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA signaled that after years of conciliation, the US has adopted a much more robust policy on Tehran. Washington resorted to massive sanctions against the regime with the objective of changing its strategic conduct and behavior. In a major speech on May 21, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated 12 actions that the US expected Tehran to take:
- Declare to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program and permanently and verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity.
- Stop enrichment, never pursue plutonium reprocessing, and close the existing heavy water reactor.
- Provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country.
- End proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further development and testing of nuclear-capable missile systems.
- Release all US citizens as well as citizens of US partners and allies.
- End support to Middle East terrorist groups including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
- Respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization and reintegration of Shia militias.
- End military support for the Houthi rebels and work towards a peaceful, political settlement in Yemen.
- Withdraw all forces under Iran’s command throughout the entirety of Syria.
- End support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and the region, and cease harboring senior al-Qaeda leaders.
- End support by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force for terrorists and militant partners around the world.
- End threatening behavior against Iran’s neighbors, many of which are US allies; stop calling for the destruction of Israel, end proxy wars with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cease threats to international shipping, and halt destructive cyber-attacks.
On August 16, the Secretary of State announced the creation of the Iran Action Group, headed by Brian Hook, as the Special Representative for Iran.
The American “maximum pressure campaign” was augmented with heavy sanctions on the Iran auto-industry, energy and financial sections in July and November. On Nov 5, the US Treasury Department added more than 700 names to a list of blocked entities. This included hundreds of targets previously granted sanctions relief under the JCPOA, as well as more than 300 new designations. This is substantially more than under any previous sanctions.
Sanctions that were lifted under the terms of Iran nuclear deal will be enforced on individuals, entities, vessels, and aircraft that touch numerous segments of Iran’s economy, including the Iranian Central Bank. As a result of this campaign, Iranian oil exports were reduced more than one million barrels a day. The US has vowed to lower those exports to zero.
The regime has been at a total impasse, since retreating from its strategic policies would mean major reform. Supreme Leader Khamenei has said time and again that for the regime, a change in behavior is tantamount to changing the whole system. So while the people’s just demands have been on the rise, the regime has been totally incapable of responding to these demands, fueling further public outrage. The regime has never been at such an impasse and has never been so challenged by the public.
Hassan Rouhani underscored the fact that the protests have been a game changer in the Iranian political landscape in remarks before the Iranian Parliament on August 28. When cornered into providing an explanation for the dire state of affairs he said:
“Suddenly the circumstances in the country changed. The date of this change was December 26, 2017. Anyone who gives a different date for the starting point is, in my opinion, misleading the people. It began on December 26, 2017, when people saw suddenly that some people were chanting on the streets, and the slogans little by little went out of bounds. In previous years, such incidents were practically non-existent.”
Ayatollahs’ onslaught against the opposition
The MEK has been the ayatollahs’ archenemy almost since the inception of the theocratic state. The conflict actually predates the 1979 revolution. The MEK, a profoundly patriotic movement, views itself as the followers of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the nationalist Prime Minister of Iran who was ousted by a CIA- engineered coup in 1953. The MEK maintains a deep belief in a democratic, tolerant and anti-fundamentalist Islam. As such, the MEK played a key role in the revolution that ended the monarchy in Iran, and it enjoyed massive grassroots support in Iran, particularly among educated, middle-class Iranians.
The MEK’s modern, tolerant and democratic view on Islam has been the antithesis to the Islamic fundamentalism and the velayat-e faqih system, and the ayatollahs were bent on annihilating it as a social and political force before they even took power. The MEK was the only serious political entity in Iran that stood against the constitution of the new regime in 1980. Massoud Rajavi, the charismatic leader of the MEK called the new constitution undemocratic and contrary to the spirit of Islam. Subsequently, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree on the eve of the first presidential elections in 1980 and disqualified Massoud Rajavi’s candidacy.
