A former operative of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) by the name of Hadi Sani-Khani recently wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres detailing his former collaboration with the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The letter sheds light upon the likely operations of a network of operatives in Europe, the existence of which was exposed by the landmark court case involving the former third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, Assadollah Assadi. It also confirms key facts behind longstanding warnings about the Iranian regime’s efforts to influence Western media and demonizing its main opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
Assadi was prosecuted alongside three co-defendants for their efforts to set off explosives at an international gathering of Iranian expatriates just outside Paris. The plot specifically targeted the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Had it not been thwarted by European authorities, it most likely would have caused hundreds of deaths, including those of Western political dignitaries who were attending the 2018 event in a show of support for the MEK’s platform of regime change leading to democratic governance in Iran.
The MEK’s support among Western lawmakers has been growing for many years and has come to include members of every major political party in both the US and the European Union. But in order to arrive at that level of support, the organization has had to break through obstacles erected by a large and growing influence network that the Iranian regime has promoted throughout the world.
An Iranian diplomat convicted to 20 years imprisonment by a court in Belgium – February 2021
Sani-Khani’s letter describes only a rather narrow theater of that network’s operation, focusing on Albania where the MEK erected a headquarters after thousands of its members were relocated from their embattled former home in Iraq. Nevertheless, the letter’s contents represent a much larger phenomenon with implications for international security as well as the integrity of Western media. This fact was underscored by prior revelations during the Assadi trial, namely that the mastermind behind the 2018 terror plot had been running a network of operatives spanning at least 11 European countries, for many years.
The exact function of that network remains to be determined, but it stands to reason that it was multi-faceted and that its purpose expanded over time as the operatives became more experienced and their operation became more sophisticated. What is known is that Assadi had personally provided cash payments to a number of his contacts in the months and years leading up to his arrest on July 1, 2018. Although it is possible that some of the assets were retained as sleeper cells for operations just like the Paris terror plot, these payments imply active and ongoing services, which would more likely involve intelligence-gathering and psychological operations.
In other words, Assadi’s mission may have included running operations much like those described in Sani-Khani’s letter. The letter begins by explaining that its author fled Iran in 2003 and joined the MEK in Iraq, then left the organization in 2016, shortly after relocation to Albania. Afterwards, he was promptly recruited by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, so that it could use his former membership in Iran’s leading Resistance organization as a way to legitimize longstanding defamatory talking points.
Sani-Khani described being contacted by Ebrahim Khodabandeh, the head of an organization known as Nejat which was created by the MOIS for the express purpose of conveying propaganda in the guise of disclosures from persons who have “escaped” the Resistance movement. While much of this propaganda is disseminated directly by the MOIS via websites and social media accounts featuring individuals recruited by Nejat, some of its finds an even more insidious pathway into Western media outlets, facilitated by operatives who portray themselves to journalists as independent experts on Iranian affairs and counterterrorism.
Among these operatives are Ebrahim Khodabandeh’s brother Massoud, as well as Massoud’s wife Anne Singleton. To this day, both occasionally receive bylines in legitimate Western outlets despite their demonstrable connections to Iranian intelligence. Sani-Khani’s letter specifically names Khodabandeh and Singleton as having played the main role in connecting reporters to Iranian operatives in Albania who had been coached on what to say about the MEK’s presence there.
This operation eventually yielded stories in British and German media which were subjected to legal challenges in 2019 that resulted in the offending outlets being ordered to withdraw false claims and pay financial penalties. The MEK naturally expressed frustration with the fact that such challenges were still necessary so many years after the organization began raising alarms about the true origins of familiar talking points regarding its supposed “cult-like” status and lack of popular support inside Iran.
The falsity of those talking points was exposed to an especially wide audience beginning in the final days of 2017 when Iran was quite suddenly rocked by a nationwide uprising that regime authorities begrudgingly attributed to the MEK. Signs of popular support for the MEK continued to accumulate after Maryam Rajavi issued a statement calling for activists to make 2018 a “year full of uprisings.” The response to that appeal seemingly helped to fuel the regime’s backlash, which culminated in the attempted bombing of the 2018 Free Iran rally, which had been organized by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The growth and function of Iranian terrorist and intelligence networks should alert the European and American policymakers to understand that they need to take much more assertive action to dismantle those networks and obstruct their operations.
The actions in question should include the closure of embassies like the one out of which Assadi was working, or they should emphasize explosion of anyone caught collaborating with Iranian Intelligence. But regardless of the specifics, the result must include creation of media standards that are much less credulous regarding disparaging claims about the Iranian Resistance. And this in turn should lead to a reorientation of Western policy, in favor of supporting that Resistance.