On 12 December 2020 an execution took place in Iran that was like no other, even for a country that has the second highest known number of state-sponsored executions in the world. Everything about it – who the victim was and how and why he was apprehended, tried and hanged – holds critical insights for foreign policymakers in the US, as well as the European nations who wish to resume relations with the governing Islamic Republic of Iran.
The victim, 42-year-old Ruhollah Zam, was the son of a high-ranking Shiite cleric so devoted to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that he named his son after him. Zam was a child of the 1979 revolution that Khomeini led against Iran’s monarchy, and the ensuing Islamic Republic was the only government he knew for most of his life. But that changed in 2009 in the aftermath of a contested presidential election. Like millions of other Iranians, Zam took part in the nationwide protests that have become known as the “Green Movement”, was arrested and spent some time in jail. On his release, along with thousands of other embittered and disillusioned activists, he left the country.
Two years later, he sought asylum in France, where he joined Amad News, a Telegram news channel that had 1.4 millions followers. Zam’s father had headed the Islamic Publicity Organisation in the years after the 1979 revolution, developing deep ties with Iran’s ruling elite and media. These connections became an asset to his son in his work a journalist. He reported on cases of alleged financial corruption and, in 2017, as nationwide economic protests swept Iran, his network shared videos of the unrest, attracting the regime’s anger.
As it does with popular things that it cannot control, Tehran set out to silence Zam. In October 2019 he was reportedly lured into Iraq with an invitation he thought had come from the office of Grand Ayatollah Sistani (one of the country’s most influential Shia clerics) and likely abducted by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Once back in Iran, Zam faced prosecution for “vague national security charges”, according to Human Rights Watch, and on 8 December the Supreme Court of Iran upheld a guilty verdict. Two days later, the Islamic Republic Broadcasting Agency broadcast a “confession” from Zam, in which the haggard-looking journalist, accused of treason, made a series of self-incriminating statements that his father has said he was forced to make. There was one point, however, on which Zam refused to concede: when asked, “Why did you incite chaos in the country?” he replied, “It is you who calls it chaos. We call it protest.”
The irony here must not be missed: a journalist exiled in France, whose writings gave voice to Iran’s disaffection, was executed by the regime founded by Ayatollah Khomeini – who, from his own exile in France four decades earlier, issued speeches that gave voice to the nation’s discontent. In the first 20 years of its existence, the Islamic Republic of Iran hounded and killed “communists” or “sympathisers” of the Pahlavis, the monarchs it replaced. That the regime has now executed Zam, the son of a reformist and revered cleric, speaks both to the indiscriminate brutality it now exercises and the impotence of the reformists in whom many in the West continue to invest hope for a more moderate Iran.
The brazen manner of Zam’s abduction, of which the IRGC has openly boasted in a message broadcast on Iran’s state television, marks a departure from the more covert operations against dissidents of the 1980s and 1990s, and a new escalation by Iran in its disregard for international law. According to Zam’s father, writing in a post on Instagram in July, the authorities prevented Zam from meeting with his public defender in private and from communicating with his family.
Nor is Zam’s persecution abroad an isolated event. In the past year alone, there have been reports of an Iranian-American abducted in Dubai and of the murder of an Iranian dissident seeking asylum in Turkey.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, in the day following the killing of Zam, Iran’s leading anti-compulsory hijab activist, Masih Alinejad, received death threats from more than 100 accounts, some promising that she will be next. A few posts could have been considered outliers, but the number of threats suggests that the last uncensored space where dissidents can still speak is at risk.
Political dissidents are not the only targets of the regime; anyone with a complaint can be similarly threatened. A Canadian-Iranian, Hamed Esmaeilion, who has been demanding that Iran be held accountable for the killing of his wife and daughter, and others, on the Ukrainian flight PS752, which Iran claimed it shot down “unintentionally” in January 2020, has also received threats. In 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the world heard about it. Today, hundreds of death sentences are issued against dissidents, and some, like the one against Zam, are successfully carried out – mostly in complete obscurity.
Impunity emboldens any violator, but history shows that it particularly emboldens Iran. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the rise of Hashemi Rafsanjani to the presidency in 1989, European nations, spearheaded by Germany, began an initiative called “the critical dialogue”. Its aim was to help Iran usher in a new era of moderation through diplomatic and trade exchanges. But even as the talks were ongoing in 1992, Tehran carried out several assassinations, believed to include the killings of the top leadership of Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran in Berlin, Germany.
In April 1997 Berlin’s highest criminal court issued a judgement implicating the country’s highest officials in the murder of the Kurds. Subsequently, all EU nations withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran for several months. That May, Mohammad Khatami, who, until a few weeks earlier, was lagging in the polls, became Iran’s president – the most moderate official ever elected at that time. For more than a decade the country ceased its campaign of terror in the West, suggesting that the EU’s unified stance had been effective.
Now, however, as other autocratic powers such as China and Russia have reportedly lent their support to Iran in building up its economy and military, and as Western governments, through treaties like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, have focused primarily on preventing Iran from developing nuclear arms, Iran is granted new impunity – and has declared open season on its opposition.
But Iran’s interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen shows that while opposition dissidents may be the regime’s first target, they are highly unlikely to be its last.
Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in nonfiction. Her book “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace” is an account of a 1992 plot to kill Iranian dissidents in Berlin. Her upcoming book, “A Beginner’s Guide to America for the Immigrant and the Curious” will be out in March 2021 (Knopf)