After two years of political struggle, the ayatollahs could not tolerate the growing, nationwide popularity of the MEK, and so they unleashed unbridled terror against it in the summer of 1981. The reign of terror has continued unabated. Tens of thousands of MEK activists, men and women, have fallen victim to brutal crackdowns. In the summer of 1988 alone, with a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, some 30,000 political prisoners – primarily MEK activists – were massacred. Most of those arrested and sentenced to death after the 2009 uprising belonged to the MEK.
The MEK is the leading constituent of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which is a coalition of Iran’s democratic forces encompassing national and religious minorities seeking a democratic, pluralistic, secular, and non-nuclear government in their homeland. Maryam Rajavi is the President-elect of the NCRI.
Although it is irrefutable that the MEK enjoyed a constant and formidable presence in Iran, the regime has sought to ignore the MEK in its public positions, as part of an effort to eliminate its archenemy through simultaneous repression and propaganda. Toward that end, Tehran implausibly claims that the MEK lacks popular support and is inconsequential to Iranian affairs.
But the MEK’s importance and influence are made obvious by its exposure of some of the most secretive and egregious of Tehran’s activities, most notably its secret nuclear weapons program. Over the years, the MEK has disclosed details on more than 100 clandestine nuclear projects in Iran, the overwhelming majority of which were corroborated by the IAEA or other relevant entities and experts.
Underground intelligence sources and supporters working in various institutions inside the Iranian regime have provided this information. It was the MEK’s network of activists that exposed the key nuclear sites of Natanz (uranium enrichment) and Arak (plutonium production) in 2002. The MEK network has also been active in exposing Tehran’s gross human rights abuses, support for terrorist groups in the region and ballistic missiles program.
In dealings with international counterparts, Tehran vigorously demanded suppression and marginalization of the MEK as a goodwill gesture. Riding on a soft approach by the West based on the misguided concept that offering olive branches to Tehran would facilitate its move toward “moderation,” Tehran demanded that Western powers blacklist the MEK.
On May 7, 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported: “Iranian officials for years have made suppression of the MEK a priority in negotiations with Western governments over Tehran’s nuclear program and other issues, according to several diplomats who were involved in those talks.”
The MEK challenged the designations in courts and was eventually delisted after 20 judgments by the highest courts in the UK, EU, and the US, which ruled unanimously that there was not one iota of evidence linking the MEK to terrorism. Having reviewed all relevant documents, UK Chief Justice called the designation “perverse.” Moreover, in France, a judge concluded an 11-year investigation by declaring that MEK’s actions in Iran amounted to legitimate resistance against tyranny, and not terrorism.
In the US, the delisting occurred on September 28, 2012, after the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted a Writ of Mandamus filed by the MEK, the first of its kind since 1803. The Court reprimanded the State Department for its egregious delay in removing the MEK from the terror list. Interestingly, an impressive group of mostly senior former officials who held key national security posts in four US administrations filed an amicus brief in support of the MEK’s petition.
The MEK has demonstrated pervasive and widespread appeal amongst the Iranian Diaspora. Expatriates throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and even Asia have taken part in the MEK’s massive annual rallies in Paris in recent years, alongside massive crowds of more than 100,000 supporters from around the world.
In the international arena, the MEK has gained enormous respect among American and European politicians, in addition to strong pledges of support from key allies in the Middle East. A number of MEK allies hold prominent positions in the Trump administration, while the MEK itself enjoys solid bipartisan support in the US Congress.
In September 2016, after years of intense campaigning, the MEK was able to safely transfer several thousand members from camps in Iraq to European countries, with most settling in Albania. The opposition leaders and spokespersons pointed out that the transfer, in addition to being a major humanitarian success to guarantee the safety and security of opposition members, was a major strategic achievement. They reasoned this would free up the time and resources of the organized resistance to focus on affairs inside of Iran and on expanding its social base. But outsiders did not initially pay much heed to the opposition’s assessment.
Tehran starts to acknowledge the role of the opposition
A clear sign of the opposition making headway at home came about when Tehran’s public policy of silence vis-à-vis the opposition and particularly the MEK changed dramatically following the outbreak of major protests in late 2017 and 2018.
