Iran Attempted To Abduct at Least 3 American Journalists in 2019 and 2020

Iran watchers say Biden admin downplays threats as it negotiates nuclear deal

The VOA Persian logo / Facebook
July 29, 2021

At least three U.S. journalists working for Voice of America were the subjects of attempted Iranian abduction and surveillance efforts in 2019 and 2020, a former senior State Department official familiar with the security threats told the Washington Free Beacon.

In one botched plot in late 2019, Iranian operatives allegedly tried to use a female "honey trap" to lure a male VOA journalist to a hotel room in Irbil, Iraq, according to the former State Department official—a plan that failed when the reporter, who has since left VOA, declined to show up to the hotel. The plot closely mirrors the case of Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian dissident ex-pat who was lured from France to Iraq by a female Iranian operative and then taken to Iran where he was executed by the government last year.

The news indicates that the Iranian government's targeting of American journalists—including the brazen kidnapping plot against Masih Alinejad that was outlined in a Department of Justice indictment earlier this month—is more widespread than has been reported. It also raises questions for the Biden administration, which has downplayed recent news that Iranian intelligence agents surveilled and plotted to kidnap Alinejad on U.S. soil. Iranian pro-democracy advocates say the administration's tepid response to the attack is tied to President Biden's efforts to reenter the nuclear deal with the Iranian government.

The FBI warned the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the parent agency of VOA, in mid-2020 that two popular VOA reporters based in New York, including Alinejad, were the target of Iranian surveillance efforts, according to the source. VOA has a Persian-language service that provides global coverage of Iranian politics and employs some journalists who are vocal critics of the Iranian regime.

The former senior State Department official said the then-director of Voice of America Persia, Setareh Derakhshesh, was informed about the threats by both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for Global Media but declined to take action and dismissed the warnings as interagency meddling. Derakhshesh, who is now working as VOA director of programming review, was fired for alleged misconduct last year but rehired by the Biden administration.

The State Department in late 2019 "sent a notice to VOA telling them that they need to ensure the safety of this American citizen and VOA journalist abroad," the former senior official told the Free Beacon. "Derakhshesh then tried to block this and accused the State Department of a firewall violation for stepping in and trying to ensure the safety of this person."

The U.S. Agency for Global Media directed a request for comment to VOA.

A spokesman for VOA declined to comment on the specific cases but told the Free Beacon that the agency is "dedicated to providing all appropriate measures to keep our colleagues safe, as the regimes in Tehran and elsewhere continue to target the journalists who risk so much to provide a free press where none otherwise exists."

"Generally, we avoid providing the details of any specific security threats received by our agency," said Jim Fry, a spokesman for VOA. "We can say that we take such security-related notifications very seriously. Upon receipt of credible threat reporting, we respond swiftly and appropriately to protect our colleagues in the U.S. and overseas."

Derekshesh was placed on leave last year, after an internal investigation found that she mismanaged grants and falsified her educational information on her resume. 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.

Iranian democracy advocates have criticized Biden for his muted response to the Iranian government's plot to kidnap VOA journalist and Iranian regime critic Masih Alinejad, which was revealed this month in a Department of Justice indictment of the conspirators.

Biden's "cowed stance is dangerous not only for those residing within the U.S. but for liberty's advocates all around the world," wrote Iranian pro-democracy activists Navid Mohebbi and Cameron Khansarinia in a Wall Street Journal column last week.

This month, Department of Justice officials announced an indictment against four Iranian operatives who they said were involved in the kidnapping attempt against Alinejad.

The conspirators reportedly hired private investigators to track and film Alinejad and her family members at her home in New York City, according to federal prosecutors, and planned to forcibly abduct her to Iran, "where the victim's fate would have been uncertain at best."

"This is not some far-fetched movie plot. We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran," said FBI assistant director William F. Sweeney Jr. in a press release announcing the indictment. "Not on our watch."