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Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

November 18, 2021
Hannah Somerville
13 min read
Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

The below is an archived article first published by IranWire on May 21, 2021. It has been republished as part of our new series on transnational repression. Read more about the project here.

A fake Persian-language driving licence app, concealing malicious software. A petrol bomb hurled onto a politician’s porch. The brazen kidnapping of an activist in exile.

These are just some of the Islamic Republic’s attacks on Iranians in Sweden that have been exposed in the past 12 months. The multi-pronged threat the regime now poses to the 100,000 Iranians in Sweden – and indeed, to this Scandinavian country at large – has become so severe it was explicitly highlighted in the recently-published Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) Yearbook for 2020.

As in previous years, SÄPO warned that Iran, Russia and China’s industrial espionage poses the “biggest threat” to nationwide security. But this year, they added that “[Iranian] opposition groups in exile are considered an internal threat located outside country borders.

“There are international examples of how the Iranian leadership’s actions have posed a danger to life and health. Planning for this has been conducted in Sweden... Recruitment attempts and attempts to influence researchers in Sweden are some of the methods used.”

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

Iranian opposition members at a rally in Gothenburg in 2015

Just this week, Swedish police confirmed that a couple arrested in April in connection with a suspected terror plot had lied about their citizenship. The pair are understood to be Iranian, and trying to target Iranians. IranWire’s correspondent Kambiz Ghafouri will provide an update on the incident shortly.

In February this year, the former Vienna-based Iranian diplomat Asadollah Asadi was jailed for 20 years for his part in a bomb plot targeting dissidents in Paris. During the court case in Belgium, it emerged that Asadi’s infamous “green book”, in which the terrorist listed 289 places across 11 European countries where he was in contact with agents of the regime, had been recovered from his car.

The full content of the notebook has yet to be disclosed, as German police are investigating the potential spy network outlined therein. But Sweden is known to have been one of the most-named countries in the book. For Iranians living in Sweden today, this came as no surprise.

A History of Incursions on Swedish Soil

In the decades since the Islamic Revolution, a large Iranian-born community has established itself in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Iranians now account for around one percent of the Swedish population, holding key positions in parliament and with huge activist rallies regularly taking place in the capital of Stockholm.

In the early 1990s a spate of terror attacks was planned and carried out in Sweden by the Iranian regime. This included the murder by letter-bomb of a teacher, Efat Ghazi, in 1990 and a 1993 foiled bomb attack on the Stockholm offices of the NCRI, the National Council of Resistance.

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

The bodies of Iranian victims of terror in Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin, Germany, 1992

The year before that, in September 1992, four Iranian-Kurdish opposition members were gunned down at Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. A lesser-known part of the story was that Sweden’s then-prime minister and three other senior politicians had been due to attend the meeting, but had had to fly back to Sweden at the eleventh hour.

During the killers’ trial in Berlin the following year, Sweden kicked out three diplomats for spying on Iranian expatriates within its borders. It also charged an Iranian national, Jamshid Abedi Lahrodi, with spying in connection with the attempted bombing of NCRI. He was sentenced to just one year in prison and has since worked at the Iranian embassy in Stockholm.

The regime’s tentacles in Sweden have only gained a tighter hold over the years. Two recent high-profile cases – the ongoing arbitrary detention of Iranian-Swedish dual national Ahmad Reza Jalali, and the kidnapping last year of Iranian Arab separatist Habib Chaab after he was lured from Sweden to Turkey – have brought this issue back to the fore. But every year, dozens of smaller, malevolent acts by the regime and its supporters blight the lives of Iranians in the country and pose an active threat to their and others’ safety.

Espionage Through Apps, Scholarships and Cultural Events

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Arvin Khoshnood, an Iranian-born member of Lund University’s Department of Human Geography, told IranWire in reference to Sweden’s prominence in Asadi’s green book. “Swedish media has not talked much about it, but it’s no surprise that Sweden is an important country for the regime’s intelligence networks.”

The regime’s methods of gathering intelligence on Iranians in Europe have diversified in the digital age, with malware, phishing attacks and other online tools now a crucial part of its repressive arsenal.

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

The Persian-language app researchers identified as being built by regime hackers

Last year cybersecurity firm Check Point and human rights organization the Miaan Group exposed a Persian-language mobile phone app that apparently offered Iranians in Sweden help to get their driver’s licenses. But it had also featured a digital “backdoor” allowing Iranian state-sponsored hackers to steal users’ personal information.

“The regime’s cyber-army is very active on social media,” Khoshnood said. “There are loads of different Persian apps that can be downloaded and it’s not clear which ones belong to the regime.”

At the same time, he added: “It’s very hard to limit apps to target certain groups. So the most important way of gathering useful intelligence is still human intelligence. They use Iranians living in Sweden; a lot of Iranians here travel back to Iran to visit their families and this puts them at risk as they can be arrested and made to spy.”

