David Rose

The attack on an Iranian journalist in London should be a warning to us all

The case for banning the IRGC is more powerful than ever


Pouria Zeraati recovering in hospital after he was attacked

April 12, 2024 15:54

This week I interviewed a very brave man. Pouria Zeraati, the host of the Iran International TV show The Final Word, spoke to me via Zoom from the safe house where he and his family are currently living, guarded by police. Having lost a lot of blood when he was attacked by a hit squad outside his home two weeks ago, he is lucky to be alive.

It isn’t difficult to figure out what was behind this attack: the jihadist regime of Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Even without concrete evidence, the circumstantial case that Iran ordered Zeraati’s ambush would be strong. In November 2022, as the channel was reporting the nationwide uprising that followed the arrest and death of Mahsa Amini after she refused to wear a headscarf, the threats being made against Iran International and its staff reached such a pitch that it was forced, acting on advice from the police and security services, to close its London base and relocate to Washington for several months.

However, in Zeraati’s case, there is direct evidence of involvement by the IRGC. Like several of his colleagues, he recently received a WhatsApp message from an unknown number with an Israeli +972 code, purporting to be from an Israeli journalist who wanted to interview him. When the “reporter” tried to set up an online meeting and sent Zeraati a link, he became suspicious and reported it. Cyber experts then showed that all the messages emanated from a known cyber warfare unit of the IRGC.

Before the attack, Zeraati and his family were not only threatened online, but on London’s streets. In one chilling incident, a member of his family was approached by a man on a motorcycle, who proclaimed that he knew where they lived. Meanwhile, the police have said they know the identities of the three men who attacked him. (One held him down while a second stabbed him, and a third drove a getaway car.) According to the cops, they soon abandoned their vehicle before fleeing Britain from Heathrow airport.

To me, the astonishing aspect of these events is that they have received relatively little publicity, for the IRGC has been attacking its enemies abroad for decades. According to the US State Department, since the regime came to power in 1979, the IRGC has carried out at least 360 “targeted assassinations” outside Iran, and has been implicated in terrorist plots in more than 40 countries.

For a long time, the IRGC was relatively quiet in Britain: before the attack on Zeraati, it appears not to have used physical violence here since 1986, when it blew up a shop selling anti-regime books and videos in Kensington, killing the son of its owner. But in late 2022, MI5 chief Ken McCallum said his agency had thwarted 10 Iranian kidnap and murder plots in the preceding year. A few weeks later, Security Minister Tom Tugendhat revealed that the number had risen to 15, and that some of their targets were prominent Jews.

Then, ten days after the October 7 massacre, McCallum told a security summit in California that the “monstrous attacks” in Israel were likely to intensify the risk of Iranian hits in Britain, saying: “We have obviously been concerned about Iran’s behaviour in the UK for a long time. In particular, the last 18 months or so have been a particularly intensive phase of Iran-generated threat on UK soil… Events in the Middle East sharpen the possibility that Iran might decide to move into new directions. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that could include the UK.”

This fits a wider pattern. Last year in Athens, acting on intelligence from Israel, police arrested two IRGC operatives said to be planning to bomb Jewish targets. In February 2024, it emerged that Sweden had deported an Iranian couple who had somehow obtained political asylum, saying they had been planning to kill Jews on behalf of the IRGC.

Yet there is an aspect to the stabbing of Zeraati that hasn’t been given much attention. Terrifying as it was, he told me he suspected that his assailants didn’t intend to kill him. They had him at their mercy: while he was held and immobilised, the knife man could have gone for his vital organs or his throat. Instead he slashed him repeatedly in the thighs. Had he hit Zeraati’s femoral artery, he still might have died, but he suspects the gang wanted to wound, rather than kill him.

Why might that be? The answer, I suggest, lies in the fact that despite the IRGC’s brutal record, UK reaction to the attack has been relatively muted. Many months ago, when the debate over whether Britain should proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation was at its height, Lord Polak, the President of Conservative Friends of Israel, told me he thought it would take an IRGC murder in Britain to finally remove the political obstacles to taking this step.

It will be recalled that those obstacles lie inside the Foreign Office, which in the early weeks of last year mounted an intense campaign to stop proscription happening. It argued it would trigger the severance of diplomatic relations and a consequent inability to engage with or influence the regime, while the closure of Britain’s Tehran embassy would mean losing a base for gathering intelligence.

However, one thing we do know is that Tehran really doesn’t want us to proscribe the IRGC. An internal Iranian document recently published by anti-regime hackers and verified by experts as authentic revealed something deeply telling. When it seemed proscription was imminent, with the Home Office arguing strongly in favour, the Iranian foreign ministry went into overdrive, summoning the British ambassador for a meeting with its deputy chief and threatening dire consequences if it were to take place.

This week, with President Biden warning that Iran may be about to launch a military strike against Israel, the publication of documents seized by the IDF in Gaza containing fresh evidence of Iran’s support for Hamas, and escalating conflict between Israel and Iran’s other proxy Hezbollah, the benefits of “engagement” with Iran don’t look all that obvious. 

Last year, in an interview with Zeraati, Benjamin Netanyahu said he thought Britain should proscribe the IRGC simply because it was “the foremost terrorist organisation in the world”. He had, he added, plenty of evidence of this if Britain should want to see it.

Zeraati told me that “putting the IRGC on the official terrorist list” would “help dissidents and human rights activists opposed to the regime who live outside Iran”. Carrying placards venerating the IRGC’s late terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani, as seen at last week’s Quds Day parade in London, or piping online talks by IRGC commanders to students at UK universities, as revealed by the JC last year, would become criminal offences. Pro-regime hubs, such as the Islamic Centre of England, which held vigils for Soleimani when he was killed by a US drone, would be forced to close.   

I think the time has come to listen to them, for the next IRGC target on UK soil may well be less fortunate than Pouria Zeraati.

April 12, 2024 15:54

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