Iran TerrorismOn the track of Tehran's agents

On the track of Tehran’s agents

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ImageThe Australian: As the Iranian regime tightens its political stranglehold and pursues its nuclear ambitions, security services in Australia are zeroing in on Iranian-backed militants on Australian soil. The Australian

Sally Neighbour

ImageAS the Iranian regime tightens its political stranglehold and pursues its nuclear ambitions, security services in Australia are zeroing in on Iranian-backed militants on Australian soil.

While the counter-terrorism focus since 2001 has largely been on Sunni Muslim militants, the activities of Shia activists – principally linked to Iran and its ally, Lebanon's Hezbollah – are of growing concern to ASIO and other counter-terrorism agencies.

Sydney-based Iranian cleric Mansour Leghaei faces deportation, accused by ASIO of unnamed "acts of foreign interference", and the government recently blocked a series of shipments to Iran under the Weapons of Mass Destruction (Prevention of Proliferation) Act.

Security concerns are spelled out in an ASIO assessment prepared for the federal government's recent white paper on counter-terrorism, which singles out a well-known Iranian proxy, Hezbollah's international wing, known as the External Security Organisation, as having a presence in Australia and possibly supplying weapons and materiel to Iran.

At the same time, growing tensions between pro and anti-Tehran activists have erupted in the Iranian community, particularly on university campuses in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Iranian-born democracy activists accuse the government in Tehran and its embassy in Canberra of monitoring their movements, planting spies among student bodies to keep tabs on campus activity, harassing and threatening those who criticise the regime, and reporting back to Tehran on their activities. The students say the regime has sent loyalists on government scholarships to act as its "spies" in Australia, where they attend and disrupt political meetings, abuse pro-democracy activists, and collect intelligence on their activities.

A Melbourne-based spokesman for the pro-democracy group Iran Solidarity, Afshin Nikouseresht, says these incidents have become commonplace since the democracy movement flourished in exile communities after last year's disputed elections and pro-democracy uprising in Iran.

"We've had people in Canberra harassed by people in the embassy for writing material or protesting outside the embassy," he says. "I've had phone calls at all hours of the night, people abusing me.

"We have eyewitness accounts of filming from inside the embassy, taking photographs of protesters. Most of the fear of the embassy is about intelligence gathering, they keep track of what Iranian students are doing here."

He says one activist at the Australian National University in Canberra has had death threats. Another, a 24-year-old journalism student at Monash University in Melbourne, has been told she is now barred from returning to Iran because of her political activities in Australia. The student is named Asal, but asked that her second name not be used for fear her family in Tehran would be punished.

Before coming to Australia, Asal was a student activist in Tehran where she was part of a campaign to collect one million signatures calling for changes to laws that discriminate against women. As a result, she says she was banned from completing her studies. She transferred to Monash to complete her journalism degree in 2008 and became involved with Iran Solidarity, writing articles critical of the regime on Persian websites and attending rallies to support last year's uprising.

Recently, she says, Iranian officials visited her father in Tehran and told him she could never return home. Asal tells The Australian: "They went to my father, they said, `She writes some articles against us.' They showed him some old articles and asked him: `What is she doing in Australia? Why [did] she leave Iran?' "

She says the officials told her father she had been seen at protest rallies and that because of her activities she was now persona non grata in Iran. "It was a really big shock, I was sure it would be easy to go back," she says.

Nikouseresht says Iranian students here have "well-founded fears" amid a deepening "atmosphere of paranoia".

Another source of mistrust and suspicion is the Iranian government's funding of certain mosques, Islamic centres and universities in Australia, which are assumed, as a result, to be pro-Tehran.

One beneficiary is the Sydney-based cleric Leghaei, who received two donations from Iran. The first was $10,000 in cash in 1995 from the Islamic Propagation Centre in Tehran for the Great Prophet Islamic Centre in Melbourne's Fawkner. The second was a cheque for $32,000 donated by the Iranian ambassador in 1999 to the Imam Husain Islamic Centre in Sydney's Earlwood. Leghaei has been branded a threat to national security and accused of unspecified "acts of foreign interference", apparently because of his Iranian connections, although ASIO will not reveal the reasons. He is facing deportation this month unless a last-minute appeal to the Immigration Minister succeeds.

Another recipient of Tehran's largesse is the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at ANU, which in 1999-2000 received $650,000 from the Iranian government. The money was placed in an endowment and the interest it earns pays for a lecturer who teaches Persian and Islamic studies.

