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InterviewUnlike regime, Iranians 'don't view Israel as the enemy'

Journalist targeted in alleged Iran kidnap plot: ‘I would love to visit Israel’

Masih Alinejad says ‘someone should speak up’ against regime’s anti-Israel hate; she urges US to halt nuke talks since Tehran can’t be trusted to abide by deal

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

In this file photo taken on April 7, 2016, Journalist Masih Alinejad speaks onstage at the 7th Annual Women In The World Summit at the Lincoln Center in New York City. (Jemal Countess / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)
In this file photo taken on April 7, 2016, Journalist Masih Alinejad speaks onstage at the 7th Annual Women In The World Summit at the Lincoln Center in New York City. (Jemal Countess / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

NEW YORK — An Iranian-American journalist whom the Islamic Republic allegedly sought to kidnap from US soil last year is urging President Joe Biden’s administration to punish Tehran, warning that the foiled plot is the latest example of why the regime in Tehran should not be a partner to any nuclear agreement. She also says she would like to visit Israel.

“I’m calling on the Biden administration to show its solidarity and take a strong action that will protect my family,” Masih Alinejad said in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“I would love to visit Israel,” the Iranian journalist continued. “I’m sure that saying this will lead to more threats against me and my family, but someone should take a step, break this taboo and speak up against this hate propagated by the regime.”

The interview came two days after federal prosecutors revealed the plot against her, for which five Iranian operatives have been charged.

According to the indictment filed in a New York federal court, the Iranian intelligence officers in 2018 tried to force Alinejad’s Iran-based relatives to lure her to a third country, where she was to be arrested and taken to Iran to be imprisoned. When that failed, they hired US private investigators to surveil her during the past two years. The Iranian agents researched possible ways to move her out of the United States, including hiring a “military-style” speedboat to whisk her from Manhattan, according to the charge sheet.

Tehran has flatly denied the allegations.

“This whole kidnapping story is a challenge from the Islamic Republic to the US government,” Alinejad said, adding that Tehran is watching closely to see how Biden responds. “If they keep silent, then it is a signal to [Iran], and they’ll come after more citizens on American soil.”

I left my beloved homeland to be safe here in America, and now when the regime in Iran is trying to kidnap me, my government here in the US is trying to have a deal with the same regime

But on the same day that the alleged plot went public, the Biden administration notified Congress that it had extended sanction waivers over Iran’s oil trade. The move to grant Tehran access to some of its frozen funds in Japan and South Korea appeared tied to the recently stalled indirect negotiations that the US and Iran have been holding in Vienna to revive a multilateral nuclear agreement. Former US president Donald Trump’s administration vacated the deal in 2018 and Iran responded with a series of egregious violations against it.

Alinejad said her “heart broke” when she heard news of the US sanction waivers.

In this July 13, 2005, file photo, outgoing reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami talks on the phone with the mother of journalist Masih Alinejad, right, after meeting with journalists in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

“I left my beloved homeland to be safe here in America, and now when the regime in Iran is trying to kidnap me, my government here in the US is trying to have a deal with the same regime,” she lamented.

Supporters of the nuclear deal argue that while Iran may already be a destabilizing state actor, it would be even more dangerous if it were to acquire a nuclear weapon and that therefore negotiating with the regime to prevent such an outcome is necessary.

But Alinejad maintained that Iran is already dangerous enough. “This regime, which kills its own citizens, you think you can trust them? That you can talk to them? That you can have a deal with this regime, without asking them to respect human rights?”

She recalled feeling optimistic when the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in 2015. The deal offered Iran millions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

“But the money went to Hezbollah, Hamas and Bashar Assad in Syria. Nasrallah says so himself that Hezbollah’s biggest sponsor is the Islamic Republic. My family didn’t get any benefit from the Iran deal,” Alinejad said.

The 44-year-old journalist left Iran in 2009, studied in Britain and worked for the US government-backed Voice of America’s Persian-language service. Since 2014, Alinejad has also maintained a Facebook campaign, “My Stealthy Freedom,” to support Iranian women who don’t want to wear the mandatory hijab covering.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, arrives at the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where closed-door nuclear talks are taking place in the Austrian capital, on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)

Alinejad was alerted by the FBI eight months ago that she was being watched and that her home was not safe. Agents showed her intimate photographs of her Brooklyn home and of her family that they said were taken by an investigator doing surveillance for the Iranians, to demonstrate that her home had been compromised.

Back in Iran, her brother has been arrested and remains in jail due to her activism and her mother also faces pressure from Islamic Republic authorities. “I have tried to remain strong, but at the same time I’m worried about my family who are like hostages in the hands of the Islamic Republic,” Alinejad said.

Throughout the interview, Alinejad was adamant on referring to the Iranian government as solely the “Islamic Republic,” maintaining that her homeland had been “taken hostage” by the Mullahs.

She referred to the country’s most recent presidential election as a “selection” where women and most opposition members were barred from running and “only politicians handpicked by the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] were allowed to run after showing sufficient loyalty to the Islamic Republic.”

Ibrahim Raisi, who activists say signed off on the executions of thousands of political dissidents, was elected president.

“He was the head of the judiciary when my brother got arrested because of my activities,” Alinejad said of Raisi.

Iranians set Israeli flags on fire as they step on a US flag during a rally marking al-Quds Day at the capital Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) square, on May 7, 2021 (AFP)

She insisted that the government is not representative of the majority of Iranians, “who do not view the US and Israel as the enemy.”

“I’ve received many videos from people within the society, students and the young generation [showing] how they’ve refused to step on the flag of Israel,” Alinejad said. “We are totally different from our hostage-takers, our oppressors.”

“The narrative that the Islamic Republic always uses — that if you support the Israeli people then you betray your brothers and sisters in Palestine — is wrong. If you’re a true human rights activist, you have to stand with both sides,” she added.

Alinejad also recalled fond memories of her interactions with the Jewish community in Iran, whom she referred to as “the first victims of the Islamic Republic.”

The Jewish community’s leadership is not known for its criticism of the regime and the lone Jewish representative in Iran’s parliament has spoken out against the “Zionist regime atrocities against Palestinians.”

In this file photo taken on November 1, 2018, Masih Alinejad attends TheWrap’s Power Women Summit-Day 2 at InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown in Los Angeles, California. (Presley Ann / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

But Alinejad insisted that Iran’s Jews, like many others, speak very differently in private and don’t share their criticisms publicly out of fear of retribution from government authorities.

“As a journalist, this is my goal: To fight for the truth that they cannot express themselves,” she said.

Despite Raisi’s election, Alinejad said she was optimistic about the future in her native country, pointing to a nearly 30 percent drop in turnout in last month’s election.

“The families of those killed by the regime for four decades united in a boycott campaign, saying no to voting and no to the Islamic Republic,” she declared.

“For so long, people were scared to speak out against the Islamic Republic, but now the Islamic Republic is the one that’s scared of its people,” Alinejad added.

“They didn’t come here to hurt President Biden. They wanted to hurt me because I’m an Iranian woman and we’re the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic.”

Agencies contributed to this report

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