From the outset, the highest-ranking officials in the regime blamed the MEK for the uprising and stated that they would respond in the harshest manner. Ali Shamkhani, a senior IRGC commander and the Secretary of the regime’s Supreme National Security Council, said on January 1, 2018, the fifth day of the uprising: “The goal of the organized foreign meddling is to prevent Iran from making progress; therefore they try to destroy this country from within.” Shamkhani added that the MEK “will receive an adequate response from where they don’t expect it.”
According to Agence France Presse (AFP), on January 2, “Iranian President Hassan Rouhani phoned his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron…to demand action against a terrorist Iranian opposition group he accused of fomenting ongoing protests.
“We criticize the fact that a terrorist group has a base in France and acts against the Iranian people…and we await action from the French government against this terrorist group, Rouhani told Macron, according to a report on Iranian state television. He was referring to an exiled Iranian opposition group based in Paris and called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq [MEK].”
The French national daily, Le Figaro, reported that Macron responded, “All political opposition [groups] are welcomed in France and all terrorist activities will be confronted.”
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made the most notable acknowledgment of the valuable role played by the MEK. In a speech on January 9, Khamenei said, “These incidents had been organized and that the MEK implemented the plans.” He further noted that “the MEK had prepared for this months ago” and “the MEK’s media outlets had called for it.” He said the MEK was at the apex of the triangle that incited the uprising. He identified the other two points of the triangle as foreign powers.
Brig. Gen. Rasoul Sanai, Political Affairs Deputy for the IRGC, provided the most detailed account of the role of the MEK. In his remarks “Role of the ‘hypocrites’ (the pejorative term used by the regime to describe MEK) in uprisings” he said:
“Eighty percent of those arrested were under 30 years of age. There were several women among them, who are middle-aged. In the 1980s, those who were leading MEK protests were mostly women. And now, the main chain of provocation and starting the protests were women. For example, four of these women caused the protests in the city of Ilam (western Iran). After they were detained, we realized they were not from Ilam…”
“Similarly, those arrested in Kermanshah had come from the city of Karaj (near Tehran). Those who were from Bandar Abbas were arrested in Shiraz. These were the MEK who would go to the cities in an organized fashion and were guiding the slogans. The most radical and sacrilegious slogans, such as ‘they have used Islam as a ladder to harass the people, neither Islam, neither the Quran, let’s sacrifice both for Iran….
“This shows how much they hate Islam and political religion. Directing attacks on military centers, like assaults on the State Security Force and Basij bases were part of the planning by the MEK. They even attacked the prisons, which means they have their hands in prisons as well.”
On May 18, in the wake of the popular uprising in Kazeroun, in southern Iran, that lasted for several days, Esmail Tabdar, the Governor of Fars Province said: “The MEK are playing a role in the events of Kazeroun.”
As the protests and strikes persisted, the regime’s officials and analysts issued continuous warnings about the role and impact of the MEK network in fomenting and organizing the unrest.
Reza Hosseini, the advisor of the headquarters of Armed Forces Cyber Warfare said on August 1:
We have to see what they did in the 1980s, that in the current vacuum they have emerged again, they pretend to be victims, and coincidentally, they are becoming the flag bearers and vanguards in some areas. The same MEK terrorist grouplet that was occasionally announced were dead and their names should not be mentioned anymore!
As an expert, I say the grouplet of Monafeqin and essentially the issue of hypocrisy (the MEK brand) is not dying or disappearing; anyone who says that the hypocrites (MEK) are dead is either wrong or ignorant; wrong in the sense that if he is not the enemy himself and does not have animosity with the Islamic Republic system, he is an accessory, and ignorant in the sense that he is simply unaware
Unfortunately, our people are not aware that 90 percent of the strikes and current calls are the work of the counter-revolutionaries. In the past, the counter-revolutionaries led by the hypocrites in the country were riding waves and today they are making waves. In all circles, including truckers and marketers, they have penetrated and given guidance.
In the universities, they had influence in the 1980s…Now also in universities, especially in provincial centers, due to the large volume of non-native students from across the country, they have influence. That is why we hear words in the academic circles that are the words of the hypocrites.