The donation has fuelled accusations that the centre is pro-Tehran. Federal Labor MP Michael Danby, secretary of the Australia-Israel Friendship Group, says the CAIS is routinely critical of Israel but rarely critical of Iran. A spokeswoman for the ANU tells The Australian this is "categorically wrong".

Of far greater concern to ASIO is the known presence in Australia of Iran-sponsored militants who actively support terrorist campaigns abroad. As the counter-terrorism white paper noted: "This includes groups with a long history of engaging in terrorist acts and a current capability to commit them, such as Lebanese Hezbollah's External Security Organisation."

The ESO was proscribed in Australia in 2003 and relisted as a terrorist organisation in 2009. It is distinct from the mainstream Hezbollah, which is a legitimate political party that occupies 11 seats in the Lebanese parliament. Hezbollah is proscribed as a terrorist group by the US, but not in Australia.

Formed in the 1980s as Hezbollah's international wing, the ESO grew into a separate branch that operates independently of its parent. "ESO's primary role is international terrorism," says a report by the federal parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, which confirmed the organisation's relisting last year.

The federal government's national security website describes ESO as "among the best organised terrorist networks in the world". It is financed, trained and armed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and is known to act as a proxy for the Iranian military and intelligence apparatus. In the 90s, ESO carried out regular attacks against Israeli and American targets, but since 2000 it has focused on targets in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The intelligence and security committee report says: "ESO continues to operate on a global basis, gathering intelligence to be used in terrorist attack planning, collecting money by both legal and illegal methods, recruiting and training terrorists and acquiring weapons. There is reporting to indicate ESO is planning attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets outside Israel."

ESO was first detected in Australia in the 90s, when ASIO investigated a Sydney man associated with Sydney's Arncliffe mosque, the largest Shia centre of worship in Australia. The man was in contact with ESO headquarters and hosted a visit by a number of ESO officials to Australia. It was believed its purpose was to recruit local supporters who could assist with logistics such as the procurement of so-called dual-use technology: civilian hardware that can be converted to military use.

Intelligence sources say ESO has a track record of sourcing military supplies for Iran, which is subject to military sanctions. This has become a source of growing concern as Iran presses on with its push to acquire nuclear weapons. The specific concern here is that Australian operatives may be helping to supply materiel intended for Iran's nuclear program.

Last year three shipments from Australia were blocked by Defence Minister John Faulkner under the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act. The department has refused to reveal what the shipments contained, although one is known to have included industrial pumps. One of the shipments was destined for Iran while the other two were considered at risk of being diverted to Iran. The Defence Department said the minister was "satisfied that if the particular goods were supplied or exported they might be used in a WMD program". At least three other shipments to Iran were blocked in 2003-09 under the Defence and Strategic Goods list administered under the Customs Act.

Efforts by Australian authorities to curtail the ESO in Australia are complicated by the fact that its parent body, Hezbollah, enjoys substantial support among local Muslim communities, especially those of Lebanese origin, where it is based.

"There's no question about [there being] fairly large support from a large part of the Australian community who support and sympathise with Hezbollah in Australia," says Roland Jabbour, chairman of the Australian Arabic Council.

In 2007 The Australian reported that police were investigating a possible Hezbollah cell in Melbourne, after videotaping rallies attended by dozens of men waving Hezbollah flags and banners during a 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon.

Jabbour says he is not aware that Hezbollah is active in Australia. "If they mean are there people who sympathise with Hezbollah in Australia, that's a fact. But on a community level I'm not aware of any activities related to Hezbollah as such."

However, the Australian Communications and Media Authority is investigating the broadcast into Australia of the Hezbollah-owned television station Al-Manar, to assess whether it is in breach of the anti-terrorism requirements of the Broadcasting Services Standard.

Al-Manar, which calls itself the station of the Palestinian resistance, is banned in several countries and listed as a terrorist organisation by the US.

The station is transmitted into Australia by the Indonesian satellite company Indosat. Its broadcasts have included videotape of children undergoing military training while singing "Death, death, death to Israel", and segments portraying Jews turning into apes and pigs and drinking the blood of Christian children during the Passover feast.

The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council is lobbying to have Al-Manar banned in Australia, arguing it breaches the anti-terrorism laws by supporting terrorist acts and soliciting funds for terrorist organisations.

Jabbour argues against such a ban. "If a country like Indonesia finds [Al-Manar] acceptable and we don't, then it begs a question about our standing on the high moral ground on freedom of speech and expression."

There is no call for tolerance towards Hezbollah's ESO. ASIO's present assessment is that ESO is directly involved in planning and preparing for terrorist acts abroad, and that its supporters might see Australia as a convenient launchpad for such attacks.

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