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Failed Kidnapping Plot Sheds Light on Iran’s Efforts to Silence American Journalists

Iran critics have called on the Biden administration to push back on Tehran

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the IAEA headquarters in Vienna
The Iranian flag / Reuters
• August 2, 2021 5:00 am

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In the fall of 2019, Voice of America reporter Ali Javanmardi was on assignment in Iraqi Kurdistan when he received a call from a young female source who said she had information to give him about Iran's military operations in the region. She asked him to meet at her hotel room in Erbil at 9 p.m.

The invitation was a ruse. The woman, Samira Moradpour, was later convicted by a Kurdistan regional court as part of an Iranian attempt to kidnap and extradite Javanmardi, a critic of the Iranian government. The plot was foiled when Javanmardi became suspicious and contacted Kurdish law enforcement and the U.S. consulate.

Javanmardi's account, which he shared with the Washington Free Beacon, sheds new light on Iran's efforts to silence its American critics. He is one of at least three U.S. journalists the Iranian regime attempted to abduct in 2019 and 2020, a former senior State Department official familiar with the threats told the Free Beacon. All three reporters work for Voice of America, a federally funded news agency.

In July, the Department of Justice indicted four Iranian operatives for surveilling and plotting to kidnap VOA reporter Masih Alinejad in New York, leading critics of the Iranian regime to call for a more forceful response from the Biden administration.

Javanmardi worked at VOA for 13 years but left the organization after the incident. He told the Free Beacon that Moradpour, an editor for a regional Kurdish newspaper, began contacting him with tips for several months prior to the incident.

But when she insisted on meeting in person to provide "sensitive and important information about the activities of the Revolutionary Guards Corps," Javanmardi said he "became suspicious and replied she could send any news via WhatsApp or Telegram without needing us to meet face to face."

When Moradpour continued to press for the meeting, Javanmardi told her he would be there but did not show up. Instead, he reported the incident to Kurdistan regional security and the U.S. consulate in Erbil, he said.

"Erbil security forces arrested Samira and found evidence on her phone that she was assigned to a mission to gather information and lay the groundwork for my abduction to Iran," said Javanmardi. "[She] confessed to trying to kidnap me in collaboration with an Iranian intelligence team."

An Erbil court sentenced Moradpour to five years in prison in March on charges of espionage and attempted kidnapping, according to Radio Farda, the Persian-language service for Radio Free Europe.

The botched operation mirrors the case of Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian dissident ex-pat who was abducted in Iraq by Iranian intelligence and executed by the government last year.

Javanmardi said he reported the kidnapping attempt to the State Department, which worked to help him return to the United States. But he said VOA took no action on security, even after he contacted the then-director of VOA Persia, Setareh Derakhshesh.

"Ms. Derakhshesh never responded to the email in which I informed her that my life was in danger," Javanmardi said.

Jim Fry, deputy director of VOA public relations, defended the agency's response. He said the Iranian intelligence agent was already in law enforcement custody at the time Javanmardi informed VOA of the threat. Fry also said Derakhshesh alerted the security office for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the parent organization for VOA, which reached out to Javanmardi to offer support.

Derakhshesh was placed on leave last year after an internal investigation found that she mismanaged grants and falsified her educational information on her résumé. She was later rehired by the Biden administration as director of programming review, and her attorneys said she was cleared of the accusations in a subsequent internal investigation.