Cyberspace is filled with the movements of the MEK to the extent that I found 30 MEK channels in only 10 minutes.
Hassan Roozitalab, an IRGC member and researcher of the history of revolution, published an article on July 3 titled “The hypocrites in the middle of the field!” In it he wrote, “More than 70 percent of the clips for calls to protest and turmoil are from channels connected to MEK. Massoud Rajavi has sent five messages about these riots since December, which is unsurpassed in recent years.”
He continued, “The members of the organization have divided the cities among themselves, and in a multi-year process, they have organized the elite and ordinary protesters in Telegram groups. For example, in a small town, there are more than 5,000 members in different groups that announce the timing and places of demonstrations and coordinate them.”
The regime’s response to this situation has been a stepped-up crackdown on the protesters, and further repression in general. A large number of protesters have been arrested. The prisoners are systematically tortured and placed under severe duress. A protester was shot to death by the regime’s forces in July in the city of Karaj. In August alone, 1,000 young protesters were arrested.
On October 17, the state-run news agency ISNA reported that the judiciary head for Kohgiluyeh and Boyer Ahmad province announced that six defendants who were affiliated with the MEK had been “sentenced to imprisonment and exile from 8 to 18 years.” The National Council of Resistance of Iran announced that the arrests of MEK activists actually took place in June. The MEK activists were charged with writing slogans, namely “death to Khamenei” and “hail to Rajavi,” as well as burning “the images of national and religious figures,” specifically Khomeini and Khamenei.
On May 1, the MEK announced that state security forces had attacked a team of activists while they were posting banners marking International Workers’ Day in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The activists were subsequently pursued and fired upon by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and two were wounded. According to the MEK, two of the activists were wounded One was shot in the chest and in the leg and was reported in critical condition. No further details were provided.
The surge in Tehran’s state-sponsored terrorism in Europe- focused on MEK
Not being able to contain the ongoing protests and strikes and the growing role of the MEK, Tehran has stepped up its terror campaign since early 2018. Tehran’s terrorist activities in Europe and the US entered an altogether new phase at the beginning of this year.
On Saturday, June 30, 2018, Belgian authorities foiled a major terrorist plot at the heart of Europe by arresting a husband and wife in Brussels. The Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office announced the news on July 2 and said the couple was “charged with attempted terrorist murder and the preparation of a terrorist offense.” They noted at the time, “Both are suspected of wanting to commit a bomb attack in Villepinte (France) on Saturday 30 June 2018 at a conference held there by the MEK, Les Moudjahidines du Peuple Iranien.”
The target was the Free Iran 2018 gathering, which was attended by tens of thousands of Iranians and international supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and MEK. Hundreds of dignitaries from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East participated and spoke at the event. Maryam Rajavi was the keynote speaker, and other speakers included Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Bill Richardson (former US Ambassador to the UN), Bernard Kouchner, Stephen Harper (former Canadian Prime Minister), and a cross-party delegation of British MPs.
According to the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office, “During the search of the terrorists’ vehicle, approximately 500 grams of TATP and an ignition mechanism were found in a small toiletry bag.” The Prosecutor’s Office also stated that cooperation between Belgian, French, and German judicial authorities made it possible to prevent a terrorist attack. The statement also announced the arrest, on July 1, of an Iranian diplomat in the German city of Aschaffenburg. The individual was arrested very close to the Austrian border as he was trying to return to Vienna to use his diplomatic immunity. The Iranian Resistance identified him as Assadollah Assadi, the Iranian regime’s intelligence station chief at the embassy in Vienna since 2014.
According to the MEK, the MOIS station in Vienna had become the coordinator of the MOIS stations in Europe a few years earlier, and Assadi was acting as the coordinator of the MOIS operations in Europe. Assadi was the person who gave the final order to the terrorists to attack the June 30th gathering.
A spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor said to NBC News on July 5 that “the couple had picked up the TATP in Luxembourg from the Iranian diplomat and were fully aware of the risk involved of using this unstable explosive; they had every intention of using it…They were not naïve.”
