Iran’s Silencing Strategy

A New Front to its Old Ways
A female student demonstrates against censorship at Tehran university, after reformist newspapers were closed down
Ruhollah Zam, a former opposition figure who had lived in exile in France and had been implicated in anti-government protests, speaks during his trial at Iran's Revolutionary Court in Tehran on June 2, 2020

Iranian dissident Ruhallah Zam – a journalist exiled in Paris – was kidnapped and assassinated by the Iranian regime earlier this month. Zam is known for his work that inspired much of the economic protests in 2017, and the Iranian authorities have been trying to track him for a long time, until they finally did. He was abducted while traveling in Iraq, and soon after executed in Tehran.
As Zam’s execution drew immediate international condemnation, other arrests, intimidation, and assassinations were taking place in other countries that the Iranian regime controls; that is, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iran has a long history of assassinations, but it seems that Iran and its proxies are picking up the pace and rushing their silencing strategy, for fears that stronger and more persistent protests will come post the pandemic, especially with a Biden administration that focuses on human rights issues, including freedom of expression and the right to protest.
When Biden takes over, and the pandemic subsides, Iran might have to hold back its assassinations and intimidation techniques, and prepare for negotiations. Therefore, as the world watches potential military escalation during the remainder of the Trump administration, the Iranian regime is working on a different front – against its own people. They hope that this intense campaign of intimidation could work as a warning against possible return of demonstrations and calls for regime changes in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Zam’s execution happened very fast. It occurred four days after the Iranian Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. Earlier this year, a court sentenced Zam to death due to charges of espionage or an attempt to overthrow the Iranian government.
Zam was an activist who was known for running an online opposition news website, called Amad News, and had over a million followers on his Telegram channel. He is the son of a reformist Shiite cleric, Mohammad Ali Zam, who served in government back in the 1980s, and allegedly did not support his son’s work and efforts against the Iranian regime.
But most importantly, Zam’s website and Telegram feed played a significant role in the anti-government protests that broke out across Iran in 2017. Back then, around 5,000 people were detained and 25 killed in the demonstrations. Zam used his outlets to share information about the protests, including timings and locations of the demonstrations, in an attempt to gather more people in the streets. Since then, the Iranian regime decided that this man is dangerous.
Several activists and advocacy groups have condemned Zam’s execution. According to Reporters Without Borders, Iran has been “one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years.” At least 860 journalists have been arrested or executed in the country since 1979.
Zam is one of three opposition figures apparently detained in intelligence operations abroad. In late July, a California-based opposition figure was also abducted while in Dubai, and another - Farajollah Chaab – was abducted while visiting Turkey.
The international pressure worked to a certain extent – not to save Zam’s life, unfortunately - but at least to send a strong message to Iran. Two days before it was supposed to launch, France and other European countries withdrew from the Europe-Iran business forum, which later that day, declared in a separate statement, that they were postponing the event.
A few days later, Hussein Khattab, a reporter for the Arabic TRT, was assassinated in the Syrian city of Al-Bab on Dec. 12. Meanwhile, another Iraqi activist, Salah al-Iraqi, was shot dead, according to local Iraqi reports. Al-Iraqi was known for his active role in the anti-government protests that erupted in Baghdad and the Shia-majority south last October, and for his criticism of the Iranian regime’s influence in Iraq.
Iraq has recently witnessed many assassinations and assignation attempts against activists and journalists who were involved in the protests. In addition, around 600 people were killed in protest-related violence since October 2019 - at the hands of militias supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
International Human Rights organizations have repeatedly called the Iraqi authorities to protect protestors and activists, and hold those behind the violence responsible. Alas, all promises and efforts have not lead to substantial protective mechanisms.
In response, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called, yet again, the authorities to increase their efforts. The authorities’ “failure” to bring the perpetrators to justice was “perpetuating and further entrenching decades of impunity that have left brave individuals without the most basic protection”, the groups said.
Lebanon is also witnessing an intensified wave of intimidation and persecution. Since the protests of October 2019, many journalists and activists were attacked – verbally and physically – by Hezbollah’s media army and street thugs, and a number were arrested and interrogated by state security institutions. But recently, these attacks are taking a more serious tone and the victims fear for their lives.
A couple of weeks ago, Mariam Seif – a journalist who lives in Hezbollah’s stronghold of Beirut’s southern Suburbs, has been threatened by Hezbollah members for a while. But recently, these threats have increased. Seif reported on her twitter account that she has received a message from a Hezbollah member that indicated that she and her family will be dead if they step outside their house in Dahiyeh (the Southern Suburbs of Beirut).
This came after Seif’s brother was physically attacked by the same people but no action was taken by the authorities to hold the assailant responsible, because he was protected by Hezbollah. According to Seif and her family, the attempts are made to force them to leave the area and move out of Dahiyeh. Accordingly, Seif went to the police to file a complaint – instead, she was detained and interrogated, and was denied her right to have her lawyer present. To make things clear to Seif and her family, Hezbollah had the nephew of Hezbollah politician Amin Sherry present at the police station to support the assailant.
As this incident continue to unfold, Kinda Al-Khatib, a Lebanese activist from Tripoli was sentenced to three years in prison, after six months of detention, for “collaborating with the enemy, entering the occupied Palestinian territories, and dealing with Israeli spies and those working for Israel’s interests.” However, according to Al-Khatib’s lawyer and family members, she was falsely accused because the military court could not prove that she has actually entered Israel or that she had been in touch with Israeli spies. In fact, Al-Khatib has been very active during the protests of October 2019, and had regularly criticized Hezbollah and President Michel Aoun on her social media accounts.
Zam, Khattab, al-Iraqi, Seif, and al-Khatib are not the first and unfortunately, will not be the last victims of Iran’s oppression machine. The more Iran and its regional proxies are pressured, and the harder they feel the pressure, the more violent they will become. Their violence will not be targeted against the US, Israel, or the West in general. It will rather be directed against their own people in the countries it controls: dissidents, activist and journalists. Iran is weaker today because its constituencies in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon no longer believe in its rhetoric and goals, and this is the Iranian regime’s most fearful nightmare.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow in The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics.