Witch-hunt for ‘spies’ in Tehran

Recent arrests reflect Khame­nei’s desire to restore balance of power within regime by weakening Rohani’s camp.

Ali Rezaian, brother of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief who is currently in Evin Prison in Iran, at the Washington Press Club, in July.


2015/11/13 Issue: 31 Page: 15


The Arab Weekly
Ali Alfoneh



Washington - A veritable witch-hunt has followed the July 14th nuclear agreement between the Islamic Re­public and US-led global powers in which lobbyists instru­mental in the success of President Hassan Rohani’s diplomacy are being arrested, some on espionage charges.

Such crackdowns are not unusu­al in Iran but what makes this one particularly notable is that it is not the Ministry of Intelligence and Security or regular law enforce­ment agencies that are doing the arresting but the Intelligence and Security Organisation of the Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC-ISO), the clerical regime’s praetorian guard.

This not only heralds tough times for Rohani and Iran’s tech­nocratic elite who form the core of his administration. It also signals the growing influence of the IRGC, the most powerful military force in the country, its hard-line factions in particular.

The wave of arrests also appears to be a deliberate effort by hardlin­ers in the Tehran regime to lower public expectations of political lib­eralisation and economic recovery in the wake of the nuclear agree­ment.

It was Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who gave the green light for the current witch-hunt. He has shown consid­erable ambivalence to the agree­ment and in a September 9th ad­dress warned against negotiations with the United States, which he branded “an instrument of infiltra­tion”.

Addressing IRGC commanders a week later, Khamenei not only reit­erated his warning against “enemy infiltration” but explicitly urged the IRGC-ISO to counter “threats against the revolution”.

The October 29th meeting be­tween Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna indicates that Khamenei’s opposition to negotiations with the United States is disingenuous. The Iranian leader may not want to publicly endorse policy coordina­tion with the United States when it comes to developments in Syria and Iraq and the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), their common enemy.

However, there is nothing dis­ingenuous about Khamenei’s op­position to “enemy infiltration of Iran”, a warning that serves the purpose of intimidating political dissidents.

Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC commander, has enthusiastically embraced Khame­nei’s call. In a November 3rd ad­dress commemorating the 1979 sei­zure of the US embassy in Tehran, Jafari warned about a “prolonged sedition of infiltration” following the July 14th agreement. This, he insisted “may last several years”.

Even before Khamenei’s formal green light, the IRGC was rounding up people branded as suspects.

Nazar Zakka, a Lebanese citi­zen with permanent residence in the United States, who serves as secretary-general of the Arab In­formation and Communications Technology Organisation, disap­peared in Tehran on September 18th. According to the New York Times, Zakka had been invited to Iran with his family by Shahin­dokht Molaverdi, vice-president for Women and Family Affairs.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian- American dual citizen of the Iran Atieh Bahar Consulting firm, who served as Rohani’s chief lobbyist in the United States, was arrested in mid-October at his mother’s house in Tehran. His family has decided to maintain a low-key po­sition because they fear public pro­tests could make things worse for Namazi.

The IRGC-ISO was also responsi­ble for the arrest of Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American dual citizen and a correspondent of the Wash­ington Post. He was convicted of espionage in October in a secret trial, Iranian media reported.

Among the others arrested were Isa Saharkhiz, a reformist journalist who supported former president Mohammad Khatami; reformist editor Ehsan Mazanda­rani, Saman Safarzaei, a journalist with the pro-Rohani Andisheh-ye Pouya monthly; and Afarin Chit­saz, actress and columnist with Iran, the mouthpiece of Rohani’s government.

There have also been reports that “members of an infiltrator network cooperating with hostile Western governments” have been arrested.

The recent arrests reflect Khame­nei’s desire to restore the balance of power within the regime by weakening Rohani’s camp, which was greatly strengthened by the nuclear agreement, and boost the powers of the IRGC.

However, the IRGC is also pur­suing its own agenda and is send­ing another message: The nuclear agreement may have opened lu­crative business opportunities in Iran but those interested in invest­ing in the Islamic Republic should cooperate with the Revolutionary Guards rather than Rohani and his influential ally, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.


Ali Alfoneh is a non-resident senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.


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