Today, 14 October, is Siamak Namazi's 45th birthday. Siamak was arrested in Iran in October 2015, and has spent his last two birthdays in prison. IranWire's editor in chief, Maziar Bahari, wrote this article last year after Siamak and his father Baquer were sentenced to ten years in prison.
I know very few people who are more passionate about Iran, or who have tried to help Iran and Iranians as much as my Iranian-American friend Siamak Namazi. Yet, on Sunday, October 16, 2016, Iranian authorities sentenced Siamak and his father to 10 years in prison.
I first met Siamak when I returned to Iran from Canada in 1998 after 11 years of being outside the country. Siamak could have had a job in any company in the United States, where he had studied and spent much of his youth. But he chose to return to Iran, serve in the military there and help the Iranian economy by setting up Atieh Bahar, a private strategic consulting firm.
Iranian hardliners called Siamak “an American infiltrator,” and some Iranian opposition groups in the diaspora accused him of being “a regime sympathizer.” But these accusations didn’t deter Siamak, and he continued to help Iran by bringing in foreign investment and introducing international expertise to the country.
Whenever Siamak talked to me passionately about the immense potential of young Iranians and how it could help transform Iran into a significant and influential regional power, he reminded me of the best technocrats from the shah’s time prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. These were the people I met around my family’s dinner table when my father was a shah technocrat in the 1970s. Some of these high-ranking government employees had spent time in prison, but the authoritarian shah was wise enough to work with anyone who was not actively working against his regime or trying to overthrow it.
Yet, 37 years on from the revolution, the government of the Islamic Republic is still unable to define itself. Its leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls it a revolutionary government. But he hasn’t defined what “the revolution” is and when it is going to end. “Anti-revolutionary” has become a meaningless yet loaded indictment that can serve any purpose. Anyone with any degree of power in Iran can punish those he deems to be “anti-revolutionary,” often quite easily. I’m not being sexist here. It’s mostly men who have the power in Iran.
I was thrown out of three high schools in the 1980s for being mildly “anti-revolutionary.” My seditious activities included reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot during a religious studies class, calling a principal’s comment disgraceful when he threatened to sodomize one of my classmates, and wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt under my V-neck pullover at school: a pig showed clearly through the “V” of the pullover. I was among the lucky ones. In the same decade, thousands of innocent people were executed on trumped-up charges.
But Siamak Namazi is not anti-anything. He is pro-Iran. He has political opinions, but keeps his ideas to himself. During the time he worked with Atieh Bahar in Iran, from 1996 to 2008, he believed he could convince even the most vehemently anti-American members of the government that foreign investment and international cooperation would benefit everyone in the country, including the hardliners whose families were suffering from sanctions. This level of patriotism and optimism made him a “suspicious element” in the eyes of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence.
During a routine interrogation in the early 2000s, I was asked about Siamak. At the time I was Newsweek Magazine’s Iran correspondent. Because I was an Iranian-Canadian journalist working for a foreign publication, a designated intelligence agent interrogated me on a monthly basis. “What do you know about Siamak Namazi’s economic activities?” the agent once asked me. “He’s a patriot and tries really hard to help the country as far as I know,” I answered. “But why?” was his follow-up question to that reply, and to my subsequent attempts to describe Siamak’s life and work.
For that agent, it was unfathomable that someone could leave a comfortable life in the West, come back to claustrophobic Iran and persevere to work there despite constant harassment and defamatory remarks. “I think you’re not telling the whole truth, Mr. Bahari,” the agent said as he concluded our interrogation with a wry smile. “He obviously doesn’t believe in our system of governance. So how can he be a patriot?”
Siamak and many other dual national Iranians had a tough but tolerable time in Iran until 2009. In June of that year, millions of Iranians went out on to the streets to protest against the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Ayatollah Khamenei called the protests a western-inspired sedition. The Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Unit arrested thousands of people in a matter of weeks and effectively became the dominant intelligence organization in Iran.
Ministry of Intelligence agents were wise enough to know that arresting people like Siamak or me would be counterproductive. They knew the negative international publicity generated by our arrests would not be good for business, or for the security and the stability of the country.
Even though these ministry agents were relatively bigoted and ignorant, they were like Einstein compared to the thugs who work for the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Unit. On June 21,2009, Guards intelligence agents arrested me. For 118 days, I was subjected to the most surreal and ludicrous interrogations, including questions regarding my relationship with the “Zionist agent” Anton Chekhov, the 19th-century Russian playwright!
My interrogator once explained Iran’s justice system to me in very simple terms: “We have an interrogator-based justice system,” he said while punching me in the head after each sentence. “We deem how guilty the prisoner is. We relay that information to the judge. And then he issues a sentence based on our recommendation.” Punch. Punch. Punch.
The same judge, Abolghassem Salavati, has overseen both Siamak and my cases. Salavati is the Guards’ favorite judge. He oversaw the show trial against me and dozens of other prisoners in 2009, when they paraded us in front of TV cameras. Since 2009, Salavati has also issued some of the harshest sentences to journalists, civil society activists and dual Iranian nationals. He sentenced me to 13 years and six months' imprisonment plus 74 lashes in absentia in 2010 on a series of absurd charges. They included six months’ imprisonment after someone tagged a picture of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kissing a boy on my Facebook page.
On Sunday, October 16, Salavati sentenced Siamak and his 80-year-old father Baquer Namazi, also an Iranian-American and a former United Nations official, to 10 years in prison for “cooperating with a hostile nation,” i.e. the United States. According to Iran’s foreign ministry and its judiciary, the US is officially not a hostile nation. Nonetheless, Salavati tried Siamak and Baquer behind closed doors and denied their lawyer access to their files.
Arresting dual nationals like Siamak is part of the Guards’ campaign to ensure they mark their territory. The Guards are still reeling from the fact that the majority of Iranians voted for their least favorite candidate for president, the relatively moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, in 2013. For the Guards, Rouhani’s government is an obstacle, blocking their monopoly over Iran’s economy and politics. As a result, they have tried to embarrass Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif every step of the way since 2013.
When they arrest dual nationals, the Guards have at least three goals: 1- The Guards are Iran’s largest industrial power. As a result, they want to tell international investors that they are the ones with power in Iran. The message is: if someone wants to invest in the country, they have to deal with the Guards, and not the elected government of Iran. 2- The Guards regard anyone with a foreign passport as a threat. They want to send a signal to thousands of educated Iranians around the world who want to return and help their country. The message is: your expertise is not needed. 3- Iran is getting ready for its next presidential election in May 2017. The Guards do not have any serious candidate to replace Rouhani. Confronting and challenging Rouhani, who will most probably be re-elected next year, is another way of showing the president and millions of people who voted for him just who holds the real power in the country.
The Guards have also realized that they can make money out of arresting dual national Iranians. I was bailed out for 300,000 dollars in October 2009. Four Iranian-Americans were freed earlier this year in exchange for the release of seven Iranians from American jails and of 400 million dollars of Iran’s assets in the United States.
I don’t think that Siamak and Baquer Namazi will spend 10 years in prison in Iran. As in previous cases, the American government will do whatever it can to release its citizens. The Guards know this and will take advantage of it. I’m certain that there are ongoing talks about their release even as I’m writing these words. The real losers of the Guards reckless hostage-taking are the people of Iran, especially the young Iranians whom Siamak loves and champions so enthusiastically. They are denied the help and expertise Siamak and thousands of Iranians like him can offer.
Maziar Bahari is the editor-in-chief of iranwire.com