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Iranian dissidents say they face intimidation, abductions, assassination attempts around the world

Iran's push to crush its critics abroad
Iran plots to harm dissidents and former U.S. government officials | 60 Minutes 13:29

This is an updated version of a story first published on Nov. 12, 2023. The original video can be viewed here

Tensions have been steadily rising between the U.S. and Iran since the Israel-Hamas war began. For months, Iranian backed militias attacked U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq, disrupted shipping routes in the Red Sea, and in April, the U.S. was part of a large coalition that intercepted an unprecedented Iranian missile and drone strike on Israel. 

But while Iranian proxy fighters like Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Hamas are in the headlines, there's another type of proxy Iran deploys, that receives far less attention. As we reported in November, Tehran is hiring hitmen around the world in an effort to intimidate, abduct, and assassinate perceived enemies of the regime. And they're doing it right here, on U.S. soil

This video was posted online by a channel affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard. It vows to kill former American government officials – including President Trump – to avenge the 2020 U.S. assassination of the terrorism mastermind Qassem Soleimani.

Threats like this have been deemed credible enough that several of these officials have been under round-the-clock protection, including former Defense Secretary Mark Esper; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Iran reportedly offered a hitman a million dollars to kill him; and John Bolton, the former national security advisor.

John Bolton: They bargained the price for me would be $300,000, which I have to say I found insulting.

Lesley Stahl: So what exactly was the plot against you? 

John Bolton: The Revolutionary Guard sought to procure either my kidnapping or my assassination, not directly by a Revolutionary Guard's member, but by seeking a hitman, who would carry out the job either in the U.S. or abroad.

John Bolton
John Bolton 60 Minutes

The FBI has an arrest warrant out for this Iranian officer, claiming that he hired the hitman online to travel to Washington, corner Bolton in a garage and kill him. But it turned out, lucky for Bolton, the assassin was an FBI informant.

John Bolton: This was not internet chatter. This was a negotiation to murder an American citizen, a former government official. 

Lesley Stahl: Is the threat against you ongoing?

John Bolton: We've got marked Secret Service cars that say, "Police. United States Secret Service," outside my home.

We talked to the FBI and several intelligence agencies and they told us that Iran's efforts are becoming more frequent and bolder. And that they often go after vocal Iranian activists living abroad.

Masih Alinejad: The idea behind assassination plot, behind kidnapping plot is to keep you silent.

We met one of their targets in Brooklyn. Masih Alinejad is a leader in the women's revolt against the law in Iran mandating they wear a headscarf – or hijab. Forced to flee 14 years ago, she settled here in Brooklyn where she encourages women back home to send her videos of them taking off the hijabs and she spreads those images online to her 10 million or so followers – fueling the protest movement.

Lesley Stahl: So the mullahs began to focus on you. The FBI came and told you there was a plot against you.

Masih Alinejad: There were, like, six or seven FBI agents. When they came to my house, they told me that, "Your life is in danger." I was like, "Okay, tell me something new." Because we Iranians are used to it. But they actually said, "No, this time it's different." They said that "The Iranian regime hired private investigator on U.S. soil, to take photos of your movement, your daily life, your routine." And I was like, "Wow, so they're here in New York, in Brooklyn?"

Lesley Stahl: The plot was to kidnap you and take you by speedboat to Venezuela?

Masih Alinejad: Hey, it sounds like a scary movie to you, no?

Lesley Stahl: No. It sounds implausible to me.

Masih Alinejad: You see, it's a reality for us.

Masih Alinejad
Masih Alinejad 60 Minutes

And a reality for the FBI, that says the plan was to get her to Iran to stand trial. It was the same for Jamshid Sharmahd, another Iranian dissident who lived in Los Angeles for two decades and created a website where people in Iran could report human rights abuses. In 2020, while he was changing planes in Dubai on a business trip, his family noticed his phone started heading in the wrong direction. His daughter, Gazelle Sharmahd, soon saw her dad pop up on Iranian TV in a courtroom - looking petrified.

Gazelle Sharmahd: He's forced to confessions about crimes he did not commit. The charge that they gave him is "corruption on Earth." That's why he got the death sentence. 

Lesley Stahl: Is it a situation where he could actually be executed any day --

Gazelle Sharmahd: Oh yes. They want to hang him from a crane in the middle of the city.

The original plot to kidnap Masih was thwarted, but according to the FBI, a year later, in 2022, Iran paid this Azerbaijani, living outside New York City, $30,000 to buy a semi-automatic rifle and kill her. He lurked outside her home for a week. His plan was to take advantage of her friendliness to her neighbors.

Masih Alinejad: He was actually following my life. He knew that I was the one offering flowers to strangers. 

Lesley Stahl: You offered flowers to strangers?

Masih Alinejad: Yeah. This is me. So he received a text message from the guy inside Iran, saying that "Go and knock the door. Then take her to the backyard garden." If I had opened the door, I would have just given him a big smile and said, "Yes, let's go to my garden." And then he wanted to just kill me?

Lesley Stahl: Did he actually knock on your door?

Masih Alinejad: Yes.

