Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Why Is Iran Kidnapping and Executing Dissidents?

He has been dead for a month.

On Dec. 12 Iranians woke up to bleak news: Their government had executed Ruhollah Zam, a 42-year-old journalist. The sentencing judge described Mr. Zam as a spy, as someone who incited violence and had “sown corruption on earth,” a vague charge which is often used to describe attempts to overthrow the Iranian government.

Mr. Zam, who had been imprisoned in Iran after the disputed presidential election in 2009, fled to France in 2011, where he was granted political asylum. From Paris, he started Amad News, a popular anti-government website, which also operated on the encrypted messaging app Telegram and other social media platforms. His father, Muhammad Ali Zam, a cleric, was once a high-ranking regime official and the family was well-connected in Iranian power circles. Mr. Zam used his connections to garner critical information and published revelatory accounts of insider corruption.

Iran was roiled by protests against unemployment and the high cost of living in December 2017 and January 2018. Mr. Zam’s Amad News helped coordinate disparate protests across the country. A manual for making Molotov cocktails was published on Amad News’ Telegram channel, but Telegram shut it down after Tehran argued that it was inciting violence.

In October 2019, an anonymous contact promised Mr. Zam a meeting in Najaf, Iraq with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme Shiite spiritual leader, whose religious authority surpasses that of Iran’s supreme leader. The Grand Ayatollah has lent his support to electoral democracy in Iraq and opposed rule by clerics. Mr. Zam, who was planning to establish a television channel, was hoping to discuss financing for his project. Instead, he was arrested on his arrival in Iraq by government officials and was handed over to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ operatives who transferred him to Iran.

Mr. Zam faced 17 criminal charges, including spying for France and Israel. Very little evidence was presented in court to substantiate the allegations against him. In September, a few months before Mr. Zam’s execution, Navid Afkari, an Iranian wrestler who supported the 2017-18 protests, was hanged in Shiraz.

The kidnapping, the conviction and the execution of Mr. Zam is reminiscent of tactics widely used by the Islamic Republic in its first two decades. Since its foundation in 1979, the Islamic Republic has assassinated up to 360 people around the world.

In August 1991, three Iranian operatives murdered Shapor Bakhtiar, who served as the last prime minister of Iran before the 1979 revolution deposed the monarch Mohammed Reza Shah Pahalvi. Mr. Bakhtiar and his secretary were killed in his home in the Paris suburb of Suresnes. One of the killers was eventually arrested and confessed to receiving orders from the Iranian government.

From Cyprus to the Philippines, from Romania to the United States, Iranian operatives assassinated anyone they deemed a threat. Those men and women included people from relatives of the deposed shah to Marxist political activists to religious figures from Iran’s Sunni minority.

The assassins often returned to Tehran to a hero’s welcome. Dawud Salahuddin (born David Theodore Belfield), an African-American convert to Islam, was hired by Iran in 1980 to kill Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former Iranian diplomat turned outspoken opponent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first Supreme Leader. After killing Mr. Tabatabai at his home in Maryland, the assassin fled to Iran, where he later worked as a journalist, rising to be the editor of the website of Press TV, Iran’s English-language broadcaster.

And then in 1988, six leading public figures and dissident intellectuals were murdered in Tehran. Many more killings were revealed over time and the murders came to be remembered as “the chain murders.”

Tehran’s nasty habit of assassinating critics and opponents at home and abroad seemed to have been reined in around 1997 after Iran faced international blowback for the killings and the subsequent election of a reformist president.

In 1992 Iranian agents killed Sadegh Sharafkandi, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, at a Greek restaurant in Berlin, where he was meeting Ingvar Carlsson, the former prime minister of Sweden, and Mona Sahlin, the leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. The Swedish leaders had to cancel at the last minute, which may have saved their lives. Germans vigorously investigated and prosecuted the case, which led to a landmark ruling by a German court in April 1997, and international arrest warrants were issued against top Iranian regime officials including Ayatollah Khomeini.

A few months later, in August 1997, Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, was elected president with a large popular backing and a mandate for change. Tehran sought to present a new face to the world; the assassination program was reined in. Iran’s energized reformists and reinvigorated press pressured the regime to investigate the assassinations. Eighteen intelligence operatives, who were described by Tehran as “rogue agents,” responsible for the murders, were put on trial. Three operatives were sentenced to death.

In the following years, dozens of opposition media outlets opened outside Iran, and exiled dissidents like myself didn’t fear for our lives in Europe and North America anymore. Mr. Zam’s abduction and execution is among several recent incidents that is forcing Iranian dissidents living overseas to reconsider the threat to their lives.

On Dec. 17, Turkey released video footage and documents exposing how Iranian authorities collaborated with drug gangs to kidnap Habib Chabi, an Iranian-Swedish activist for Iran’s Arab minority. Mr. Chabi was lured to Istanbul for a rendezvous with a female agent posing as a potential lover. He was kidnapped from Istanbul, smuggled across the border to Iran and put on trial there. He faces execution. A California-based member of an Iranian militant opposition group-in-exile, Jamshid Sharmahd, was abducted from Dubai in July.

Tehran seems to have revived its old tactics, and the timing of Mr. Zam’s execution within weeks of President-elect Joe Biden’s win and his desire to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal raises questions about the motives.

During the long negotiations for signing the 2015 nuclear deal, the Revolutionary Guards often tried to scuttle the process by repeatedly arresting dual nationals of Iran and Western countries and brazenly using them as hostages.

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and President Hassan Rouhani have expressed their willingness to return to the nuclear deal, but others virulently oppose them and dream of turning Iran into a fortress of hard-liners. Abductions and executions seem to be aimed at complicating the resumption of talks under the Biden administration.

President-elect Joe Biden must press Iran on its appalling campaign of kidnapping and execution, its policy of using arrested dual nationals as hostages while also keeping up the diplomatic engagement that could help sideline the hard-line factions in Tehran.

Arash Azizi is a graduate student at New York University and the author of “Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S. and Iran’s Global Ambitions.”

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