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Fast Thinking July 14, 2021

FAST THINKING: The geopolitics of Iran’s kidnapping plot

By Atlantic Council


It sounds like a Hollywood script. The United States has indicted four Iranians and accused them of a scheme to abduct the Iranian-American journalist and activist Masih Alinejad from her New York home. The Iranian regime-backed group had planned to take Alinejad out to sea by speedboat and eventually to Iran’s ally, Venezuela, according to the FBI. How should the United States respond to a kidnapping plot on American soil? And what do the revelations mean for sensitive nuclear negotiations with Tehran? Our Iran experts are on the case.


  • William Wechsler (@WillWechsler): Director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East programs and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism

Calibrating a response

  • The FBI has alleged that the plot was part of an Iranian government spy ring that pursued kidnappings in several countries. As Nathan sees it, the plan was likely “directed from the highest levels of the Iranian government.” As a result, he says, “this isn’t just a law-enforcement issue. It’s also a national-security and foreign-policy issue.” 
  • When a terrorist plot is foiled, it doesn’t get the same kind of public and press attention—or elicit as strong a government response—as when it succeeds. But these near-misses, Will argues, should prompt action. 
  • Will notes that the US response to the failed Times Square bombing “besides prosecution of the individual culprit was to change our talking points with Pakistan,” while a foiled Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington resulted only in “prosecution of the lowest-level participant” and “modest sanctions on Iran.” He’s hoping “the Biden administration does not continue this regrettable pattern in this instance.” 
  • What would breaking with the pattern look like? “One set of potential tools that have not been fully exploited against Iran are criminal and civil litigation strategies targeting malign actors,Will tells us. The Atlantic Council’s Gissou Nia issued a report last year that identified executive-branch and congressional actions that would open the door to more litigation against Iranian human-rights abusers and other high-level officials.

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Deal or no deal?

  • The foiled plot comes amid stalled negotiations for a revived deal with world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, and as tensions rise between the United and Iran following US airstrikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq last month.
  • While the Biden administration has continued to make the case for renewing the nuclear deal, Nathan says the kidnapping gambit is a good reason to withdraw from the negotiations and impose other costs.
  • “Prosecuting a handful of perpetrators is a good start but it isn’t enough,” Nathan contends. “We also need to hold the regime itself accountable, including by walking away from the nuclear talks. Why should we enrich a government that’s actively plotting to kidnap Americans on American soil?
  • Barbara disagrees, saying the “disgraceful” plot against Alinejad should not imperil the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “Refusing to return to the JCPOA and continuing the ham-handed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of the Trump administration would only penalize ordinary Iranians, solidify the vilest elements of the regime, and lead to more instability in the Middle East,” she insists. “You negotiate arms-control deals with adversaries, not angels. The Biden administration can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Further reading

Related Experts: Nathan Sales, William F. Wechsler, and Barbara Slavin

Image: Masih Alinejad, Iranian journalist and women's rights activist, speaks on stage at the Women In The World Summit in New York on April 12, 2019. Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters.