Why Is Iran Kidnapping and Executing Dissidents?

Published by New York Times

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’s 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 Shahpur Bakhtiar, who served as the last prime minister of Iran before the 1979 revolution deposed the monarch Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. 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.


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