November 13, 2015 | The Arab Weekly
Witch-Hunt for ‘Spies’ in Tehran
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 senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who specialises in the IRGC. Follow him on Twitter @Alfoneh