U.S.-Iran Kidnap Plot: Why Is Iran Attempting To Silence Masih Alinejad?

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Masih Alinejad’s harsh criticism of Iran’s clerical establishment, her campaign against the compulsory hijab, and efforts to highlight Tehran's rights abuses, have angered Iranian officials who have tried to silence her through intimidation, smearing her name, and pressuring her family.

But an alleged plot to kidnap Alinejad -- an activist and journalist who hosts a weekly television show on the Voice of America's Persian Service -- appears to be the latest action against her.

The U.S Justice Department said on July 13 that an Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged member of an Iranian intelligence network have been charged with conspiring to lure a New York-based journalist to a third country and forcibly return her to Iran.

Alinejad, who left Iran in 2009 and has been living in the United States since 2014, confirmed she is the journalist in the indictment, saying on Twitter that she’s grateful to the FBI for foiling the plot.

The four also allegedly plotted to lure a person living in Britain and three others in Canada to Iran, according to the indictment. The identities of those targeted have not been made public.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry rejected as “ridiculous and baseless” the Justice Department claim about Tehran’s involvement in a kidnapping plot. "This is not the first time that the United States has undertaken such Hollywood scenarios," Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on July 14.

Alinejad -- who is a former contributor to RFE/RL's Radio Farda -- told RFE/RL in a statement that she believes she was targeted for her human rights efforts, while adding that she will not give up her activism.

“As an Iranian journalist and activist, my crime is to give voice to the mothers whose children were killed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. To women who have had enough of the institutionalized gender apartheid. To minorities who are discriminated against. But this is enough to petrify the Islamic republic,” she said.

The 44-year-old Alinejad -- who has scores of fans and hardcore supporters as well as her critics -- has challenged Iranian officials from her home in Brooklyn while highlighting some aspects of life under Iran’s repressive establishment.

Once employed as a parliamentary reporter in Tehran, Alinejad has used social media to bring attention to the harassment of women that are deemed by morality police and vigilantes to be insufficiently covered by posting videos of the incidents.

Alinejad has more than 5 million followers on Instagram alone.

She has also conducted interviews with victims of state repression, including mothers who lost their children in Iran’s brutal November 2019 crackdown on antiestablishment protests that left at least 300 dead, according to Amnesty International, and shares them with her millions of followers.

Gisou Nia, a human rights lawyer and the head of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council, told RFE/RL that Alinejad has been targeted by Tehran due to her "ability to mobilize the public."

“There are many critics of the Islamic republic abroad, but few have the capacity to inspire people-led action on the street the way that Masih [Alinejad] and her ideas have,” Nia said.

In 2014, Alinejad created a Facebook page called My Stealthy Freedom, where dozens of women posted photos of themselves without the Islamic hijab that became compulsory following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian women have increasingly defied the hijab rule over the years by wearing small head scarves and short coats or by showing more of their hair.

Alinejad is also the founder of the White Wednesdays campaign that encourages Iranian women to publicly protest against the forced hijab rule and post online videos of their demonstrations.

Several women who participated in Alinejad’s campaign have been jailed in Iran. The campaign is believed to have inspired some of the women who removed their head scarves on the streets of Tehran and other cities in 2018, defiantly flouting the compulsory hijab rule.

Her critics have accused her of being used by U.S. hawks to push for regime change in Iran while being silent about tough economic sanctions by Washington that have made life increasingly difficult for ordinary Iranians, including many women.

Her February 2019 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo drew sharp criticism from those who said Pompeo’s advocacy for human rights in Iran amid his silence about abuses in Saudi Arabia was ingenuine, as well as from those who accused the administration of President Donald Trump of pushing for a military conflict with Iran.

Alinejad tweeted then that she had done her best “to be the voice of the people who trust me” during the meeting.

Hard-line news sites and state-controlled television have accused her of promoting immorality and a negative image of Iran while officials have warned women not to join her anti-hijab campaign.

Alinejad’s brother, Alireza Alinejad, was arrested in September 2020 in what she said was an attempt to silence her. The father of two was later sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of charges that include "conspiracy to act against the security of the country.” His lawyer said that part of Alireza Alinejad’s hearing had been devoted to his sister’s activities.

The alleged plot to kidnap Alinejad and others has renewed concerns over the Islamic republic’s efforts to target dissidents outside the country. Alinejad has said that Iranian authorities had previously attempted to lure her to Turkey by pressuring family members, including her brother, who had warned her.

Tehran has been long accused of harassing and assassinating political opponents outside the country, including in Europe.

In recent months, three activists living abroad have been detained by Iranian authorities.

They include Paris-based Ruhollah Zam, the administrator of a popular opposition Telegram channel who was executed in December 2020 after being reportedly captured in Iraq in October 2019 and transferred to Iran. Rights activists have said his trial was a sham.

Opposition activists Jamshid Sharmahd and Habib Chaab are both believed to have been arrested outside of Iran and transferred to the country under unclear circumstances.

Sharmahd, a California-based member of an obscure exile monarchist group, appeared blindfolded on Iranian state television in August 2019. His family said he was traveling to India via Dubai when he went missing.

Chaab, the former leader of the separatist group the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, was arrested in Turkey in October 2020 and taken to Iran, Iranian media reported.

Nia said Iran and other countries are getting more brazen in their transnational repression attempts.

“The escalation in recent years of abducting Iranian dissidents abroad and returning them to Iran for imprisonment and eventually execution is part of a larger global pattern of increased transnational repression that flouts international law and thrives with continued impunity for perpetrators,” she said.

Paris-based dissident and political analyst Reza Alijani told Radio Farda on July 15 that he had been warned by the French Interior Ministry several months ago that he is under threat from Iran. He said French authorities did not give him any specific details but said he should be cautious when going out and traveling.

Alijani told Radio Farda that he decided to go public about the warning after learning about the alleged kidnapping plot targeting Alinejad.