Ruhollah Zam, Iranian journalist and oppositionist, was hanged at Evin Prison on December 12. He had been found guilty of "spreading corruption on Earth," a catch-all term used by Iran's regime to convict those it targets for activities in the field of political activity and espionage. Zam, who had been in captivity since October 2019, was the founder and director of a popular Telegram channel and forum called Amad News, which carried up-to-the-minute information on the demonstrations and protests that swept Iran in 2017 and 2018. The channel, which had 1.4 million followers, provided details regarding upcoming protests, and about officials who were challenging the regime.
The reach and influence of Amad News appears to have led to the regime's decision to target and eliminate Zam. The journalist had lived in Paris since 2011. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), according to the available evidence, put in motion a complex sting operation to lure Zam to Iraq, from where he was kidnapped and taken to Iran.
The full details regarding this operation have not yet emerged, but what is known, or suspected, is casting a pall over Iran's dissident and opposition communities in Europe because of what it reveals regarding the apparent extent of their penetration by the agencies of the Iranian regime, and regarding the extent of Tehran's sway over Iraq.
So what do we know about the process by which Ruhollah Zam was lured to Iraq and then taken to Iran? First, it is important to note that for an Iranian dissident to leave the (relative) safety of France for Iraq is in itself a rash act bordering on foolhardiness.
Tehran's reach extends deep into the structures of Iraqi governance and security.
Iraq today is, to a great extent, Iranian-occupied territory. In a manner reminiscent of the situation in Lebanon, Tehran's reach extends deep into the structures of Iraqi governance and security. Powerful Shia militias such as the Badr organization exert influence within the Interior Ministry. Via the structures of the Popular Mobilization Units, IRGC bodies play an official security role.
Among the places where Iran through its proxies maintains a presence is Baghdad International Airport. Contrary to initial reports suggesting that he had been snatched from the street, the latest emergent evidence suggests Zam was detained at the airport by official Iraqi authorities, then conveyed across the border to Iran. According to a report by BBC Persian on October 16, 2019, an "informed source in the Iraqi government" confirmed that Zam was "detained by the Iraqi intelligence service for more than a day and then extradited to Iran under an extradition agreement."
It is worth noting that an extradition agreement between Iraq and Iran does exist, but the text of the agreement specifically permits either country to ignore the extradition request if the person whose extradition has been requested is suspected of committing a "political crime." This clause was included, according to BBC Persian, because of the presence of members of the Iranian opposition group MEK on Iraqi soil, so as to avoid complications if Baghdad were to refuse an Iranian extradition request. Evidently, however, when it came to the case of Ruhollah Zam, the Iraqi authorities found no reason to invoke this clause, despite the clearly political nature of the offenses of which he was accused.
Why did Zam leave for Iraq in the first place? The weak and compromised nature of the Iraqi state is not a secret, and is well known to Iranian dissidents. Zam would surely have been aware of the extreme risk he was taking, and indeed subsequent testimony confirms that his wife and colleagues sought to dissuade him from taking the trip.
So what was he looking to gain? Here the story becomes murkier. Le Figaro newspaper, at the time of Zam's arrest, reported that '"The Revolutionary Guards began by sending to him in Paris a young woman who apparently convinced him to go to Iraq to meet Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of Iraq's Shia Muslims and great rival of Ali Khamenei, the head of the Iranian regime."
A number of Iranian opposition websites name the woman in question as one Shirin Najafi Zadeh, an administrator at Amad News. (The person in question also goes by the name of Sudabeh Khorsand). According to the claims now circulating widely on Iranian opposition forums, Le Figaro's initial report was slightly wide of the mark. Najafi Zadeh did not hold out the possibility of a meeting with al-Sistani. Rather, she approached Zam, claiming that she was herself in contact with Sistani's office, and that the latter was interested in providing finance for a new television channel, to broadcast a message of opposition to the Iranian regime.
According to a statement by a friend of Zam made to an Iranian opposition media channel, