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Iranian-American journalist 'disappointed' by Biden's lack of response to kidnap plot

Iranian agents hatched a plan to kidnap Masih Alinejad and forcibly return her to Iran, according to the Justice Department
According to the FBI and federal prosecutors, the plan tried to get Alinejad's family to tell her to join them in another country outside the US and Iran.
According to the FBI and federal prosecutors, the plan involved trying to get Masih Alinejad's family to tell her to join them in another country outside the US and Iran (AFP)

The target of an alleged kidnapping plot by Iranian intelligence agents said she is "disappointed" by the lack of an official response from the Biden administration.

Masih Alinejad, a journalist and campaigner against compulsory headscarves in Iran, told CNN on Wednesday that while "the FBI did a great job to make me feel safe... I'm a little bit disappointed with the Biden administration because I'm still waiting for them to take strong action".

"When Jamal Khashoggi got brutally murdered, the whole world made statements of condemnations. I need the same, because another regime in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic, was trying to kidnap me," she told CNN's New Day programme.

Khashoggi, a Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 after he entered the premises to obtain paperwork for his planned marriage to his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. His remains are yet to be found.

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The Justice Department said in an indictment unsealed late on Tuesday that Iranian agents planned to take Alinejad, an Iranian-born US citizen, back to Iran, where "the victim's fate would have been uncertain at best".

According to the FBI and federal prosecutors, the movie-like plan started last year, though as early as 2018 Iranian government officials tried to get Alinejad's family to tell her to join them in another country - outside the US and Iran.

Alinejad told CNN that while she only learned the full details of the plot on Tuesday, she was informed of a threat against her eight months ago.

"The FBI came to my house about eight months ago and they were telling me that this house is not safe for you," she said. "I was like, you must be kidding me, because I receive daily death threats. What's new? I'm here in America. They cannot do anything."

Then the FBI showed her photographs that had been taken "of my private life with my husband, my stepchildren, my beautiful garden in Brooklyn. I was like, wow, so the government is that close to me? Then I took it seriously."

FBI Assistant Director William F Sweeney Jr said in a statement: "This is not some far-fetched movie plot. We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a US based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran. Not on our watch."

According to the indictment, the operation was part of a larger plan to lure potential victims from Canada, the UK, and the United Arab Emirates back to Iran.

'Ridiculous and baseless'

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described the accusations on Wednesday as "ridiculous and baseless".

"This new claim by the US government... is so baseless and ridiculous that it is not really worth answering," Khatibzadeh said.

Iran has previously been successful in capturing dissidents and forcibly taking them to Tehran, where they have faced either lengthy jail terms or death sentences.

The indictment also mentioned France-based journalist Ruhollah Zam who was lured out of France in October 2019 and taken to Tehran. He was charged with "corruption on Earth" and sentenced to death for inciting anti-government protests in 2017. He was executed in December 2020.

Jamshid Sharmahd, another Iranian journalist who lived in the US, was kidnapped when he travelled to Dubai. Amnesty International says he was "forcibly taken" to Iran in July 2020. He remains in prison over his ties to the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, an Iranian opposition group that advocates for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic system.

Iran has more than a dozen Western citizens - mainly holding dual citizenship that is unrecognised in Iran - in prison or under house arrest, including French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, who has been in jail for two years.

In July, Alinejad's brother Alireza - who still lives in Iran - was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of "conspiring to act against national security", "insulting the Supreme Leader", and spreading "propaganda against the regime".

A staunch opponent of the 2015 nuclear deal and of lifting sanctions on Iran, Alinejad aligned herself with Republicans in the US in calling for maximum pressure to be applied to the Islamic Republic.

"Once sanctions are lifted, Tehran will have no desire to open up a dialogue on other issues, least of all on human rights," she wrote in March, in reference to new US President Joe Biden's commitment to renewing the 2015 deal, which saw Iran limiting its nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief.

Reporters Without Borders has described the Iranian government as maintaining "relentless control" over the flow of information in the country, adding that hundreds of journalists have been arrested, imprisoned and executed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the current system to power.