Kidnapping dissidents abroad, Iran is sending a message at home

The polished “confession” video of Iranian opposition leader Habib Chaab looks similar to many produced over the years by Iran’s spy services.

But how Mr. Chaab was abducted abroad and spirited back to Iran in October is part of an increasingly used – and relatively successful – tactic that Iran is employing to demonstrate its “offensive” intelligence reach abroad, as it absorbs a spate of recent intelligence failures at home.

Set to sinister music, the video broadcast by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence last month is interspersed with images of explosions and bloodied victims – including from a September 2018 attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, which killed 25 people and was claimed by Mr. Chaab’s separatist Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA.

The video shows Mr. Chaab removing his blindfold, then revealing purported details about the Ahvaz “terrorist operation” and taking cash from Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Muslim world rival.

What Mr. Chaab doesn’t say is how he ended up in Iranian custody: lured in a honey trap from exile in Sweden to Istanbul, by a female Iranian agent, and then abducted, drugged, and driven in a van more than 1,000 miles east across Turkey and smuggled into Iran, in a complex operation orchestrated by Iranian intelligence.

Mr. Chaab is the latest in a string of at least three high-profile Iranian dissidents – one of them, Ruhollah Zam, executed earlier this month – who returned to the region from the U.S. or Europe, only to be abducted beyond Iran’s borders, spirited back into the country, and put on state TV to confess to “crimes.”

A response to failures

The actions appear designed as much to restore faith at home in Iran’s intelligence and security apparatus as to exact vengeance, analysts say, amid headline-grabbing failures that include Israel’s Mossad stealing thousands of pages of nuclear documents from a Tehran warehouse in 2018, and multiple explosions last summer, one of which damaged Iran’s nuclear centrifuge facility at Natanz.

In addition, Iran has this year witnessed the assassinations of two of its most important men: Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani by the United States, in Baghdad; and top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, apparently by Israel, outside Tehran.

“There is no doubt we have seen more of these cases,” of Iran abducting dissidents abroad, says Tara Sepehri Far, the Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“They want to send the message, ‘Look, this is the capability of the Islamic Republic, to bring these people back to Iran,’” she says. Forced public confessions have featured in Iran long before the Iranian revolution in 1979, but the Islamic Republic has perfected the practice with hundreds of examples.

“You can’t interpret the use of televised confessions in any way other than the propaganda machine,” says Ms. Sepehri Far. “It’s a public messaging tool. They need to send this message to the base, to convince the public they are doing something.”

Pivot to kidnappings

The game has stepped up for Iran since May 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from a landmark nuclear deal and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then told Ministry of Intelligence staff that “we need offensive measures” because “the enemy is waging a widespread and complicated intelligence war.” That year, the ministry’s new Foreign Intelligence Organization saw a doubling of funds.

But Iran’s tactics appear to have evolved from assassinations and bomb plots attributed to it by European officials from 2017 to 2019 – including the gunning down in The Hague of Ahmad Molla Nissi, the founder of ASMLA, which has a history of bombing civilians and pipelines in Iran.

Iran instead appears to now favor much more involved efforts to coax dissidents to leave their well-protected safe havens, then snatch them.

Mr. Zam, for example, who was a Paris-based opposition activist and director of the Amad News website, was convinced by Iranian agents to come to Iraq in October 2019. His capture by the intelligence wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was an “indisputable sign of their intelligence power versus the weakness of their [global] rivals,” Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said at the time.

Mr. Zam was executed Dec. 12, accused of “corruption on earth” for his website’s role in helping foment nationwide protests in 2017, and alleged “links” to Western intelligence agencies.

Amad News has been described as the “Breitbart of Iran.” Aside from detailing protest venues and timings, it was often used by Iran’s competing intelligence agencies to reveal information damaging to rivals. Its popular Telegram channel was shut down, accused of posting instructions for making Molotov cocktails, only to reemerge – just as popular – under a new name.

Domestic constituencies

Another case involves Jamshid Sharmahd, the California-based leader of the militant opposition Kingdom Assembly of Iran, whose armed wing, Tondar, claimed responsibility for a mosque blast in Shiraz in 2008 that killed 14 people.

Mr. Sharmahd was picked up in late July in Dubai, en route to a business meeting in India. He was apparently driven from the United Arab Emirates across the border to Oman and to the coast, where his phone signal disappeared, The Associated Press reported. He then appeared on Iran state TV, a captive.

“These operations are not just a signal to the exiled regime-change ‘opposition,’ but also to Iran’s domestic constituencies as well as to the outside world, particularly the Western powers, which have been in a state of heightened tension with Tehran since Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA [nuclear deal],” says Maysam Behravesh, an intelligence analyst on contract with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security from 2008 to 2010.

“The message to each audience is different,” says Mr. Behravesh, now a Swedish-based researcher with Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “To the opposition, they are meant to signal that you are not safe as long as you are working to overthrow the Islamic Republic. To Iranian public opinion … it means, ‘We are not as incompetent and toothless as the critics claim we are.’”

To the West, the message is one of “defiance and indignation within [Iran’s] limited maneuvering space,” adds Mr. Behravesh.

Hard-line media in Iran hailed the abduction operations.

“In this new era of [intelligence work], the identifying and hunting down of the mercenaries working for foreign intelligence services is not restricted to Iranian territory and is rather broadened overseas,” wrote Kayhan, a newspaper close to Ayatollah Khamenei’s office, in an editorial Tuesday.

“Turning weakness into strength”

Still, creating spectacles to engineer social compliance has been a factor in Iran for millennia, says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran analyst at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“The overarching theme for most, if not all, of these cases is the weakness of the central government and its need to project strength and terrorize the domestic public into submission,” says Mr. Alfoneh, author of books on the Revolutionary Guard and political succession in Iran.

“The Iranian state has perfected this method since antiquity, as the rulers every once in a while would lure princes and satraps from remote parts of the empire to the capital, just to behead them,” he says.

The Islamic Republic inherited “the art of turning weakness into strength by the way of theatrical spectacles,” adds Mr. Alfoneh. “The regime is not capable of preventing Mossad from stealing truckloads of documents [or] assassinating nuclear scientists … but it is more than capable of creating tragicomical spectacles of eliminating so-called enemies of the state.”

And in Turkey, with the abduction of Mr. Chaab of the ASMLA, the scale of that Iranian operation was clear in details, evidence, and video collected by Turkish counterterrorism officials, first leaked to The Washington Post and Sky News.

Footage gathered by an array of closed-circuit cameras shows the “honey trap” Iranian agent, identified by Turkey as Saberin Saedi, getting off the flight from Tehran in Istanbul, taking a bus to the terminal, having her fake Iranian passport stamped, and communicating with a black-clad Iranian handler who arrived on the same flight.

The Turkish file includes video of two men, before the abduction, buying two sizes of cable ties from an Istanbul hardware store, which Turkey says were later used to bind Mr. Chaab for the long drive to Iran.

Turkey announced this week it had detained 11 people involved in the abduction. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this illegal operation by the Iranian intelligence,” Turkey’s presidential office told Sky in a statement.

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