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Masih Alinejad’s American Enemies

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist, poses for a portrait in London, England, October 8, 2013. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

The Department of Justice on Tuesday afternoon issued indictments against a team of Iranian operatives working to kidnap Masih Alinejad, a dissident journalist and citizen of both the U.S. and Iran. (Jim Geraghty has more on this in yesterday’s Jolt.)

One would expect that Alinejad’s detractors would include only Iranian government officials incensed by her journalism, but certain elements in Washington, including Representative Ilhan Omar and a controversial think tank, were also critical of Alinejad’s important work and have tried in recent years to muddy her reputation as a straight-shooting opponent of authoritarianism.

To be sure, only the Iranian regime is to blame for the chilling plot that was disrupted by the U.S. authorities. According to a Department of Justice press release, a private investigator hired by the Iranian team (unaware of the significance of his target) surveilled Alinejad (Victim 1 in the indictment) and her family at their home in Brooklyn. “The extensive surveillance that FARAHANI’s network procured included requests for days’ worth of surveillance at Victim-1’s home and the surrounding area, videos and photographs of Victim-1’s family and associates, surveillance of Victim-1 outside Victim-1’s residence, and the installation of and access to a live high-definition video feed depicting Victim-1’s home.”

The team also researched services with which they could execute, with a military-style speedboat, a “self-operated maritime evacuation out of New York City, and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a country whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran.” From Venezuela, it’s not certain what they would have done, but the case of Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist based in France who was lured to Iraq, kidnapped there, and sent to Iran for execution, offers a clue.

So why was Alinejad such a threat that the Iranian government would see such a brazen operation as a possibility? Her offense here was to publicize the Iranian regime’s abuses, and to silence her, thus sending a message to other opponents of the Iranian regime, and really, opponents of authoritarianism anywhere, Tehran was willing to take a drastic step that could have jeopardized its ability to win sanction relief from the Biden administration.

She explained in an interview on CNN’s New Day yesterday: “I’m asking people to be their own storytellers, and I have 5 million followers on my Instagram. I have 1 million on Facebook. What I do is I give voice to these people,” she said, brandishing her phone on camera.

“I give voice to these mothers who lost their beloved ones. The Iranian government killed 1,500 in last November’s protests, peaceful protests. They got killed, and these mothers never been heard in any media. So they send me videos, and I give them a voice. Is this a crime?”

For her journalism and fierce advocacy for human rights, she’s won international recognition, including awards from the Geneva Summit for Human Rights. You’d think that she’d have been a universally celebrated figure prior to the kidnapping attempt revealed this week. Not so.

Following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in early 2020, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based foreign-policy think tank, published an article suggesting that there is something untoward about Alinejad’s work:

Fox News for example presented Alinejad – who appeared on the network on FridaySaturday, and Sunday – as an “Iranian journalist” or “Iranian journalist and activist,” missing a key detail about her biography: she’s paid by the U.S. government. CNN, and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens also quoted her without acknowledging her government funding.

Alinejad works as an “anchor, writer, reporter for [Voice of America] Persian Service,” a U.S. government owned television network broadcasting to Iranians, according to a publicly available description of her federal contract reviewed by Responsible Statecraft.

She received more than $305,000 in contracts for her work at Voice of America (VOA) Persia between May, 2015 and September 10, 2019, the date of her most recent contract.

The article’s headline read, “U.S. media outlets fail to disclose U.S. government ties of ‘Iranian journalist’ echoing Trump talking points.”

It’s strange that the piece was critical of U.S. outlets hosting Alinejad without leading with her VOA affiliation. After all, her work there, preceding the Trump administration, was no secret, and a quick Google search would have brought up her role as a television anchor, no less.

In fact, her role at VOA was described in a December 2019 lawsuit she filed against the government of Iran, which she claimed was leading a harassment campaign against her. It’s not that anyone was trying to hide her affiliation with the U.S.-funded, though independently operated, news organization; it’s just that her work as an Iranian journalist and activist is the most succinct way to describe her work, a description that fits neatly onto a television chyron.

Writing about her VOA employment contract is hardly a scoop, when this information was already publicly available, including in the second sentence of her Wikipedia page. Perhaps the article was salient as a piece of media criticism, but given Quincy’s general pro-Iran leanings, it reads more like an attempt to discredit Alinejad and froth up a political controversy against her. In this regard, it was somewhat successful, earning a retweet from Representative Ilhan Omar.

A former State Department official, Gabriel Noronha, goes even further: “Last year, @QuincyInst made common cause with the Iranian regime and attacked Masih Alinejad, whose brother is held in prison by the regime because of her brave work,” he tweeted this week. “Now the regime just tried to kidnap her from NYC.”

Quincy’s smear, especially in the wake of Tuesday’s news, won’t stick. But it’s a discomfiting reminder that an Iranian journalist residing in America has had to endure such attacks on her reputation from a sitting member of Congress and a foreign-policy think tank even as she faces continued threats from the theocratic dictatorship that followed her to Brooklyn.

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