Shahin Dadkhah, a prominent diplomat and former adviser to the then chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani between 2003 and 2005, has had his prison sentence extended once more for writing an article criticizing Iran’s hardliners. Although his release from Evin Prison was due before the 2013 presidential election, authorities informed him that he had been tried in absentia and charged with additional offenses. This is the third time Iran’s judiciary has extended Dadkhah’s detention and he is now reported to be in poor health.
Dadkhah’s ongoing case and the revelations he has made in the course of his defense reveal the astounding extent of covert contact between Islamic Republic and Israeli officials, and highlight the ferocious hardline opposition that President Rouhani continues to face.
The article in question, published on a reformist website on July 28, examines the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), the effect of the civil war on Syria and Iran’s support of the Syrian regime, and argues that hardliners have strengthened global “Iranophobia.” He has published several other articles in the past also criticizing hardliners for corruption, mismanagement of key ministries, and concocting bogus cases to undermine Rouhani and his allies.
Dadkhah was first arrested in Tehran in January 2011 on charges of spying for the US and Israel, and received a seven-year prison sentence, five years of which were meant to be suspended. He has spent more than months in solitary confinement in Ward 209 of Evin Prison. He responded publicly in letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and Hassan Rouhani asserting his innocence, and said his covert political dealings had been on behalf of the Iranian security establishment.
“My contacts with Israel’s intelligence agency [the Mossad] and my trip to the occupied territories [Israel] were on the order of the counter-intelligence directorate of the Ministry of Intelligence and related to the Bahram Operation,” Dadkhah wrote in a letter to Khamanei in September, 2013.
Dadkhah also wrote, “I have been charged with having a CIA contact but my communications with “Stephen” [presumably a CIA official] in Geneva were within the framework of US negotiations regarding the future of Afghanistan. I never engaged in personal communications with him. It should be pointed out that he [Stephen] was a member of the US negotiations team. I’m also accused of meeting with Israel’s Minister of Industry ... This meeting took place in 2010 on the order of and in coordination with the Ministry of Intelligence.”
Top Diplomats Falling Prey to Domestic Rivalries
Since at least 2001 Dadkhah has been involved in Iran’s most sensitive diplomatic work at the highest level. In that year he joined the negotiation team led by current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to broker a political future for Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. He was also a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team during the Mohammad Khatami administration and a member of the Iranian team that worked to stabilize post-war Iraq under Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi.
In that era, Iranian hardliners intent on blocking any pragmatic rapprochement with the West began going after senior diplomats involved in talks and negotiations. Kayhan, the hardline mouthpiece, denounced the Khatami negotiation team led by Zarif, terming this group of officials the "New Yorkers", in reference to Zarif’s position as New York-based Ambassador to the United Nations, where he presided over a highly successful effort to establish connections with prominent Americans officials. When Khatami’s tenure ended in 2005, the pro-rapprochement diplomats around him, including Dadkhah, joined the Center for Strategic Studies of the Expediency Discernment Council.
The former officials used the think tank as a platform to counter Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s antagonistic nuclear rhetoric and nuclear policy, and to continue advocating compromise with the West. Beginning in 2007 Ahmadinejad directed his Ministry of Intelligence, to go after the "New Yorkers," and his officials arrested three prominent diplomats, Hossein Mousavian, Cyrus Naseri, and Bagher Asadi; Mousavian and Naseri left the country for exile abroad, while Asadi was arrested and then released on bail in 2013. Another senior diplomat, Rahman Ghahramanpoor, and Mehrdad Sarjooei, a journalist running the think tank’s communications department, were also arrested, and the latter remains imprisoned today.
Arrests Intended to Block Rouhani presidency
Though motivated in part by ideological refusal to reach any accommodation with the West, the hardliners most immediate aim in rounding up and imprisoning the nation’s highest diplomats was to block a potential Rouhani presidency. Hardliners were terrified of this prospect, fearing that Rouhani would reveal the extent of corruption that had flourished under Ahmadinejad, and the lengths to which conservatives would go to hide their growing wealth and personal gain under the cloak of anti-Western, populist rhetoric.
About a decade ago, the reformist strategist Saeed Hajjarian argued that the best a president of the Islamic Republic can do is “lift the curtain up a bit so that people can get a better idea of the what goes on behind closed doors.” A Rouhani win, hardliners knew, would result in the curtain being lifted. The persecution of Dadkhah and other close associates marked the hardliners best effort in preventing such an outcome. When Rouhani was elected in 20913, Kayhan revived its old accusations, particularly against Dadkhah, as an indirect attack on the President.
Though Rouhani has not yet managed to secure Dadkhah’s release, he has been energetic in lifting the curtain, breaking the long-standing taboo of direct talks with the United States and moving the country closer to a compromise over its nuclear program. His success in these areas, to the hardliners’ chagrin, has underscored both the failures of Ahmadinejad’s antagonistic foreign policy and its reckless invitation of crushing economic sanctions.
The fate of Dadkhah and others remains a subtle footnote to the enormous challenges Rouhani faces, and reveals the depth of the factional power struggle that continues to this day. From the outside, some may argue that Rouhani has done too little to confront the hardliners who still control the country’s key levers of power, but the arrest and ongoing imprisonment of diplomats like Dadkhah underscores the realities of the partisan bullying the President faces. No only is the President tasked with managing the release of prominent opposition figures, he must also negotiate the freedom of the Islamic Republic’s own diplomatic elite, punished by the hardline judiciary for their best work.