Iranian dissidents in the UK reveal their fears of being targeted and why they want the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps proscribed as a terrorist group

Rob Hastings

Rob is Special Projects Editor at i. He won the Legal Reporting Award in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Washington Post’s Laurence Stern Fellowship and Amnesty’s Gaby Rado Prize in 2015.

April 20, 2024 9:00 am(Updated 6:11 pm)

Few people outside Iran know the brutality of its regime better than Shiva Mahbobi. 

Growing up in Iranian Kurdistan after the hardline Islamists took power in 1979, she was first arrested aged just 12 when she protested about her school being closed. 

Her classes eventually resumed, but the students were gripped by fear. “They arrested some of my friends, who were 14 years old. They executed them,” she tells i. “You are in a school where you see people vanishing.” 

She was arrested again when she was 16. That led to more than three years in prison, being moved from one unknown location to another so family couldn’t visit. At one point she shared a cell with a woman who was being raped. At other times she was held in solitary confinement for up to seven months, with no light or even access to a toilet. 

And they tortured her: blindfolding her, tying her down and flogging her feet. 

Even after that, she refused to give in. “When they can’t break you, it just makes you more angry.” 

Mahbobi finally fled Iran in 1992 when she believed she was about to be arrested again, and eventually moved to the UK in 2001, where she works as a psychotherapist. 

That, surely, is where the threats and intimidation should have ended. If only. 

In Britain today, many other Iranian dissidents face constant harassment. They say it’s getting worse. 

Although men suffer too – such as the journalist Pouria Zeraati, who was stabbed last month – many of the strongest campaigners are women, who are bombarded with sexualised violent messages. 

“I’ve received many threats to rape me, to kill me, and it’s started to be on a daily basis,” says Mahbobi, co-founder of the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran

“The threat has always been there. As an activist you always face it… but not to this extent.” 

She is among those calling for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to be proscribed by the UK Government as a terrorist organisation, after it was linked to recent plots to attack opponents based in London. 

The Prime Minister is reluctant to do this because the body has such close links to the Iranian government and the Foreign Office believes it may harm diplomatic links to Tehran at such a dangerous time in the Middle East. 

Mahbobi feels betrayed by this decision. The Government has said it takes the threat extremely seriously and does everything it can to protect people. 

“As an activist who is a UK citizen, it’s really disappointing that it seems our lives do not matter,” she says. “The Government is responsible to secure my safety – and they don’t.”

This is a matter of public safety that goes beyond her small community, she argues. 

“I’m not sure why more isn’t done about it. When there is a threat in the UK, that is not limited to the Iranian activists. When you have terrorists running around threatening people, that poses a risk to non-Iranian people around them as well. 

“If you live in a building and someone attacks one flat, you can’t say that building is safe.” 

The women’s rights campaigner is glad to have never been physically assaulted herself, but feels that danger is never far away, especially when she attends rallies against the regime. 

“I know one person who was doing a sit-in protest in a tent and he was attacked in the middle of the night by people who covered their faces. People were attacked at demonstrations in front of the Iranian Embassy, too. 

“We have to be very careful that nobody is following us and [that we] don’t travel alone, because there is always danger. I’m always watchful. It has a big emotional impact.” 

She adds: “One thing that has changed from decades ago is that now they use lots of professional hitmen and gangs for their attacks instead of doing it directly themselves.” 

Indeed, police apparently believe the three men who stabbed Zeraati were Eastern European proxies

Panic buttons and security cameras 

A number of British-Iranian activists spoke to i for this article. Some of the stories they reveal privately about fears over their security are startling. 

One confessed anonymously that they still suffer from PTSD after finding an intruder in their home and being assaulted two decades ago. They reported it to the police at the time but felt let down by the response. 

They admit: “I have panic buttons in all my bedrooms. I’ve got cameras installed. I lock all my doors. I’ve got dogs that bark all the time, just to give me a sense of security. I have to protect myself. 

“When I go out, I try to stick to places like parks where there aren’t getaway cars around, but I don’t know what I’d do if they were on a scooter.” 

With a wry laugh, they add: “My neighbours don’t understand why I need a camera. They think I want to spy on them.” 