In the past 18 months alone, a number of individuals have faced criminal action in connection with spying in Sweden on behalf of the regime. In December 2019 a 46-year-old Iraqi-born citizen of Sweden, Raghdan al-Hraishawi, was jailed for two and a half years for spying on Iranian Arabs and members of the exiled Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz.

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

Stockholm District Court jailed an Iraqi citizen of Sweden for spying on Iranians in 2019

Al-Hraishawi, prosecutors said, had got close to Iranian refugees by masquerading as a journalist, while also maintaining contact with the Islamic Republic’s intelligence agencies. They said he had filmed, photographed and recorded dissidents at meetings and “may have caused a large number of opposition Ahvazis [Iranian Arabs] or their relatives to be persecuted, seriously injured or killed… [his activities have] been going on a long time.”

Three people in two different cases have also been arrested in Sweden for allegedly planning terror attacks in the past six months. They include the aforementioned couple arrested on April 2 – a 27-year-old woman and a 29-year-old man who lived in Iran but claimed to be from Afghanistan – as well as an Ethiopian national said to have been plotting “revenge” for the killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Ghasem Soleimani.

The regime’s recruitment methods for potential spies are myriad. Apart from recruiting Iranians who visit home, Khoshnood says, the children of regime officials sometimes come to study at Swedish universities and can be put to use spying on their peers.

In January a Swedish MP, Lars Puss, raised the alarm over the Universities of Lund, Borås, Chalmers, Linnaeus, Malmö and Halmstad having visited Iran to recruit new students.

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

MP Lars Puss called for scrutiny of Swedish universities visiting Iran to recruit students

“We know Iran is one of the three countries in the world that conducts the most extensive espionage against us here in Sweden,” he said. “Against this background, it would not be far-fetched to assume students who come to Sweden from Iran have the goal of not only studying but also conducting intelligence-gathering on behalf of Iran. I certainly do not think we should paint all students from Iran as spies, but it should call for some thought.”

In response, Minister for Higher Education Matilda Ernkrans said: “It is possible to be critical of the lack of human rights in a particular country and at the same time see the value of international cooperation between higher education institutions.”

Meanwhile, as in other European countries, the Islamic Republic also makes extensive use of “cultural” and “religious” outposts in Sweden to promote its ideological and foreign policies – but also to gather information on the diaspora. The Imam Ali Islamic Center in Stockholm, a Shia cultural hub founded in 1997, is widely thought to be close to the regime. The Center and its 33 offices around the country regularly host delegations from the Iranian embassy.

In 2012, an “Iranian Culture Week” was held at City Hall in Lund. The event’s organizers openly stated that it was sponsored by the Iranian embassy. “I arranged a demonstration against it,” Khoshnood said, “and during the demo, people supporting the regime took photos of those taking part. Later, some of them were attacked by regime supporters.”

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

Iranians have raised concerns about spying via the Imam Ali Center in Stockholm

By recruiting supposed “insiders” to gather information on opposition groups, Khoshnood said, “The regime creates distrust among the opposition – and that’s one of the reasons the opposition is not very well-organized.

“But aside from politics, when it comes to friends and business ties, Iranians are more or less afraid of each other and it does affect their relationships. People who are politically active are often very isolated. Especially after the case of Habib Chaab, some are also afraid to travel.”

Physical Intimidation and Official Silence

Iranians in Sweden also face violent reprisal for criticizing the regime, from physical attacks on People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) rallies to property damage and malicious communication. Last year a bomb was thrown onto the porch of the Iranian-born Swedish Christian Democrat Party member Soheila Fors, whose father was killed in the Islamic Revolution.

Ms Fors, who also runs a women’s shelter in Sweden, had received threatening phone calls for her criticism of the regime before the incident. “My only takeaway is that the Iranian regime was behind this attack,” she said. “I am neither surprised nor afraid, but I am worried about the safety of my children. If you ever read that I am gone, know that the Iranian regime is culpable.”

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

Politician Soheila Fors has been targeted by pro-regime groups on several occasions

Members of the United Associations for a Free Iran (FFFI), an umbrella group for Swedish-Iranians and Iranians in exile that supports the MEK and the NCRI, have also been on the receiving end of similar attacks: “from damages to my or family member's car,” a spokesman said, “to breaking into our homes or crushing our windows.

"We also receive a lot of threatening phone calls and emails, from unknown numbers, people and bots. Once many years ago, the regime’s cyber army hacked our website and tried to intimidate us by putting up a banner with their logo and slogans.”

The FFFI spokesman added added that the regime had tried to “terrorize” FFFI members into giving up their advocacy work by repeatedly summoning their family members in Iran to the Intelligence Ministry.

