Does killing of Iranian dissident foreshadow what is to come for others?

Jerusalem Post, 13/8

Mousa Babakhani, a leading figure in an Iranian opposition party, was found murdered last Saturday in a hotel room in the Iraqi Kurdish capital city of Erbil.  Babakhani was a member of the central committee of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I). His body, which according to a statement released by the party, bore ‘signs of torture’, was found in a room at the Guli Suleimani hotel in the city.   

According to a KDP-I statement, Babakhani had disappeared the previous Thursday.  The Kurdish Human Rights organization Hengaw reported that Babakhani  was lured to the hotel by an old acquaintance who had arrived from Iran. There he was apprehended by two regime operatives. The three individuals suspected of the killing then succeeded in leaving Erbil. The KDP-I in its statement blamed the ‘Islamic Republic’ (of Iran) for the murder. 

Babakhani’s killing has sent shockwaves through the community of Iranian exiles in Erbil, both Kurdish and non-Kurdish.  It is the second such killing of an Iranian dissident on Iraq soil in the last month. There are fears that it could herald a new hunting season of the Iranian regime against its opponents resident in northern Iraq. 

 On July 14, in the Zhaleh neighborhood of Suleimania city, the prominent Iranian Kurdish civil society and environmentalist activist Behrouz Rahimi was shot dead by armed assailants.  CCTV footage of the killing shows a black BMW with no license plate and tinted windows approaching Rahimi. 21 shots were fired.  Rahimi died of his wounds later in the hospital.  Rahimi, who left Iran in 2012, was associated with the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK).  This movement is the Iranian franchise of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

Rahimi’s widow, Zoleykha Nasseri, herself a prominent Iranian opposition activist, told the Middle East Eye website that her husband had been approached in recent weeks by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, which had asked him to begin cooperating with it.  When he refused, he was threatened with death.  On July 14, it appears that the threat was carried out. 

Suleimania is located close to the Iraq-Iran border.  It is under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which maintains ambiguous relations with the Iranian regime.  Harassment and threats to Iranian opposition activists are common in this area.  Activists accuse the authorities of silence, and on occasion of cooperation with the Iranian regime.  In 2020, Mustafa Salimi, an Iranian Kurdish activist, escaped from jail in Iran, smuggled himself across the border into Kurdish northern Iraq, and asked for asylum from the Kurdish Regional Government.  Instead, Salimi was handed back to the Iranian authorities, who reportedly subsequently executed him. 

Previous killings generally thought to have been carried out by the Iranian regime have taken place in the remote and lawless border area between northern Iraq and Iran.  On July 17, 2018, the body of Eghbal Moradi, a well known Kurdish activist and the father of an executed political prisoner, was discovered outside the village of Penjwen, close to the border.  He had been shot dead. 

The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) has issued a statement accusing the Iranian regime of responsibility for the murder of Rehbouz Rahimi. 

The killing of Mousa Babakhani has particularly shocked Iranian Kurds because it took place in Erbil, previously regarded as a safer area for the exiles than the towns and cities closer to the Iraq- Iran border.  While the PUK further east is close to Iran, the Kurdish Democratic Party, which controls the Erbil area, maintains links with Turkey and with the US.  Erbil has over recent years emerged as one of the safest areas in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,  which itself is the most secure part of Iraq. The fact that the Iranian regime appears on this occasion to have been able to send two of its operatives to penetrate the area,  murder one of its opponents, and then leave without a trace is thus an ominous development. 

Fars News, a website associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), described Mousa Babakhani as ‘leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran terrorist group, which is supported by the Mossad.’  

A KDPI member interviewed by the Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, asserted that the organization has proof that the assassination was carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and added that the organization is currently assisting security authorities in investigating the murder. 

A second member of the organization, contacted by the Jerusalem Post, said that the assassination has meant that KDPI members are now wary of coming to Erbil.  ‘In this situation with all the threats against members It’s not wise. In the past we were worried about going to Suleimaniah as there’s many regime agents everywhere, in terminals, in bakeries, in groceries, markets, restaurants and tea houses, hotels… Now we are afraid of coming out of our base and going to Erbil for a few hours trip. Now we have to worry about Erbil too.’

The activist noted that online harassment of opposition activists and their families by regime elements has increased in recent weeks. ‘We get threat messages, they threaten our family members in Iran,’ he told the Jerusalem Post.  ‘ The Etela’at (Ministry of Intelligence) calls our families in Urmia, Bukan, Mahabad, Kermanshah, Sanandaj, Marivan, Saqqez,… they monitor Whatsapp calls and Instagram. They threaten us by abusing our female family members and relatives.’

A prominent Iranian opposition journalist resident in Erbil, Ali Javanmardi, has tweeted photographs of an individual he claims is one of the killers of Mousa Babakhani.

 Javanmardi, with 76.5000 Twitter followers, is an influential voice in Iranian opposition circles.  He identified one of the killers as Sarmad Abdi.  Abdi, a Kurd, hails from Ilam, in Iran. This area is close to Kermanshah, where Babkhani was from, leading to speculation that Abdi was the ‘friend’ of the victim’s who led him to the hotel.  In his tweet, Javanmardi noted that an unidentified organization would offer $30,000 for information identifying Abdi’s location. 

The campaign of intimidation and murder against Iraqi opponents of the Shia militias and the Iranian interest has received some attention in western media in recent months.  The assassination of prominent Iraqi political analyst Hisham al-Hashimi by the Ktaeb Hizballah militia on July 6, 2020 in Baghdad was the subject of broad international coverage.  By contrast, the killings of two Iranian Kurdish dissidents in northern Iraq over the last month have been entirely ignored in the west.   The murders of Rahimi and Babakhani, however, form an element in a  pattern of increased Iranian assertion across a number of files and locations in the region in recent weeks.  Iranian oppositionists, who had grown accustomed to seeing Erbil and northern Iraq as a relatively safe space, will be waiting in coming weeks to see if this perception must now be entirely revised.   Two questions arise: will the discernible pattern of greater Iranian assertion currently under way include a campaign of executions against stateless Iranian oppositionists and dissidents in northern Iraq? And will anyone be held to account for these killings?

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is a the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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