Another dissident reveals that during a meeting with fellow campaigners in a European country, one of the members fainted. It turned out that Iranian agents had visited him with an ultimatum: unless he poisoned their buffet lunch, they would kill his family. “He was going to do it but he collapsed because of the pressure, he couldn’t go through with it,” says the activist.  

They reveal the difficulties in seeing family back home who often cannot obtain visas to visit the UK. In the past they have arranged to visit countries bordering Iran to meet relatives there instead – only to realise that they’re at risk of being kidnapped and executed. 

“We know Turkey is too dangerous, so we thought maybe Azerbaijan would be safer,” they say. “When my family got to the hotel, the whole floor was covered with Iranian agents coming in with huge bags. Those are what they put people in to drive them across the border. 

“Once I had to fly to Australia for work and made sure that the flight route was not over Iran in case there needed to be an emergency landing.” 

They add: “I’ve been to meetings where someone’s given me a teddy bear as a gift for my child. That’s gone in the bin at the airport because there might be a tracking device inside. 

“When my child was a baby, I never left my window open in case someone could get in and snatch them. 

“If I’m going to speak somewhere, I’ll book the travel myself so I don’t have to share my address with anyone.” 

The intimidation can be very isolating socially. One dissident says they were kicked out of a musical group because other members feared being associated with them.

It is named after a newspaper that was once the most-read publication in the Middle East until it was seized by the Iranian regime, which began using it for propaganda. One of the Kayhan journalists died in prison, but those who escaped founded a replacement in the UK in 1984. 

Regime sympathisers attempted to burn down its London office, says Ansari. When they still relied on printers, agents would try to buy up slots so that there were none left for the newspaper to be produced. It also faced a hostile financial takeover. But somehow Kayhan-London survived and now has 5 million unique users online every year.

“The internet gave us a whole new power,” says Ansari. Unfortunately, it also provided a new way for threats to reach her. 

But the journalist, who arrived in Britain in 2000 and has worked for the BBC World Service, says that being open about intimidation can only help. “Before, people didn’t even pay attention. Now they do and we have more support.” 

Calls for action 

  • The Government and the police must do more to tackle the “chilling and far-reaching threat” against Iranian journalists in the UK from the regime in Tehran, Reporters Without Borders said this week. 
  • In a report based on accounts from dozens of exiled Iranian journalists in Britain, the campaign group found that almost 90 per cent of them had suffered online harassment in the past five years. This included death and rape threats, phishing attempts, impersonation and cyberattacks. 
  • Women have been targeted with explicit images and “campaigns to besmirch their reputations”, it added. 
  • Only 13 per cent of respondents said they had reported abuse to police because many believe “it would be a waste of time”. 
  • About 60 per cent said their relatives in Iran had been subjected to intimidation because of their journalism. This has involved interrogation, detention, asset freezes, job losses, travel bans, surveillance and phone tapping. 
  • The UN Human Rights Council also concluded last month that the Iranian authorities have “harassed, threatened and intimidated journalists” abroad. 
  • The BBC Director-General, Tim Davie, called for help to stop “the threats and harassment our BBC Persian journalists have been exposed to for decades as punishment for doing their job”. 
Nazenin Ansari, left, and Maryam Namazie have both faced threats for their opposition to the regime in Tehran (Photos: Nazenin Ansari / Wikimedia commons)
Nazenin Ansari, left, and Maryam Namazie have both faced threats for their opposition to the regime in Tehran (Photos: Nazenin Ansari / Wikimedia commons)

Fuelling hate 

Another veteran UK-based activist who has to withstand the regime’s menace is Maryam Namazie. A secularist who opposes sharia law across the world, her protests against Islamism make her a prime target in the revolutionary guard’s eyes. 

“The regime has written about my work in its state-run papers and called me all sorts of names – corrupt, harlot, anti-god – which, of course, I wear as a badge of pride. But that fuels further hate,” Namazie tells i. Regime-controlled TV stations have also aired hostile reports on her

“There are phone calls, text messages, and on social media it’s rife.” She collected examples of the messages and shared them with the Metropolitan Police in 2022. Some appeared to be from supporters of the Iranian monarchy, which was deposed in 1979, but she says that may be used as a cover by regime agents. 

One message read: “If she is in London, on my honour, I will not leave her alive.” 