Her home security camera actually caught him on her porch trying to get in. Eventually he took off but was pulled over for running a stop sign. That's when the police found this in his car. He's been in custody awaiting trial ever since.

But here's what's interesting: neither he nor two other men the prosecutors say were hired for the job were Iranian. Like him, they were Eastern European and, as is becoming a trademark of Iran's shadow war, they were criminals. 

Masih Alinejad: They were all from criminal syndicate. This is what the Islamic Republic is really good at, like, using drug dealers, using criminals to do their dirty job on the Western soil.

Lesley Stahl: Well, and maybe have deniability.

Masih Alinejad: Exactly.

Lesley Stahl: "We didn't do it."

Masih Alinejad: That's the point.

Lesley Stahl: So why do they use proxies? 

Matt Jukes: To have somebody who is not being tracked by intelligence or security agencies for this.

Matt Jukes
Matt Jukes, head of Counter Terrorism Policing in the U.K.  60 Minutes

Matt Jukes, head of Counter Terrorism Policing in Britain, says this is not just an American problem. In the U.K., they have foiled 15 Iranian kidnapping and assassination attempts since last year.

Matt Jukes: I have been involved in national security policing for over 20 years. What we've seen in the last 18 months is a real acceleration. 

Lesley Stahl: We have been told that a lot of these criminal gangs hire other criminal gangs, and then maybe a third group.

Matt Jukes: I think we're always gonna see this collaboration between criminal organizations. We know that this will not always be a direct line from a state organization to a threat to a potential kidnapping.

This recording was given to us by a foreign intelligence agency. It shows how Iran recruits criminals:

Man on recording (translation): I received a call from the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard. 

This is an Iranian smuggler from Urmia, a town near the Turkish border. He reveals to the foreign agents that he was approached by Iran's Revolutionary Guard with a deal: they'll turn a blind eye to his smuggling if he helps them.

Man on recording (translation): Their request was that I find people who could work for them. What kind of work? "Anything. Like: catching someone for us so they can be beaten up or gotten rid of."

This surveillance video shows him recruiting a fellow smuggler for the task: the man in white is Mansour Rasouli, an alleged drug dealer. He agreed to arrange assassinations throughout Europe for the Iranian government – for money. But a few weeks later, Rasouli was kidnapped at night and interrogated in a car, reportedly by Israeli intelligence. They extracted this cellphone confession, where Rasouli admits he was paid $150,000 upfront and promised a million dollars if he killed three people for the Iranians:

Rasouli confession tape (translation): One is an Israeli at the embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. Another one is an American general in Germany. And one is a journalist in France.

The French target was identified as philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, a vocal critic of the regime in Tehran. The identity of the American general remains a mystery. The plot to kill the three was prevented. But in recent years, Iranian dissidents were successfully kidnapped and smuggled to Iran. Several were executed.

Lesley Stahl: They've succeeded in Europe. They haven't succeeded in the United States, even though we know there are targets –

John Bolton: Right. 

Lesley Stahl: So many American officials and others are being targeted. Why is it not a bigger issue? 

John Bolton: Look I think the targeting of American citizens by a hostile foreign government is very close to an act of war.

Lesley Stahl: What would happen if they succeeded in assassinating someone like you, a well-known former official? 

John Bolton: Well, I wouldn't like to find out for myself or for the country, but why are we sitting here, quietly talking about this when they are, in effect, saying they're gonna commit acts of war against American citizens on American soil?

Lesley Stahl: Does the fact that Iran feels emboldened to come after our citizens -- does that mean we've lost our deterrence?

John Bolton: Well, I think we have lost deterrence. And I think this also goes to an unwillingness on the part of the administration to confront the Ayatollahs in a way that they understand.

Masih Alinejad: They can challenge U.S. government on U.S. soil without any punishment. Then what's the reason to stop--

Lesley Stahl: Well, there are sanctions against them.

Lesley Stahl and Masih Alinejad
Lesley Stahl and Masih Alinejad 60 Minutes

Masih Alinejad: Sanction is not sufficient. Sanction is not—helping --

Lesley Stahl: What do want us to do? Drop a bomb?

Masih Alinejad: No. Look, when you negotiate with the killers, you're empowering them.

The Biden administration didn't respond to our requests for an interview. When Masih Alinejad was called to testify before Congress about Iran in September, she said that unless the administration's policy changes, her life will continue to be in danger.

Masih Alinejad: I believe that when I'm not in the spotlight, when media like you are not paying attention to me, finally they're going to come after me.

While she now has the freedom to speak her mind in America, she does not have the freedom to live where she wants. Masih and her family have had to go into hiding, under FBI protection.

Masih Alinejad: It's like: Wow, the government from my own country trying to kill me, but my adopted country trying to protect me. You have to be an Iranian to survive assassination plot, to understand that, how it feels to survive in America and to have the platform and to criticize the U.S. government--

Lesley Stahl: You're tearing up. Tell me why you're tearing up.

Masih Alinejad: Because people in my country get killed for criticizing. Get shot in head for the crime of criticizing.

Produced by Shachar Bar-On. Associate producer, Jinsol Jung. Broadcast associate, Wren Woodson. Edited by Michael Mongulla.

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