A day after four Iranian intelligence agents and a co-conspirator living in the U.S. were federally charged with plotting to kidnap a Brooklyn-based journalist and human rights activist, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman described such accusations by U.S. authorities as “baseless and ridiculous.”
The spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, was quoted by Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency Wednesday following the announcement by U.S. authorities of the criminal charges in New York a day earlier.
The authorities, quoting from an indictment, say the individuals plotted to kidnap a prominent Iranian opposition activist and writer in exile and take her to Tehran.
Khatibzadeh derided the plot as “Hollywood-style scenarios” and “baseless and ridiculous” accusations unworthy of a response.
“Making such an imaginary story is not unlikely by the U.S. Its entire short history is full of assassination, kidnapping and sabotage in other countries,” Khatibzadeh said.
The indictment in Manhattan federal court described the plot as part of a wider plan to lure three individuals in Canada and a fifth person in the United Kingdom, along with individuals in the United Arab Emirates, to Iran.
The identities of the alleged victims were not released but Brooklyn-based Masih Alinejad confirmed that authorities had told her she was among the targets.
She later confirmed to NBC News that she indeed was the target and has been "targeted for a number of years but this is the first time that such an audacious plot has been hatched and foiled."
She went on to say that the agents allegedly behind the plot are from Iran's Ministry of Intelligence, "which means (Hassan) Rouhani, the so-called moderate president, know and approved of the plot. The regime has jailed my brother and interrogated my family. Now, this plot. All to silence me."
Alinejad said in an interview Tuesday evening that she was sent to different safe houses in order to protect her from the threat, and was told by the FBI that Iran intelligence operatives sent someone to her home in Brooklyn to take pictures of her and her family.
In 2020, she wrote in the Washington Post that she learned of the Iranian regime's intention to kidnap her. "It’s been a horrifying experience, but I can’t say that it’s been entirely unexpected. The regime has tried many forms of intimidation to silence me over the years."
The activist said that she has done nothing criminal, instead has just worked to "give a voice to voiceless people inside Iran," and wants to give those people a platform to "be their own storytellers." She said that the regime "is not scared of me, they're scared of the people inside Iran."
Alinejad, who worked for years as a journalist in Iran, long has been targeted by its theocracy after fleeing the country following its disputed 2009 presidential election and crackdown.
She is a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that critically view Iran and has worked as a contractor for U.S.-funded Voice of America’s Farsi-language network since 2015. She became a U.S. citizen in October 2019.
U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said that the victim's fate "would have been uncertain at best" had the alleged conspirators enacted their plan.
"Among this country’s most cherished freedoms is the right to speak one’s mind without fear of government reprisal. A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives," Strauss said. "Thanks to the FBI’s exposure of their alleged scheme, these defendants have failed to silence criticism by forcible abduction."
Prosecutors say the Iranian government directed followers to kidnap the author to get her back to Iran. Farahani is an Iranian intelligence official who lives in Iran and Khazein, Sadeghi and Noori are Iranian intelligence assets who work for him, the Justice Department said.
The charging documents say that the men hired private investigators, by misrepresenting who they were and what they wanted, to surveil the author in Brooklyn during 2020 and 2021. Prosecutors said Farahni's intelligence network also researched how to get the author out of New York prior to the abduction plot, hatching plans to lure her to a third country where they would capture her.
One of those plans included having Alinejad's family inside Iran tell her to meet them somewhere outside the country, but the relatives refused.