UK must not ignore Iranian murder and kidnap plots on its own soil
The head of MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, this week confirmed something many of us had long suspected.
The news was fed to us, drip by drip, for more than a week. The Sunday Times reported that a number of Iranians in Britain were facing intimidation from the state many of them had fled. They were told by the police they were being followed and threatened.
Then the international media reported that the Iranian regime had begun to hire private investigators to tail and intimidate Iranians living in Britain, the US and Europe.
Finally, Ken McCallum, the director-general of MI5, confirmed during an address at the service’s headquarters in London what many people had suspected, and worse. He said that this year alone, British security services had foiled at least 10 Iranian plots to kidnap or kill people in the UK. Iranian dissidents and journalists critical of Iran were among those targeted.
This is a sharp intensification of the Iranian regime’s intimidation of its critics, and represents a growing threat to the free world.
For a long time, the UK, Europe and the US have been havens for Iranian dissidents and dissenters. Ayatollah Khomeini himself traveled from Paris to assume power as supreme leader of Iran after the events of 1979.
But the regime is a tyranny and a threat unlike anything else in Iran’s history. It does not encourage difference and debate, but seeks to snuff them out, often by force.
To the regime, the existence of alternative points of view represents a deep threat. It views the idea that Iranians could live happily abroad under foreign and secular laws as an outrage. Iranians who are living outside the country can continue to speak freely and write critical articles about the regime, but in the regime’s mind, this must be stopped.
Over the past few years, this has led to a campaign of kidnapping and murder. Iranian dissidents have been targeted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Iranian intelligence services. Some have been lured back to Iran under false pretenses, while others have been snatched from the streets of cities in Turkiye or Europe.
The Iranian regime cannot be placated or negotiated with. The aims of its statecraft are not normal or acceptable.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
This is what happened to Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian journalist who had been critical of the regime. He was kidnapped, bundled off to Iran and executed on spurious charges in 2020.
It was an outrage — and it is an outrage that the Iranian regime is keen to replicate.
This ought to be a moment of reflection for the West. For too long it has assumed Iran is a normal country with rulers it can work with. That is why Europe and the US decided to take Iran’s word about the progress of its illegal attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, and why the Europeans and Americans concluded a very favorable nuclear deal with the regime in Tehran under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
It is also why Western powers largely averted their eyes from Iranian empire building in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, perhaps because they believed that although Iran was bad, it could not have the terrible ambitions for domination and suppression that Tehran’s regional rivals told them it did.
This was an unfortunate illusion to operate under. But the West dutifully held on to it for years. That must end now. This is the time those illusions must end. Only good fortune and diligent work by police and security services have prevented the UK becoming the scene of an Iranian murder spree. To repeat, this is — or ought to be — a moment for reflection.
Britain cannot simply rely on its security services to make this problem go away. It must change its entire view of Iran. How can the UK maintain a normal diplomatic relationship with a treacherous country intent on murder?
Just as a serious decline in Britain’s relationship with Russia began as a result of Moscow’s attempt to murder a former Russian spy in Salisbury in 2018, which resulted in the death of an innocent British woman, this spate of attempted killings by the Iranian regime must force a change of mindset.
It seems Iran cannot be placated or negotiated with. The aims of its statecraft are not normal or acceptable. Britain must acknowledge this and change its diplomatic course accordingly.
When Russia used a chemical weapon to carry out an attack in the UK in 2018, the international response was significant. Dozens of Russian spies posing as diplomats were expelled from Western countries and British authorities looked again at helping countries near Russia at risk of invasion.
There is no reason for the West to react to the situation with Iran any differently. It ought to expel as many Iranian “diplomats” as possible and look again at aiding those within Iran, and outside of it, who find themselves at risk of the Iranian regime’s penchant for violence.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and the author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim