Opponents of Iran’s theocratic regime have long accused its institutions of running intelligence operations throughout the world with the express purpose of delegitimizing an organized opposition movement while also setting the stage for direct attacks on that same movement. These accusations were recently given a great deal of credibility when an Iranian expatriate by the name of Hadi Sani-Khani wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in which he professed to have been a party to the regime’s intelligence operations for approximately four years.
Sani-Khani’s letter describes how the news of his departure from the MEK quickly made its way to operatives from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, who contacted him to congratulate him and begin exerting the pressure that would eventually lead to his collaboration. According to his own account, that collaboration was multifaceted and grew more sophisticated over time, with the common thread in all activities being an effort to undermine the MEK.
Sani-Khani’s first tasks involved writing articles with content that disparaged the MEK, especially by lending prefabricated talking points the legitimacy of authorship by a former member. The MEK itself has detailed this practice in the past, pointing to the Nejat Organization as having been created by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security for the express purpose of recruiting former actual MEK members or presenting intelligence operatives in that guise. Sani-Khani specifically identified Ebrahim Khodabandeh as the head of that organization and his first point of contact in collaboration with the MOIS.
Khodabandeh’s name had previously been mentioned in MEK reports on the regime’s disinformation operations, but those reports tended to focus more directly on his brother Massoud Khodabandeh. He and his wife Anne Singleton have for many years presented themselves to Western media as independent experts in counterterrorism, but their work has focused exclusively on presenting the MEK in a negative light, lending an air of legitimacy to the regime talking points that led to the organization being falsely designated as a foreign terrorist organization in the US until 2012.
That same year, Khodabandeh and Singleton’s role in spreading Iranian propaganda was confirmed in a report from the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. Describing Singleton’s background as a “relevant example of how MOIS coerces non-Iranians to cooperate” the report detailed threats that had been levied against her husband’s family in the years before the couple’s disinformation operations became a full-scale career. These details are also relevant to the regime’s recruitment of Iranian citizens, expatriates, and persons affiliated with the MEK, and they have ironically reinforced key elements of the regime’s propaganda narrative, namely that the Iranian Resistance creates enforces barriers between its adherents and their loved ones.
Sani-Khani identified this and other talking points as regular features of the content that he and other members of the Iranian intelligence network were expected to present in exchange for payment. He himself earned 500 euros per month by writing anti-MEK articles and submitting them for publication by the Nejat Organization, but Sani-Khani noted that higher salaries were offered to those who were willing and able participate in recorded interviews interviews with state-affiliated news outlets or take on more sophisticated roles for the MOIS.
Sani-Khani even reported that one of MOIS operatives in the regime’s European network was prompted to open a coffee shop which was fully financed by the MOIS in order to function as a meeting place for Iranian operatives. The name of that operative, Hassan Heyrani, became more widely known in 2019 when he was cited in a report on BBC Radio 4 as a major source of information on the MEK’s Albanian compound. The report spawned immediate outrage and later a lawsuit from the MEK, which was decided in the group’s favor after it showed that Heyrani had been expelled from the MEK a year earlier on suspicion of ongoing contract with the MOIS.
Sani-Khani confessed to having also been involved in the dissemination of false claims about the MEK to foreign journalists, and he noted that Khodabendeh and Singleton “played the main role in briefing and sending reporters to Albania and helping them to arrange interviews with the agents” involved in that operation. Sani-Khani personally maintained contact with one reporter for three months and conferred with the Iranian embassy in Albania before providing answers to questions about the MEK. The result was an article in Der Spiegel that was notably similar to the BBC Radio segment and was similarly the object of an ultimately successful legal challenge.
Of the talking points that he helped to spread to these outlets, Sani-Khani said in his letter, “I had been in the ranks of the MEK for about 14 years and knew that not a single word of these utterances was true, and this constant lying became one of the drivers of my psychological torment and bad conscience.”
The letter goes on to explain that the pangs of conscience reached a breaking point in the wake of the Iranian regime’s crackdown on a nationwide uprising in November 2019 that was reportedly led in large part by MEK “Resistance units.” Still reeling from the effects of a previous uprising at the beginning of 2018, authorities directed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to open fire on crowds of protesters, resulting in an estimated death toll of approximately 1,500.
In between the two uprisings, the regime also sought to attack the foreign support structure for the MEK. In June 2018, the organization’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, held its annual rally of Iranian expatriates just outside of Paris, where total attendance was estimated to be around 100,000, including hundreds of prominent political dignitaries from throughout the world. There, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat and three subordinates attempted to carry out a terrorist bombing using 500 grams of TATP explosive that the diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, had smuggled into Europe.
Assadi and his team were found guilty of attempting terrorist murder earlier this month, prompting renewed calls for a change in Western policy, with the aim of confronting Iranian terrorism and malign influence in Europe. Several statements on this topic cited revelations from the Belgian trial regarding Assadi’s role as the head of a network of operatives spanning at least 11 European countries. The parallels between this detail and the contents of the Sani-Khani letter are sure to further fuel the demands for expanded sanctions, embassy closures, and other measures which have been endorsed by dozens of lawmakers and former government officials representing the entire European Union.