Iran’s security and intelligence services have renewed their active espionage and intelligence operations abroad, targeting opposition activists worldwide, especially in Europe. Iran’s primary modus operandi is to lure them to various countries in the region – Turkey or the United Arab Emirates – to abduct them and transfer them for investigation and trial in Iran. Sometimes Iranian agents assassinate them on European soil.
During the 1990s, Iranian intelligence agencies carried out a series of assassinations of top leaders of Iranian opposition organizations operating in Europe. However, in recent years, Tehran has refrained from carrying out high profile assassinations in an attempt to improve relations with European countries and harness them to combat sanctions imposed on Iran.
The executive committee of the “Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz” (ASMLA) announced on October 30, 2020, that the former party leader and current deputy head, Habib Asyoud (also known as Habib Farjallah Kaabi), was abducted in Turkey by Iranian intelligence services – the Ministry of Intelligence of the Islamic Republic of Iran (MOIS) and the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Habib Asyoud, a Swedish citizen who lives and works in Sweden and other Western European countries, such as Denmark, is one of the founders of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of al-Ahwaz (ASMLA). The separatist movement functions in Iran’s oil-rich province, Khuzestan, in the southwest of the country. Habib Asyoud was considered the party leader until the day he disappeared.
The movement is called “AlNidal” (“the Struggle” in Arabic) by the Iranian Arabs and was established in 2005. The Iranian authorities have accused Saudi intelligence of supporting and launching the movement.
ASMLA is struggling for the independence of Ahwaz province and its liberation from the yoke of Iranian occupation. Iran views the movement as a terrorist organization and claims that ASMLA was behind the attack on a military parade in the city of Ahwaz on September 22, 2018, in which 25 IRGC soldiers and civilians were killed, and another 601 people were injured (the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack). The attack took place during a military ceremony on the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war.
In 2017, ASMLA leader Ahmad Mulla Nissi was assassinated by Iranian agents. In 2019, in a retaliatory operation dubbed “revenge of the Iranian regime” following the military parade attack, Iranian intelligence elements tried to assassinate another prominent activist of the movement, Habib Jaber, on Danish soil.1
In January 2019, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok and Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren informed their parliament that the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) had “solid information” that Iran was behind two assassinations of Iranian dissidents on Dutch soil: Mohammed Samadi, a member of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, in 2015 and Ahmad Nissi in 2017. The EU sought to impose sanctions on the MOIS, including freezing the assets and travel rights of two individuals involved in the assassinations.
Various Iranian officials have acknowledged that Iran was behind Asyoud’s abduction. Mojtaba Zonnouri, head of the Majlis’ (Iranian parliament) National Security Committee, described Asyoud’s kidnapping as a great achievement for Iranian intelligence, and that he was imprisoned and would soon be prosecuted for his part in the attack on the parade in Ahwaz.2 The head of the committee did not specify when Asyoud was arrested but revealed that he was arrested abroad and transferred to Iranian soil. Majatha Yosefi, another member of the Majles, admitted that Asyoud was transferred to Tehran and, after interrogation, he will be tried. Yosefi added that “the silent soldiers of the IRGC Intelligence Agency and the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) will continue their activities until the last of the terrorists will be arrested… Today, countries that claim to be democracies support Munafiqeen (the Mujahedin-e Khalq, one of the largest opposition organizations operating outside Iran).” The Iranian armed forces’ Defense Press announced on October 30, 2020, “The Turkish authorities handed over to Iran Habib Asyoud, one of the leaders of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz.” The publication added that “Habib Asyoud was arrested in Turkey.”3
Following Iran’s announcement that it was behind the forced rendition, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz issued the following statement:
The Iranian regime is trying to justify the crime of kidnapping …by accusing Asyoud of being the primary person responsible for the September 22, 2018 operation, which another party (ISIS) previously claimed responsibility….The movement affirms that it was not responsible for the operation… IRGC also announced the liquidation of the mastermind of the operation in Diyala province in Iraq on October 16, 2018…The aforementioned announcement contradicts the Iranian regime’s current accusation of the Arab Struggle Movement’s responsibility for the attack. The IRGC must clarify and explain the falsehood of the occupation’s allegations that Asyoud is responsible for carrying out this operation.4
Asyoud’s family told BBC (Persian) that they were shocked to hear that their family member was in Turkey. Asyoud had warned that Turkey had become very dangerous for Iranian political activists and that Iranian intelligence, cooperating with the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MiT), was luring European and U.S. activists to Turkey to abduct them to Iran.