The group spoke to the Swedish Foreign Ministry about the problems it was facing, he said, but “the Swedish government is following an appeasement policy against Iran because it genuinely believes in the illusion that it is strengthening the hands of a moderate faction from within the regime over the hardliners.”

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

MEK supporters protest during a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister to Sweden in 2019

In the coming months, a landmark court case is expected to get under way in Stockholm against Hamid Nouri, an ex-Iranian regime prosecutor accused of involvement in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran. Nouri was arrested by Swedish police in November 2019 after a complaint by a private plaintiff, the lawyer Kaveh Moussavi. With more than 30 people expected to give evidence against him, questions remain as to how the Swedish police and judiciary plan to keep witnesses and observers safe during proceedings.

Arvin Khoshnood agrees that Sweden can do more. “Swedish policy is part of a larger European Union policy which really doesn’t want to antagonize Iran,” he said. “The EU doesn’t want to put pressure on Iran for economic reasons; before the 2012 to 2015 sanctions, the EU was Iran’s main trading partner.”

In 2017, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven came under fire after visiting Iran with a largely female delegation, all of whom wore the hijab in compliance with the country’s brutally-enforced mandatory veiling policy. During the meeting, Hassan Rouhani praised Sweden’s “moderate” approach during the sanctions period. Lofven, meanwhile, told reporters afterward that he had “raised the issue” of human rights, though he declined to say how, and added that the visit “will create jobs in Sweden”.

Khoshnood added: "Sweden should issue harsher sentences to people for spying and use it as a reason to impose harsher sanctions on Iran. Iranians in Sweden need to know that the Swedish government is ready to punish the regime should it attack Iranians in the country.”

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

President Rouhani greets the Swedish delegation in 2017

IranWire contacted a number of non-Iranian Swedish MPs and the Swedish Foreign Ministry to ask for clarification on the country’s policy toward Iran, and whether the Foreign Minister believed a conciliatory approach was emboldening the regime.

Separately IranWire contacted the Interior Ministry about how it planned to keep Iranians safe within its borders in light of the Security Service’s report. None of these parties responded.

A Wider Campaign Encouraged by Geopolitical Shifts

Researchers at Freedom House have conducted extensive work on the phenomenon of “transnational repression”: when a state exerts pressure on its ex-citizens abroad through a broad spectrum of tactics, from kidnapping and hacks to harassment, intimidation, surveillance and “coercion by proxy” by threatening family members back home.

Iranian transnational repression, researchers stated in their 2021 report, “is distinguished by the total commitment it receives from the state, the level of violence that it employs, and its sophisticated application of diverse methods against a similarly diverse set of targets. The result is intense intimidation of the Iranian diaspora, from which even those who avoid physical consequences ultimately suffer.”

Coercion by a Thousand Proxies: How Iran Targets Dissidents in Sweden

Nate Schenkkan of Freedom House said Iran’s transnational repression had deepened again with the imposition of sanctions

Director of research strategy Nate Schenkkan told IranWire that after the “ostentatious” incidents of the 1980s and 1990s, Iran’s transnational repression seemed to ease off in the 2000s before reaching new heights in Europe following the imposition of US sanctions. Since then, he said, there have been two key changes to the regime’s approach: the use of kidnapping and rendition by luring Iranians to “less safe” countries, and digital surveillance.

“Iran is also a very powerful actor in the digital sphere,” he said, “in terms of propaganda, and in using custom-built open-source intelligence. They are capable of building software and spyware and deploying it to impact targets overseas.” In addition, he said, it was cheap and easy to scrape information about Iranians’ lives from their public social media profiles.

At the same time, Schenkkan added: “There’s been a shift in the [global] order, whereby illiberal states are feeling more comfortable. You can get away with this. Iran is something of a pariah state and realizes that it can. There’s not much cost in terms of accountability.”

For Iranians in Sweden and other European countries living under the weight of surveillance, he said, there was a double cost: “There’s a burden of feeling you’re under scrutiny. But also, you internalize it; you start to watch your own activities and you start self-censoring.”

With two Swedish-Iranians now being held as political prisoners by the regime, Schenkkan said Western governments needed to be more proactive about protecting those under threat. “It’s seldom that these things come out of the blue. Someone who gets kidnapped may well have been experiencing threats and it’s important that information gets to the right people, and is acted on.”

Related coverage:

Decoding Iran's Politics: The Chain Murders of Dissidents

Fear Over Imminent Execution of Scientist Charged with Espionage

The Diplomat Bomber, Mysterious Notebooks and Turbulent Dreams

Holy Terror: Iran's Criminal Record from Germany to Ethiopia

Abductions and Murder Through Embassies: The Islamic Republic's Terrorism Abroad

Mohammad Davoudzadeh Loloei, a Terror Plot and Lessons Europe Learned


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