Opponents of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani are using the kidnapping, incarceration and intimidation of a journalist as a political weapon to damage his administration, according to several reformist politicians.
The arrest of Ruhollah Zam, the Iranian dissident journalist who was lured from France to Iraq and then handed over to the Revolutionary Guards and taken to Iran, has become the latest manifestation of the clash between close associates of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani’s government. Since the announcement of Zam’s arrest on October 14, reformist members of parliament have warned that tactics to force him to confess to crimes against national security amount to an act of revenge on the government. They also claim the Guards are trying to settle scores by arresting key figures serving in Iran’s executive and judiciary branches they say have links to Zam and Amad News, the Telegram channel he founded.
The attack on Rouhani and his administration, coupled with the sudden resignation of Parviz Esmaili, Rouhani’s communications director, have also attracted widespread commentary on social media.
But in a press conference on Tuesday, October 23, the judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Esmaili denied that anybody in the executive or judiciary branches of government or in the military had been arrested in connection with Ruhollah Zam.
“As of now, except for Ruhollah Zam himself, nobody has been arrested from inside the government, the judiciary or the military and speculations about this are pointless,” said Esmaili. “My advice is to avoid pointing fingers of accusation toward each other.”
Speaking to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), Jalal Mirzaei, a member of parliament from Ilam said, “We must not follow the path of squeezing information from Ruhollah Zam drop by drop and then use it destroy a certain individual or a political movement ... We must allow the judiciary to impartially investigate this case and we must not start accusing each other from the get-go.”
Yet that is exactly what Javad Karimi Ghodoosi, a principlist conservative member of the parliament, did via a series of tweets that accused individuals associated with Rouhani’s administration of being sources for Amad News. “The role of Hesamodin Ashna, in charge of the administration’s psychological operations, must be scrutinized,” he tweeted, launching an attack on Rouhani's advisor. In 2016 Ghodoosi had explicitly asked Rouhani to remove Ashna [Persian link]. But now it appears that the arrest of Ruhollah Zam has provided him with a fresh opportunity to revive his vendetta.
Hesamodin Ashna tweeted back, stating that one could easily accuse Javad Karimi Ghodoosi of being a source for Amad News too, as an individual in charge of “anti-government psychological operations” [Persian link]. Ghodoosi, however, did not retreat from his position and fired off more tweets accusing others associated with Rouhani’s administration of having links to Amad News.
Guards in Fresh Onslaught Against Rouhani
Ali Rabiei, a spokesman for the government, also denied that anybody associated with the administration had been arrested in connection with Ruhollah Zam, but this did not stop Ghodoosi either. In response to Rabiei, he tweeted: “In 2017, in the first wave of arrests of Telegram and Amad News administrators, four people in contact with Ruhollah Zam were indicted. The first one worked in the office of Hesamodin Ashna, special advisor to the president, and the second one was among the president’s communication personnel.”
Ghodoosi’s comments are significant because some regard him as the unofficial spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards, and his accusations against government officials might be preparing the ground for a fresh onslaught against Rouhani’s administration. However, Ghodoosi and some of Rouhani’s other political rivals are presenting these accusations from almost two years ago as new information, conflating them with the recent news of the arrest.
After news emerged that the Revolutionary Guards had arrested Ruhollah Zam, Ghodoosi claimed that a number of people associated with the administration had been arrested in connection with Amad News [Persian link]. Prior to Ghodoosi’s tweet, a number of Revolutionary Guards’ pseudonymous accounts on social media claimed the same thing, sarcastically playing on the name “Ashna” (“familiar” or “acquaintance” in Persian), and implicating someone by that name of being in contact with Amad News on WhatsApp.
Although the claims by Ghodoosi are not new, they are resonating more intensely because of the sudden resignation of Parviz Esmaili, Rouhani’s communications director. Some people on social media have predicted fresh arrests, singling out individuals they say might be targeted. There are also unconfirmed reports that some individuals have fled the country because of their connections to Amad News, including Mohammad Kazem Shokoohi-Rad, publisher of the newspaper Gilan.
Over the last couple of years, some associates of President Rouhani have been arrested on charges of working with Amad News. One of them was Tahereh Ghayoumi, Rouhani’s former director of communications who was arrested on February 15, 2017, but who was released on February 23.
Amad News has broken some controversial stories, including embarrassing coverage of the case of Saeed Tousi, a Koran teacher close to the office of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei who was accused of molesting his young students. On January 26, 2017, authorities arrested Mehrdad Garivani, a Qom university physics student who had no connections to the government, and accused him of passing the evidence against Tousi to Amad News, but Garivani’s only crime had been to create posters highlighting the news about Tousi molesting children. For this, he had to spent to 190 days in solitary confinement and was sentenced by Judge Abolghasem Salavati of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court to five years in prison, although he was later released on bail.
However, there is another level of intrigue in the story: Bijan Ghasemzadeh, who was the examining magistrate in Garivani’s case, is now in prison for embezzlement — while Saeed Tousi was acquitted of his charges in January 2018, despite all evidence against him.
In addition, in 2017 a researcher working for Hesamodin Ashna’s office was arrested and charged with espionage, although his name has not been revealed [Persian link]. A spokesman for the judiciary confirmed the arrest but Ashna’s office denied that he was an employee and claimed that the individual worked with the president’s Strategic Research Center — a group run by Ashna — and only on “certain projects.” The individual, the office said, was not a member of their personnel.
But now Karim Ghodoosi is trying to tie events of the past to whatever confessions Ruhollah Zam is forced to give in order to add weight to his new attacks on Rouhani’s administration.
There seem to be two chapters to Zam’s confessions. The first was about Mohammad Hossein Rostami, the founder of a Hezbollahi hardliner website who was arrested in 2017 and convicted of spying for Israel. Some reformists welcomed the publication of these confessions, but conservatives warned that their turn would come as well.
Now the second chapter appears to be underway, and the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit will choose who will be accused of what as they continue their efforts to force Ruhollah Zam to confess.
Did Iran Break International Law by Kidnapping a Dissident Journalist?, October 21, 2019
“The Regime Kidnapped my Husband from Baghdad", October 16, 2019
Did the Guards Lure a Dissident Journalist Back to Iran to Arrest Him?, October 14, 2019
The Gameshow Host Behind Violence in Iran, January 6, 2018
Censorship and Self-Censorship During the Protests, December 31, 2017
Iran's Revolutionary Guards vs Rouhani, June 26, 2017