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A Deadly Twist in Iran’s ‘Soft War’? Iranian satellite TV mogul murdered in Istanbul

Saeed Karimian, who as murdered on April 29, 2017, in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph courtesy of

A prominent Iranian satellite television network owner living in exile was gunned down along with his Kuwaiti business partner on an Istanbul street on the evening of April 29, 2017.

Saeed Karimian, a 45-year old Iranian-British citizen living in Istanbul, and his as yet unnamed Kuwaiti business associate, were driving in a car in an Istanbul suburb on Saturday evening when another car driven by unidentified assailants blocked their way and its occupants opened fire. Karimian was pronounced dead at the scene while his Kuwaiti associate died later that evening from his wounds in hospital.

Karimian was the founder and owner of Gem TV, a satellite television company that broadcast multiple channels in Farsi, Arabic, and Azeri. Gem TV maintains offices in London, Istanbul, and Dubai, and broadcasts numerous Turkish and other foreign soap operas, and Western programming, into Iran. Karimian was sentenced to six years in prison in absentia in January 2017 by the Iranian government for broadcasting banned content in Iran, described by Tehran as “propaganda.”

Some analysts are questioning whether Karimian and his Kuwaiti associate were murdered by agents of the Iranian government, with one alleging that Karimian was in a financial dispute with unnamed parties. “At this stage, all I know is that the most likely motivation behind the assassination could have been financial disputes between Mr. Karimian and his wide networks of business partners from Dubai to Malaysia,” said Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Others, however, are convinced that Karimian was the victim of assassins sent by Tehran as part of the so-called ‘Soft War’ that Iran alleges is being conducted against by Western and Arab governments and companies to undermine the political and cultural authority of the Revolutionary regime.

It is believed that millions of Iranians watch Gem TV channels, despite an ongoing ban in Iran on owning a satellite TV dish. “The regime is very sensitive about culturally subversive media and entertainment broadcast from overseas,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, DC, think tank. “Khamenei believes this is precisely the U.S. strategy — to overthrow the Islamic Republic via a soft revolution.”

Not only is possession of satellite television equipment illegal in Iran, it is also considered to be harmful to public “morals” by Iran’s leadership.

Speaking in July 2016 after a crackdown saw 100,000 satellite dishes confiscated, General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Basij paramilitary force, said, “What these televisions really achieve is increased divorce, addiction and insecurity in society. Most of these satellite channels not only weaken the foundation of families but also cause disruptions in children’s education and children who are under the influence of satellite have improper behaviour.”

According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor in 2016, anyone caught possessing satellite television equipment can face fines of up to U.S.$2,800.

Regime hardliners in Tehran believe that satellite television broadcasts from the West and Gulf Arab countries are part of a deliberate campaign to wage a ‘soft war’ against Iran, and that all programming broadcasted into Iran is designed to undermine support among ordinary Iranians for the government.

While it is possible that Karimian’s demise is the result of business dealings gone wrong, it is also known that in the recent past Iran has used assassinations and kidnappings of Iranian exiles abroad to assert its authority and quell dissent.  “One cannot rule out the possibility that he posed a serious threat to a powerful stakeholder in Iran,” Vaez said, though he noted that Karimian’s political activities did not seem to be irritating enough to justify assassination by Iranian agents.

SpaceWatch Middle East shall report on further details as the Turkish investigation of the murder of Karimian and his associate progresses.

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