Intimidation, threatened family members, spying: This is also experienced by Iranians in Europe who make public political statements. The intelligence services are assuming increased espionage activities by Iran.
Many Iranians in exile feel the same as the journalist from Tehran, who has been trying to renew his passport for four months. But Iran’s embassies in Europe get in the way, because the mullah diplomats see every Iranian in exile as a member of a terrorist group. The journalist has been working for Iran International, the London-based broadcaster that reports on the protests in the Islamic Republic of Iran and which the regime declared a “terrorist organization” last November. British police even parked seven armored vehicles in front of the station’s London headquarters in response to “explicit threats” against station employees. Broadcaster employees receive threats almost daily via Instagram or Clubhouse.
Since the beginning of the protests in Iran in the fall, since tens of thousands have also shown solidarity in Europe, Tehran’s long arm has been felt, opponents of the mullah regime have been identified, spied on and threatened. It’s not always easy for the mullahs’ spies to classify their opponents, because the Iranian opposition in Europe is not a homogeneous bloc. The political spectrum within the Iranian opposition, which has grown over decades, is very large: from supporters of the monarchy, as it existed before the Iranian revolution of 1979, through communists and socialists to members of the sect-like People’s Mujahideen. What is striking about the current mobilization in Europe is the formation of many small groups, which are mainly joined by the younger diaspora.
In an interview with dpa, the President of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution warned critics of the regime living here against traveling to the Islamic Republic. They would also have to reckon with relatives in Iran suffering repression. “Something like this has already happened, and right now in the current situation, in which massive protests are taking place in Iran, we are seeing the same thing in Germany,” he warned.
And this is not speculation, violence is already being used against critics of the regime in Tehran. Three strangers attacked a caravan in front of the Iranian embassy in Berlin, where opponents of the regime had set up a protest camp. They were injured, their banners and flags torn down, the perpetrators escaped. Four people broke into a tent in front of the headquarters of the German party Bündnis90/Die Grünen with a broken bottle and a knife and tried to break up a sign accusing the mullahs’ government of murder and terror. They were attacked twice more in a similar way.
The European security organs have so far been cautious about clearly attributing such attacks to the regime and its spies. But the activities of the Iranian intelligence services in Europe are being closely monitored. According to EU intelligence services, the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) and the Quds Forces have people everywhere, and they are keeping a very close eye on the Iranian diaspora.
Since 2018, nine criminal investigations have been initiated against 24 suspected Iranian agents in Germany alone. This does not affect people in the diplomatic service. More details could not be given because of the threat to state security. The main actors in the activities directed against Germany are the Ministry of Intelligence and the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which also acts as a secret service. The German government responded in parliament that the latter would focus their activities primarily on “(pro)Israel” and “(pro)Jewish” targets.
With a view to the current protests and Iran solidarity, the “indications” of repression against Iranian opposition members in Germany have “slightly intensified again” after it had “been at a high level for some time”, the Federal Ministry of the Interior said. According to current knowledge, the Iranian state authorities are interested in the “entire spectrum” of opposition groups in Germany. However, there are indications that interest in “younger and/or female target persons” in particular has increased.
The mullahs’ regime has been spying on its opponents abroad since the Islamic revolution of 1979. In 1992, the MOIS even had four politicians in exile murdered in the Berlin restaurant “Mykonos”. In 2018, investigators in Bavaria arrested Assadollah A., who was accredited as a diplomat in Vienna. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning an attack on exiles as a MOIS agent. According to security experts, there were no physical liquidations in Europe for about 15 years after the Mykonos ruling. However, kidnappings, defamation and espionage were still the order of the day. In recent years, however, it has been observed that the danger for Iranian opposition figures, media professionals and human rights activists in Europe is increasing again.
An example of this was the arrest of an employee of the Iranian embassy in Vienna at a Bavarian motorway service station five years ago. At the time, he was suspected of planning a bomb attack on the annual conference of the “National Council of Resistance of Iran”, an exile opposition group, in the French city of Villepinte. At a conspiratorial meeting in Luxembourg, he is said to have handed over a bomb and remote control to a Belgian couple with Iranian roots. The couple were previously arrested in Belgium. The bomb was supposed to bring another Iranian to the opposition group’s conference. He too was arrested.
In February 2021, a court in Belgium sentenced the diplomat for attempted murder and involvement in a terrorist organization. He was found by security officials to have a voluminous notepad and several receipts, suggesting that he appeared to have distributed cash. A total of 289 entries can be found there, everything points to an extensive network in Europe. The investigators were able to assign the information to eleven countries, including France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.
Even the Swiss news service NDB assumes that Iran is a spy. Iran’s secret services “mainly aim to control their diaspora community and political opponents,” writes NDB in its current security report. “The NDB has information that indicates an intensification of Iran’s intelligence activities in Switzerland.” Cyber actors supported by Iran have also increased their cyber espionage activities in recent years.
Whether they are spies without a contract with the Iranian secret service or direct MOIS agents: people like to send messages to critics of the Tehran regime via social media channels. “You will die. Be careful. The Islamic Republic of Iran is very close to you and your family like your blood vessels on the neck”. The text was given by the recipient of the threat to a public prosecutor’s office, which launched an investigation against unknown persons and found out via a request to Facebook that the Instagram account is registered to a verified Iranian phone number. It was not possible to find out more because the author could not be identified without a request for legal assistance from the Iranian authorities.
There are also regime supporters who pose a threat to the Iranian opposition in Europe. Women are often sent abroad, disguised as members of the opposition, to lure in critics of the regime and then hand them over to the regime. In technical jargon, this is called “honey trapping,” a practice in which romantic or sexual relationships are used for interpersonal, political, or financial ends. There are also Iranian institutions in Europe, disguised as science and culture mediators, working hand in hand with the Iranian embassies.
Regime critics, members of the opposition and ethnic or religious minorities are particularly targeted if they are viewed as a threat by the regime in their country of origin. European secret services regularly find “that agents with asylum applications are being smuggled in or that asylum seekers are being recruited.”
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