BuzzFeed reported from Brussels on July 11:
A Belgian police official confirmed the investigation’s scope to BuzzFeed News. “It’s a complicated investigation with many agencies having to work closely together,” said the official who lacks permission to speak on the record about active criminal cases. “There was a meeting in Luxembourg that was under surveillance and everyone worked together quickly to discover the bomb and arrest Assadi. It seems like the [Iranian] regime hoped a bombing would be seen as an internal MEK matter, which would be a plausible theory except we caught their guy in the act.”
When asked if the Iranian diplomat was an agent of any of Iran’s security services, a Belgian judicial source told NBC News, “Practically all employees of Iranian embassies are part of the Iranian Secret Service.”
On July 11, the German Federal Prosecutor issued a statement and announced that they have opened an investigation on Assadi. According to the German prosecutors, “The Federal Prosecutor’s Office issued an arrest warrant on 6 July 2018 to the investigating judge of the Federal Court of Justice.” The statement continued:
For this purpose, the defendant is said to have handed over to the couple at the end of June 2018 in Luxembourg City an explosive device with a total of 500 grams of the explosive triacetontriperoxide (TATP).
In their statement issued on July 11, German prosecutors allege that Assadi, who has been registered as a diplomat at the Iranian Embassy in Vienna since 2014, was a member of the Iranian intelligence service “Ministry of Intelligence and Security,” whose tasks “primarily include the intensive observation and combatting of opposition groups inside and outside of Iran.”
Another Belgian of Iranian origin, Mehrdad Arefani, was arrested in France on suspicion of complicity with the terrorist plot. He was extradited to Belgium.
In his speech titled “Supporting Iranian Voices” on July 22, 2018, Secretary Pompeo referred to the plot and said “Just earlier this month, an Iranian ‘diplomat’ based in Vienna was arrested and charged with supplying explosives for a terrorist bomb scheduled to bomb a political rally in France. This tells you everything you need to know about the regime: At the same time they’re trying to convince Europe to stay in the nuclear deal, they’re covertly plotting terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe.”
Publicly, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the regime’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman tried to spin the regime’s role and absurdly claimed that the plot was planned by the MEK itself as a “false flag” operation.
A Belgian security official told Belgium’s national daily, De Standaard, on July 4: “It was a sleeper cell that had to be ready for a day it was needed…” They pretended to be sympathizers of the MEK in order to “infiltrate the Iranian opposition and also apply for political asylum,” according to a security source. De Standaard added, “Belgian security services believe that the couple was led by Assadi for years,” and on July 10, a senior US State Department official held a special briefing regarding the Iranian regime’s terrorism and the plot to bomb the opposition meeting and placed the responsibility squarely on the regime.
On October 2, the French Interior, Foreign and Economy Ministers said in a joint statement that because of “this extremely serious act on our territory” they froze the assets of the Intelligence Ministry and two of its officials. A French diplomatic source said an “…investigation by our (intelligence) services…enabled us to reach the conclusion, without any doubt, that responsibility fell on the Iranian intelligence ministry…and the deputy minister of Intelligence had ordered it.” Assadi was extradited to Belgium on October 9.
Similar findings surround other Iranian terror plots
In March of this year, an attack was foiled that would have targeted a gathering of MEK members in Tirana, the capital of Albania, for the Iranian New Year celebration, Nowrouz. A car bomb was to be used to inflict maximum casualties at the gathering. Two Iranians who had traveled to Albania under the guise of journalists were temporarily detained. Their objective was to collect more information for the terrorist attack.
On April 19, Prime Minister Eddie Rama, in an interview with Vision Plus TV, referred to the threat posed by the regime’s terrorist attacks, saying the Albanian government was taking action against terrorist plots along with other European countries. The Albanian arrests were referenced in the US Department of State’s fact sheet on the Iranian regime’s terrorism in Europe on July 5.
According to Belgian police officials, the Albanian police and intelligence services were among the countries involved in the joint operation to arrest Asadullah Assadi and foil the terrorist plot against the Iranian opposition gathering in Paris.
In an interview with Fox News on August 9, 2018, former Prime Minister Pandeli Majko, currently the Minister of Diasporas in the current government, said that “US officials have told him that due to information on threats against him, he should increase his protection. He added that Iran’s strategy in the region is unprecedented.”
On August 20, the US Justice Department announced that two agents of the Iranian regime have been arrested in the US on charges of spying and collecting information against MEK affiliates and Jewish centers. The objective was to carry out a terrorist act. The prime targets were two well-known members of the MEK based in Washington, DC.
In press conferences in August, the Iranian opposition maintained that according to specific information from within the regime obtained by the MEK network, the decision to carry out the operations, including the attempted bombing of the Paris gathering, was made in January 2018 in the Supreme National Security Council, headed by Hassan Rouhani.
Other members of the Supreme National Security Council who are involved in the decision-making process included Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, Secretary of the Supreme Security Council Ali Shamkhani, Commander of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the IRGC Mohammad Ali Jafari, Head of Intelligence Department of the IRGC Hossein Taeb and the deputy politico-security officer of Khamenei’s office.
Further discussion on the extent of this operation took place in the months of January and February in the Supreme National Security Council, and Hassan Rouhani took the plan to Khamenei for final approval.
According to the MEK’s information, the department responsible for the terrorist activities in Europe and the US within the MOIS is called “Organization of Foreign Intelligence and Movements.” This is one of the most important departments within the MOIS. It is responsible for espionage and terrorist operations outside Iran. Intelligence stations of the regime in foreign countries including those within the regime’s embassies are under the supervision of this department. The MEK identified the head of this organization as Reza Amiri Moghaddam. He is a top security official reporting directly to Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi. He plays a key role in the regime’s terrorist activities in Europe and the US.
In recent months, the most senior regime officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani promised to deliver a serious blow to the MEK. Hossein Teab, head of Intelligence Organization of the IRGC, said on February 11: “Based on our oversight, during the recent events the notorious groups, under the guidance of the main enemies of our nation, tried to abuse the just economic demands of the people and create insecurity and deflect the nation. Their actions will not be unanswered and we will slap them at the right time.”
On October 30, Danish authorities accused Iran’s Intelligence agencies of planning to assassinate an opposition activist inside Denmark. It was established that the arrested assassin was in direct contact with the Iranian embassy and the ambassador in Oslo. According to the Danish Foreign Ministry:
Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen summoned the ambassador of Iran, to a meeting with the political director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This happened in reaction to information about illegal activities of an Iranian intelligence agency on Danish soil, which the head of Danish Security and Intelligence Service disclosed today.
As stated by the head of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service earlier today, the assessment is that an Iranian intelligence agency has planned an assassination on Danish soil. This is completely unacceptable. In fact, the gravity of the matter is difficult to describe. That has been made crystal clear to the Iranian ambassador in Copenhagen today,” says Minister for Foreign Affairs, Anders Samuelsen.
Samuelsen added that Denmark was “in close contact with several like-minded countries regarding the issue of an Iranian intelligence agency’s illegal activities in Europe.”
The would-be assassin was identified as Mohammad Davoudzadeh Lului, 39. The Iranian opposition stated that he had been serving Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) for 10 years. Davoudzadeh was in active communication with the regime’s embassy in Oslo and Ambassador Mohammad Hassan Habibollahzadeh. On November 9, Norwegian media published his photo at a meeting in the ceremony of the regime’s embassy on the occasion of the Iranian New Year 1397 (March 20, 2018), in the presence of the regime’s Ambassador.
According to the MEK, Davoudzadeh was tasked with approaching the MEK and the NCRI in Norway last year. In an effort to earn trust, the agent referred to the MEK supporters in Oslo who had participated in a rally to expose the regime and asked them to link him to the PMOI.
One of the MEK members in Oslo subsequently met with him in a cafe and questioned him. Due to significant contradictions in his speeches and records, it became clear that he was not a dissident, was likely on a mission, and had set up front companies to this end.
