Iranian Government on a “Witch Hunt for ‘Spies'”

Ali Alfoneh of the Arab Weekly writes that hardliners within the Iranian government have begun a furious search for infiltrators and subversive agents of the West since the Iran deal — whether or not such agents exist.  Unlike previous crackdowns, which Alfoneh notes have not been unusual, this one is being carried out by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rather than by the official police agencies of the regime.  The specific unit of the IRGC tasked with this purge is the Intelligence and Security Organization (IRGC-ISO), who received the orders directly from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his address to them in September.  During his remarks he warned against “enemy infiltration” and urged the IRGC-ISO to counter “threats against the revolution.”

The IRGC overall commander, Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, was hand-picked by Khamenei to lead the organization.  He has followed up on his leader’s expressed desires by shifting the IRGC-ISO into overdrive.  During the early November celebrations of the anniversary of the 1979 hostage-taking of Americans as the US embassy, Jafari told IRGC members to expect a US-backed effort aimed at “prolonged sedition of infiltration” because of the Iran deal.  Such an effort “may last several years,” he said, and would require intense suppression and investigation.

The formal increase in the intensity of surveillance for sedition and traitors by the IRGC-ISO has been accompanied by a corresponding set of terrorism under color of law aimed at those with American ties.  Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was sentenced by an Iranian court to an “unspecified” prison sentence for espionage last week. Nazar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen who nevertheless has permanent resident status in the United States, vanished in Tehran without explanation.  The head of the Arab In­formation and Communications Technology Organisation, Zakka was in Tehran at the invitation of a regime official.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American, was arrested at his home on unstated charges.  His family has said little to the media out of fear that the regime would only punish him more harshly because of the publicity.  At the time of his arrest, he was the fifth American citizen to be taken in by the Iranian government.  He was also the third businessman working for a foreign corporation.

These arrests and outright disappearances have caused grave concern among those with Iranian ties who would like to do business in their country of origin.  Writing in Foreign Policy, Azadeh Moaveni notes that the regime is “deeply ambivalent” about Iranians who share US citizenship.  Though she would like to go back to Iran to take care of some family business, doing so entails an “incalcuable risk.”

I might visit my elderly relatives, deal with family business matters, and return back to my children in Britain without any hassle. Or I might have my passport confiscated at the airport and be summoned for interrogation, in which case I might be unable to travel for weeks, awaiting my passport’s return, or, worse, face full-blown imprisonment of indeterminate length.

The nuclear deal sealed between Iran and six world powers this July has been a bittersweet experience for the estimated 1 million people who are citizens of both Iran and the United States. As diplomatic relations between the two countries has improved, the situation for Iranian-Americans seems to have mostly gotten worse. While the regime tolerated its diaspora citizens for much of the early and mid-2000s, now the category stands as an identifiable security risk for travel.

In addition to these roundups, dissidents have been punished and executed at an increased rate by President Hassan Rouhani’s government. Thousands of executions of dissidents — many allegedly on drug charges — have accompanied the presidency of a man sometimes described as a “technocrat” and said not to be one of the regime’s hardliners.  During recent planning for a European trip, the biographies of his entourage demonstrated just how radical his “moderate” faction really is.

Nor have dissidents outside Iran always fared better.  On October 29th, Iranian dissidents at Camp Liberty, Iraq, were attacked by rockets.  Twenty-four dissidents died in the attack, which was carried out by ideologically loyal Shi’a militias at Iran’s orders.