NEW YORK — A California woman pleaded guilty on Thursday in connection with her unwitting role in a foiled plot to kidnap a prominent Iranian opposition activist living in New York City and take her back to Tehran.
U.S. prosecutors have not accused Niloufar Bahadorifar of participating in the plot to abduct Masih Alinejad, a journalist and vocal critic of the Iranian government for its treatment of women and other issues.
But authorities said four Iranians who plotted to kidnap the activist and paid an American private investigator to watch her used Bahadorifar as a go-between.
Bahadorifar pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to violate U.S. economic sanctions on Iran by helping channel money to the investigator.
Her lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, told The New York Times that Bahadorifar was herself a victim of a “cancerous” Iranian regime.
“When Iran’s terrorist leaders aren’t slaughtering their own people,” he said, “they’re traveling the globe trying to kill their critics, including the despicable manipulation of Ms. Bahadorifar by an old family friend.”
Bahadorifar said in court she was unaware the money was used to pay the investigator to conduct surveillance. She told the judge she had sent the funds to the investigator via PayPal on behalf of a government official in Iran who was a longtime family friend.
An Iranian intelligence officer and others were charged in New York last year with attempting to kidnap Alinejad and take her back to Iran. The Officials in Iran have denied the charge.
The private investigator, who also was unaware his employers were actually Iranian agents, later cooperated with the FBI and has not been charged.
Alinejad became a U.S. citizen in 2019 after working for years as a journalist in Iran. She fled the country after its disputed 2009 presidential election and has become a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that criticize Iran.
U.S. authorities are investigating whether Alinejad was the target of a second plot after the first one was disrupted.
Last summer, police arrested a man near her Brooklyn home with a loaded assault rifle and dozens of rounds of ammunition. Alinejad said a home security video had recorded the man outside her front door.
Bahadorifar will be sentenced April 7.
Iran has conducted a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters who took to the streets in September after the death of a 22-year-old woman taken into custody by the morality police.