By Edward Carney
As controversy continues to swirl and Saudi Arabia continues to face pressure over the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a number of media outlets have published articles comparing the Saudi and Iranian track records on press suppression.
Initially, Iran remained largely silent on the killing, but officials have publicly condemned the incident in recent days, thereby opening themselves up to well-substantiated allegations of hypocrisy. These responses in international media have also been accompanied by speculation as to the consequences that Iran might face as it attempts to direct more focus toward its main regional adversary while also carrying on with familiar repressive measures both at home and abroad.
Eurasia Review published a relevant piece of commentary on Thursday, which put the Khashoggi killing and Iran’s response in the context of aggressive policies toward both exiled dissidents and ethnic minorities from both countries.
The headline described Iran’s condemnation of the Saudis as an example of “the pot calling the kettle black.” It went on to highlight three incidents from the past year in which Iran apparently plotted to kill opposition figures on foreign territory. Whereas Khashoggi’s assassination was carried out at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, the specified Iranian plots took place in the Netherlands, France, and Denmark, and critics of the Iranian regime have identified other plots aside from these ones.
The first of the three plots was successful in killing Ahmad Mola Nissi in November 2017. The other two were thwarted by European authorities, leading to the arrest of a high-ranking Iranian diplomat and five co-conspirators over the summer, followed by at least one arrest of an Iranian-Norwegian operative in October.
The first round of arrests were related to the attempted bombing of the summer rally organized outside Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and the Eurasia Review article specifies that this coalition’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, was also targeted on Albanian soil in March. Details of the most recent plot were revealed only this week when Danish authorities held a press conference about the arrest.
The press conference in question made explicit reference to the previous plots, thereby underscoring the continuity of Iranian threats against targets in the West. The Danish government expressed concern over those threats by summoning the Iranian ambassador to the foreign ministry, as the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.
The following day, Agence France Presse noted that Danish officials were speaking to their counterparts elsewhere in Europe as part of an effort to impose sanctions and otherwise exert pressure on the Iranian regime over the latest incident and the previous plots.
These efforts are well in line with the prediction put forward by Eurasia Review on Thursday. “If Saudi Arabia has suffered severe reputational damage… and could face sanctioning for the first time in its history,” the article observed, “Iran, long struggling to polish its tarnished image, could face sanctioning by Europe at a moment that it needs the Europeans the most.”
It appears as though Tehran recognizes this danger and is taking measures to counteract the trend toward more coordinated European pressure, albeit not by disavowing the prior terrorist plots or changing the course of its foreign policy.
Instead, regime officials continue to advance unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in the interest of denying responsibility for the plots and portraying them as part of a coordinated effort to damage relations between Europe and Iran at a time when the European Union is tentatively committed to defiance of the US sanctions that come back into force on November 5.
Iran’s Fars News Agency gave voice to these conspiracy theories on Thursday, alleging that the information leading to last month’s arrest originated with “an intelligence service outside Europe.” The article did not elaborate, but it did attribute the overall conspiracy to “the US, Zionist regime, and another notorious center which is exposed to heavy accusations.” The latter comment may have been a reference to Saudi Arabia in light of looming sanctions associated with the Khashoggi killing.
In any event, Arab nations are generally lumped in with the US and Israel and collectively described in Iranian propaganda as a “triangle of enemies.”
Although Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi publicly called for an independent and impartial investigation into the alleged Danish assassination plot, he cited no evidence to suggest that the existing narrative is in error.
The Fars report credited him with criticizing the Danish authorities’ failure to identity the arrestee by name, but this is fairly typical of ongoing investigations, and the criticism is easily parroted back at Tehran in the context of its own arrests and unsubstantiated allegations of espionage by Western nationals.
At least half a dozen American citizens and permanent residents are currently in detention in the Islamic Republic, alongside other Westerners, condemned to multi-year sentences on national security crimes.
Some have been in prison for upwards of two years, and yet the Iranian judiciary has never revealed any evidence that was used to secure their convictions. In some cases, the allegations are transparently absurd, as in the case of the Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, whose conviction stemmed from his copying documents from Iranian libraries which dated to a period of Iranian history several decades before the advent of the Islamic Republic.
By contrast, Western authorities and Iranian dissidents have reportedly been able to rigorously verify accounts of Iranian terror plots meant to be carried out in Europe or the United States. In September, French officials announced that an elaborate investigation into the June 30 Paris terror plot left no doubt that Tehran was responsible.
In this way, French intelligence confirmed the detailed accounts that had previously been provided by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which identified the arrested diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, by name and reported that he had personally provided the would-be bombers with 500 grams of TATP explosive. Those explosives were found in the operatives’ possession when they were stopped at the border by Belgian security forces.
In light of that evidence, one might easily argue that the burden of proof is on Iran to prove that the official narrative of the Danish plot are not accurate. But even in cases where Iran has a valid basis for criticism of its foreign adversaries, this criticism can usually be expected to invite the regime’s detractors to call attention to extremely similar misdeeds committed by the clerical regime.
This is true of the Khashoggi killing and it would be true of other incidents that have recently opened Saudi Arabia to international condemnation, as well.
As one example, the UK’s Mirror newspaper reported on Thursday that widespread outrage had erupted over the Saudi execution of an Indonesian maid who claims she killed her employer in self-defense as he was trying to rape her.
In 2014, the same outlet reported upon the Iranian judiciary’s hanging of Reyhaneh Jabbari, which was subject to nearly identical international appeals after Tehran disregarded her claim that the former Revolutionary Guard officer whom she stabbed had been attempting to rape her at the time.