Iran lured a string of high-value targets out of the West into traps to kidnap and likely execute them
- Iran has spent the last few years luring several dissidents that were being being protected by Western governments into locations where they could be kidnapped or killed.
- Several security officials told Insider the cases will make it harder for Iran to negotiate with the US over its nuclear program during Joe Biden's presidency.
- Iran executed Ruhollah Zam, who ran a dissident media outlet, over the weekend after he was captured after being lured to Iraq in October 2019.
- And on Monday the US charged two Iranian officials with the kidnapping and disappearance of former FBI and DEA agent Robert Levinson, who has not been seen in 10 years.
Iranian government operatives lured several dissidents being protected by Western governments into locations where they could be kidnapped or killed in recent years.
The operations culminated in the execution over the weekend of Ruhollah Zam, who was captured in October 2019 after leaving France for Iraq.
Several security officials told Insider that Zam's killing, and similar cases, will prove a major barrier to Iran's hope of renewed negotiations over its nuclear program after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Iran has long been involved in detaining both foreigners and its own citizens throughout the Middle East:
- Killed: Saeed Karimian in Istanbul, Turkey, in April 2017, where he had been living.
- Detained: Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2019, where he had been living.
- Detained: Habib Chaab in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2019. He had been living in Sweden.
- Detained then killed: Ruhollah Zam in Karbala, Iraq, in October 2019. Executed in December 2020. He had been living in France.
- Detained: Jamshid Sharmahd in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in July 2020. He had been living in California.
Zam was executed by hanging on Saturday, Iranian state media said, as punishment for running the dissident media outlet Amad News.
A French security official, who agreed to discuss Zam's case with Insider on condition of anonymity, said that France's efforts to protect him could not extend to Iraq.
"Zam was under our protection and we would have never suggested he travel to Iraq where the Iranians have many resources and we would be unable to protect him," the official said.
Zam was lured to Iraq in October 2019, according to French and Iraqi security officials, for a meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is considered Iraq's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric.
Instead he was detained on arrival by Iraqi security officials working on behalf of the Iranian regime, the officials said.
An Iraqi official in Baghdad asked Insider not to be named, fearing for his safety if identified.
He told Insider: "Sistani's office had given him a visa to [the holy city of] Karbala for an interview but security officers with ties to [Iran] arrested him."
"He would have been safe in Sistani's office yes but I don't understand how he thought he could enter the most holy of Shiite cities, filled with Iranian pilgrims and Quds guys, and not disappear," said the Iraqi official.
Quds is a division of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for special operations abroad.
"Sistani's office is very angry but there's nothing they can do, his influence is with Iraqis not Iranians."
Western officials condemned Zam's detention, but their protests did not stop his execution for running an anti-regime Telegram channel from France. He fled there after leading a series of protests against government austerity measures in 2017.
"The Iranians did this knowing that France would be angry," said the French official.
"This requires a geopolitical response and France will work with the incoming Biden administration to confront Iran on this and many other issues where we see them taking aggressive and even violent action in Europe."
The last reference was likely to a plot in which several Iranians are accused of seeking to bomb a meeting of dissidents in Paris.
Biden's picks Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Biden both condemned the execution of Zam on Monday, but face several other confrontations with Iran.
—Antony Blinken (@ABlinken) December 14, 2020
On Monday, US prosecutors charged two Iranian officials with the kidnapping and disappearance of former FBI and DEA agent Robert Levinson. They said he was detained on Iran's Kish Island in 2007 after he entered the visa-free trade zone to conduct interviews with sources for a controversial CIA program.
Levinson has not been seen in ten years and many assume he died in Iranian custody, though Iran has never formally acknowledged arresting him. It instead spent years claiming that he had been kidnapped by terrorists in neighboring Pakistan.
"Levinson isn't going away this round," said a former US official, who asked not to be identified as the expect to face Senate confirmation for a national security post when Biden takes office.
"The last time we negotiated with the Iranians on the [nuclear deal] we were able to push for the release of multiple prisoners, but not Levinson because the Iranians refused to admit they had him at all," said the official.
"Eventually it became an issue of getting out who we could and getting a deal in place.
"But the Iranians have behaved in such a way the past three or four years it will be an issue: We can't ignore Zam, we can't ignore [Levinson], we can't ignore a bomb plot in Paris, we can't ignore two assassinations and a kidnapping in Turkey."
"If Iran wanted to see a new administration come in and slap the [nuclear agreement] back in place without any drama, they shouldn't have been such assholes," said the official.
A senior Hezbollah official in Lebanon with close ties to Iran scoffed that Iran's behavior was somehow beyond the pale compared to the West.
"The [Israelis] murder people in Tehran whenever they want," said the official, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Abu Hassan.
"The Americans murdered Hajj Qassem [Soleimani] in the Baghdad airport. These people [taken by Iran] are convicted terrorists in Iran, what does America do to catch terrorists? What's Guantanamo Bay? Who lives there? Iran and Hezbollah have faced the West's hypocrisy for 30 years; this is nothing new."
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