She informed counter-terrorism officers which phone numbers had sent the threats, but says: “They weren’t really interested when I’ve contacted them, so I’ve given up doing it.” Instead, she shares them online. The Metropolitan Police did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Namazie has also been at left-wing Iranian protests infiltrated by regime agents who tore down banners and broke microphones and speakers. “It was very violent and the police had to step in.” 

The IRGC is “definitely” a terrorist group, she argues. “What is the concept of terrorism? It is to instil fear, to intimidate and threaten people into silence and be too afraid to challenge them.” 

She admits that the “constant pressures and intimidation” affect her. “You’re not sure when they’ll strike and how it may affect people around you.”

Nevertheless, she will not be cowed. 

“The Iranian regime is really very cruel, brutal, inhumane. Its only common decency to oppose to it. I do what I can to be able to sleep at night.” 

She points to the number of executions still carried out in the country: 853 just last year, including a number of protesters, according to Amnesty International. 

Namazie is just glad that people within the country are now more able to share news of the oppression they suffer. “Twenty or 30 years ago, people were put in mass graves and we didn’t know who they were, but social media has changed that.” 

“You’re not sure when they’ll strike and how it may affect people around you”Maryam Namazie

Funding controversy

The actress Elika Ashoori wasn’t involved in politics until her father, Anoosheh Ashoori, was arrested in Iran while visiting family in 2017. Accused of spying for Israel, he was jailed in the infamous Evin prison. 

Ashoori threw herself into protesting on his behalf. He was eventually released in 2022, together with fellow British-Iranian detainee Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and happily he will be running in the London Marathon this weekend aged 70. 

Once he was safely back in the UK, the police arranged to give the family a security briefing at her parents’ home. 

“I’m not sure if it was out of concern for our protection or because they had to do it for due diligence,” says Ashoori. “They were there for an hour or two but didn’t give us very useful information.” 

They were handed a leaflet about countering terrorism and told: “If you decide to carry on campaigning, you have to accept there are going to be risks.” 

That hasn’t stopped Ashoori, who has since spoken at rallies in London’s Trafalgar Square. 

She is “absolutely” in favour of proscribing the IRGC, and not just because of their threats to UK security. “They fund every terrorist organisation that is wreaking havoc in the Middle East,” she says. 

“A lot of fundraising for the IRGC happens through religious centres in the UK guised as charities, which funnel money to Iran. If the IRGC is proscribed, it will make it harder for them to send that money.” 

This week it was revealed that six charities supporting the IRGC received more than £680,000 in furlough payments during the pandemic. 

One of them was the Islamic Centre of England in Maida Vale, which last year was labelled the IRGC’s “London office” and “an Iranian state actor” by the Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns MP. A spokesman for the centre responded that it was a “purely religious and cultural organisation, which provides various services to the local communities”, and that “the majority of the trustees, donors, and attendees are British citizens”. 

Pros and cons of proscribing 

Ansari is in two minds about whether the IRGC should be proscribed. She thinks it would be justified in an ideal world, but believes that the unpopular regime may be gradually “imploding” inside Iran and that it may be more beneficial for intelligence services to reach out to potential defectors. 

However, she admits that the situation could become more dangerous if leaders fear their power base is crumbling, “because they will take more risks”. 

Mahbobi, who addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, is adamant that failing to proscribe the IRGC is “just appeasing the  regime”. 

She adds: “Hamas is on the UK’s list of terrorist organisations. How is it possible that the IRGC is not, when it is training Hamas? It doesn’t make sense.”

A government spokesperson responds: “The UK government, law enforcement and our international partners continue to work together to identify, deter and respond to threats from Iran.  

“We will continue to take strong action against Iran while they threaten people in the UK and around the world. The UK has sanctioned more than 400 Iranian individuals and entities, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in its entirety.” 

Whatever happens, Mahbobi will continue exposing their threats, “because it might encourage more people to talk about what’s happening and not feel like they’re alone”, she says. 

“I have fought against the regime since I was a teenager. It’s a fascist regime; it’s a mafia regime that uses kidnapping and killing to silence people inside Iran and out. Their existence threatens humanity. 

“I have a duty to oppose them. Many of my friends were executed and I’m here to be their voice.” 



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