In Iran, jailed dual nationals are pawns in power struggle

Many reformists in Iran argue that 'principlists' use many levers to undermine their oppo­nents, including pro-reform president, Rohani, who faces re-election in May.

A July 2010 picture shows Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri after his return to Tehran.


2016/08/28 Issue: 70 Page: 17


The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth



London - When US Republican presidential candi­date Donald Trump suggested leaked e-mail messages from his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton may have led Iran to hang Shahram Amiri, he made the executed Ira­nian nuclear scientist’s fate part of the US election. Amiri’s death and the mysterious events that led up to it, however, are also caught up in the factional battles in Tehran.

Many reformists in Iran argue that the “principlists” use many levers to undermine their oppo­nents, including the pro-reform president, Hassan Rohani, who faces re-election in May.

According to this analysis, Ami­ri’s execution focuses attention on threats from the United States and undermines Rohani’s approach of seeking diplomatic progress on international issues after the July 2015 nuclear agreement that his ad­ministration negotiated with world powers.

Ahmed Shaheed, deputy direc­tor of the Human Rights Centre at Essex University and the UN spe­cial rapporteur on human rights in Iran, argues that human rights violations tie in with the election cycle.

“I have observed [since 2011] that [such] violations… often increase as an election approaches,” he re­cently wrote. “As we are now in the final year of [Rohani’s] first term, the flexing of muscles by hardliners who largely control Iran’s security, intelligence and judicial apparatus may already be beginning.”

Hence, runs the argument, Iran has arrested several dual nationals, including Siamak Namazi, an Irani­an-American who works at a petro­leum company in Dubai; Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-Brit­ish charitable foundation worker; Homa Hoodfar, an Iranian-Canadi­an social anthropologist; and Robin Reza Shahini, an Iranian-American citizen.

Iran’s execution of Amiri on August 3rd was announced by his mother, who said he had told her days earlier that his ten-year sentence for spying had been in­creased to capital punishment.

The hanging was confirmed by a judiciary spokesman, who said the scientist had “passed on our coun­try’s most crucial intelligence”, presumably about the nuclear pro­gramme, “to the enemy”.

Amiri then became the lat­est twist in the Clinton e-mail saga, which began in 2015 when it emerged she used a private e-mail address while secretary of State under US President Barack Obama.

Barely veiled references to Amiri were said by Trump to have led to the scientist’s death.

That claim seems far-fetched, although nothing about the case of Amiri, who disappeared on pilgrimage to Mecca in 2009, is straightforward. Since he returned to Iran in 2010, where he was giv­en a hero’s reception before being jailed, it is unlikely that the leak­ing of the Clinton e-mail messages added to Iranian intelligence’s knowledge.

Unlikely, but not impossible.

E-mail from adviser Jake Sulli­van to Clinton on July 12th, 2010, hours before Amiri approached the Iranian interest section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington asking to return home, appears to confirm that Amiri had defected to the United States and was not, as he would claim when back in Iran, the victim of a CIA kidnapping.

“The gentleman,” wrote Sulli­van, “has apparently gone to his country’s interests section because he is unhappy with how much time it has taken to facilitate his depar­ture.”

Amiri’s execution came at a time of tightening security in Iran. Teh­ran’s state prosecutor’s recent an­nouncement of the arrest of a dual national, allegedly linked to British intelligence and active “in the eco­nomic sector”, adds to the calcula­tions of foreign companies think­ing of investing.

They already face problems us­ing the dollar, while the US Con­gress continues its attempts to stymie Tehran’s agreement with Boeing that could be worth more than $20 billion.

Ballistic missile tests may also be tangled up in Iran’s factional con­flict. Since the 2015 nuclear agree­ment, Iran has carried out several launches stretching the UN Securi­ty Council resolution that it refrain from ballistic missile activity “de­signed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons”.

While the United Nations’ In­ternational Atomic Agency has confirmed Tehran’s compliance with the agreement, Rohani is well aware the tests provide ammuni­tion for the deal’s opponents in Washington, including Trump.

May’s presidential election in Iran will probably hinge on wheth­er voters feel Rohani’s promise of economic improvement outweighs the principlists’ call for greater equality and resisting foreign in­terference. But further down the line is a more important election in which the Amiri execution might play a role.

Some analysts see Sadeq Lari­jani, head of the judiciary, as a possible “kingmaker” in the suc­cession to 73-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, while others see him as a candidate for president.

In 2015, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, then widely seen as the front runner for leader, was thwarted in his attempt to be­come chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the su­preme leader, by reports that he was under judicial investigation for financial irregularities.

Might Larijani have authorised Amiri’s execution for essentially political reasons? One Iranian aca­demic said he thought it possible.

“I see no evidence for this being part of the political struggle but I would not rule it out,” the academ­ic, who requested anonymity, said. “Why didn’t they execute him in 2010? Or last year, when the Clin­ton e-mails came out? Why now?”


Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.


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