In its statement, the party’s executive committee also accused a “third country” of collaboration with Iran and Turkey in the abduction of Habib Asyoud. Ahwazi activist, Mohammad al-Madhaji, named Qatar as cooperating in the kidnapping plot.
Several sources, including Asyoud’s wife,5 also claimed that the third country mentioned in the announcement was Qatar. Others expressed a suspicion that Ankara transferred Habib Asyoud to Tehran in exchange for two PKK Kurdish separatist leaders.
Huda Huashmi, the ex-wife of Habib Asyoud and the mother of their three children, told the BBC (Persian) on October 31, 2020, that the Iranian government did not respond to requests from the Swedish government regarding the abductee’s fate. She said her ex-husband arrived in Turkey on October 9, 2020, after being threatened. However, she does not know what the threat was.
According to her, the party leader was last seen on October 15, 2020, at Istanbul airport, holding a plane ticket back to Sweden. However, his traces disappeared, and apparently, he was abducted at the airport and transferred to Iran.6
Meanwhile, the movement has elected a new leader Said Hamidan. The selection of a new leader indicates that the party understands that Habib Asyoud may be executed in Iran.
Other Abductions by Iran
In the past year, Iranian security forces – both the Revolutionary Guards Corps Intelligence and the Ministry of Intelligence – have managed to lure several prominent Iranian political activists who lived in the United States and Europe to travel to other countries where they were kidnapped.
Roohollah Zam, a founder of a popular news site called Amadnews and the son of a reformist cleric, became one of the Iranian regime’s most prominent opponents over the past decade. He was abducted last year in Iraq and sentenced to death.7
The journalist Zam lived in France and was protected by a large French security detail. He was abducted by the Revolutionary Guards Corps intelligence agency after being lured to Iraq on a flight from Paris. Two years before his abduction, the Iranian intelligence had managed to plant several operatives into the journalist’s immediate circle, and in a well-planned scenario, they enticed him to go to Iraq “as a distinguished guest of the most prominent Shiite religious authority in the world, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, who lives in the Iraqi city, Najaf. After the abduction, it was learned that the Grand Ayatollah had no idea about the affair. However, operatives close to Iranian intelligence, who had ties inside Sistani’s office, managed to get their hands on the journalist they wanted to silence.
In June 2020, Rooholah Zam was sentenced to death by the Iranian Revolutionary Court. The sentence has not yet been carried out. France showed little interest in Zam’s fate, and Iran never responded to a single French question about the journalist. Iranian intelligence investigators interviewed the abductee in front of Iranian television cameras so that he could confess. Zam did so and asked for mercy for himself, his family, and children, but the Iranian High Court recently upheld the death sentence.
Last summer, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence abducted Jamshid Shahramid, an Iranian activist from the so-called “pro-monarchy” forces who had lived for many years in Germany and the United States. He was kidnapped from a hotel at the Dubai Airport and transferred to Iran, apparently via Oman. In this case, the United States and Germany did nothing against the Iranian authorities.
Iranian intelligence also apparently planned to kidnap Masih Alinejad, a prominent U.S. journalist and political activist. The intention was to lure her from New York to Turkey to visit her mother, whom she has not seen in 10 years. Ali Alizada, a brother of the activist, who lives in Tehran, wrote to his sister on Facebook: “Please do not come to Turkey, it is dangerous.”
This short message cost her brother, who is a writer himself, eight years in an Iranian prison. Alinejad’s mother has been interrogated.
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