Further investigations supported these conclusions. Then in February 2018, the issue was discussed in detail with authorities in Norway to prevent further espionage and possible terrorist attacks. In the months that followed, the agent again contacted MEK supporters; this time with offers to provide the MEK with important information. The outreach was ignored.
The role of Tehran’s embassy and diplomatic outposts illustrate well the state-sponsored nature of the regime’s terror plots. While Tehran apologists have tried hard to separate the Rouhani administration from these plots, there is overwhelming evidence that these operations could not have been carried out without the direct involvement of the Iranian embassies. This was also the case in the 1990s when Tehran carried out a number of assassinations against MEK representatives and other dissidents in Europe. In November, Bahram Qassemi, the spokesman of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, underscored that each of the regime’s apparatuses follows the same fundamental objective.
Ironically, the uptick in terrorist acts in Europe came at a time when the Iranians needed Europe more than ever for economic needs and to fend off US sanctions. One would think that Tehran would consider the negative consequences of terrorist acts, especially those that could harm European dignitaries. However, the regime’s assessment is that Europe is so keen to maintain the status quo that it will not seriously react to its terrorist activities. The regime also believes that it needs to deliver a significant blow to the MEK and its gains inside the country. It seems for Tehran this outweighs potential consequences – particularly if the response is limited in nature.
Massive demonization campaign against the MEK in recent months
Over the years, Tehran’s terror campaign at home and abroad has been augmented by a massive, well-orchestrated, well-financed demonization and disinformation campaign to discredit the opposition, namely the MEK. The objective has been to show that no democratic alternative is available and that dealing with this regime or looking for change within it is the only option for the West.
The campaign involves the use of social media, dissemination of fake news, provision of grants for biased and slanderous reports, and even hiring reporters directly or through middlemen. In testimony before the Canadian Parliament on July 5, 2010, John Thompson, who headed the Mackenzie Institute, a security think-tank in Canada, said a man tied to Iran’s mission in Canada offered him $80,000. “They wanted me to publish a piece on the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). Iran is trying to get other countries to label it as a terrorist cult.”
Ali Fallahian, the former MOIS Minister, said in a TV interview on 9 July 2017: “The Intelligence Ministry needs cover for its efforts to gather intelligence inside and outside the country. We would not dispatch an intelligence agent to Germany or the United States who would say I am from the Intelligence Ministry. A trader or journalist cover is required.”
As Tehran’s crises have worsened, the regime’s focus on advancing terror plots as well as a massive disinformation campaign against the MEK in general, and MEK members residing in Albania in particular, have grown in almost direct proportion. Virtually identical, one-sided stories and reports in MSNBC, UK Channel 4 News, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, and The Guardian have become a predictable staple with newsrooms advancing reporting that is often, one-sided, full of unsubstantiated claims, and strikingly similar to claims espoused by the regime itself.
The same individuals are quoted in each of the articles and questionable evidence that demonstrates a clearly pro-regime bias is used to source the so-called facts. In an article published by The Guardian on November 9, Reza Merat reported on the terror plot in France, but did so in a way that uncritically conveyed the regime’s implausible talking points about it:
One day after the conference, the MEK accused Tehran of plotting a bomb attack against the event, following the arrest of four suspects – including an unnamed Iranian diplomat – in Belgium, Germany, and France. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, rejected claims of Iran’s involvement and described the accusations as a “sinister false flag ploy.”
The reporters and producers involved all maintain a long track record of favoring the “moderate” faction of the regime, namely Hassan Rouhani, referring to it as the only hope for the future of Iran. Each of them have also long advocated for policies of appeasement and concession to the ayatollahs by Western powers. Tehran’s egregious human rights record, its role as the main state sponsor of terror and its support for extremist and terrorist group is of little or no interest to them. In fact, the authors and their publishers have demonstrated particularly hostility towards the MEK and its advocacy for regime change at the hands of the Iranian people.
For anyone who has followed Iranian affairs, it is evident that the content of the pieces are almost identical to the allegations and smears that Tehran has been making against the MEK for years. The political messaging and policy implications are equally familiar: that the MEK does not pose a serious challenge to the regime and that realpolitik dictates that the West should revert to the failed policies of appeasement and accommodations to curry favor with the ayatollahs.
All of the pieces rely heavily on individuals who claim to be “former members” of the MEK. Yet many of these individuals are well-known agents of the regime and have been implicated as such by respected sources. Documents outlining the sordid history of collaboration between the individuals cited as being former members of the MEK and the regime’s notorious Ministry of Intelligence, MOIS, have been published on numerous occasions.
The annual reports of the intelligence services in the West, including Germany and the Netherlands, have emphasized for years that the individuals described as “former members of the MEK” are prime targets of the MOIS to be used in its demonization campaign against the MEK. A December 2012 US Library of Congress report and an October 2017 report by the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom issued titled “Spying For The Mullahs, Iran’s Agents In UK” also underscored this fact. The MEK has consistently exposed, in advance and in great detail, the regime’s scheme to spread disinformation through outlets like The Guardian. It has even provided details about the authors, their sources, and their contacts with known MOIS agents.
Social media disinformation
For years, Tehran has used social media accounts featuring fictitious names and identities to augment its traditional media campaign against the MEK. The Twitter campaign reached new heights in early 2018, immediately after the start of the nationwide uprising. One study demonstrated that most of the tweets related to the MEK are in Persian, followed by English, Arabic, Spanish, French, Albanian, and Pashto. The campaign began in 2012 but grew markedly in scale in 2017 and 2018 such that the number of tweets in 2018 is more than the total number of tweets published over the previous six years.
A review of the Twitter campaign illustrates how the regime uses media coverage and “friendly correspondents” to spread its lies. “Iranians masqueraded as foreign journalists to push political messages online, new Twitter data shows,” The Washington Post wrote on October 17.
In September, Twitter closed 770 of the Iranian regime’s accounts declaring them false accounts for government propaganda and dissemination of fake news and lies. At the same time, Facebook, Instagram, and Google also closed similar accounts related to the Iranian regime. On October 17, Twitter published content associated with these 770 accounts, amounting to 1,122,936 tweets, along with embedded photos and videos.
Although the accounts closed by Twitter were primarily seeking to influence and interfere in US elections, a significant number of tweets are devoted to spreading false information and demonization of the MEK and the Iranian opposition. The data lends credence to the MEK’s long-held position that Tehran is the primary source of hostility against the Resistance. And yet Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister wrote on Twitter on September 16: “Twitter has shuttered accounts of real Iranians, including TV presenters & students, for supposedly being part of an ‘influence op.’ How about looking at actual bots in Tirana used to prop up ‘regime change’ propaganda spewed out of DC? #YouAreBots.”
Western associates of and apologists for the Iranian regime issued the unsubstantiated claim that the MEK had set up a “troll farm that creates coordinated messages” repeatedly in the above-mentioned articles and reports.
Conclusions and observations
With Tehran facing a growing domestic revolt, as well as a weakening economy, it seems unlikely that it will back down from its strategic priorities, either domestically, regionally, or globally. The regime views the destruction of the Iranian resistance as the only means of saving itself from the prospect of overthrow.
While the organized opposition, namely the MEK, finds the growing unrest suitable for its further expansion and stepped-up activities, the regrettable side effect is that Tehran is likely to respond to the challenge by growing even more focused on the MEK. This means more repression at home and terror plots abroad. Efforts to spread disinformation, whether through online channels or via complicit media outlets, are also likely to grow.
The international community should, therefore, consider the impact that it could have on future events in Iran by paying as much attention to the aspirations of the Iranian people and their organized opposition as they do to those in the regime desperate to maintain their grip on power.
With moral support and attention to the MEK and its growing influence on Iran’s anti-government protest movement, 2018 may well end as it began: With Tehran’s theocratic rulers consumed with an existential revolt and brave anti-government demonstrators insisting on democracy in the streets.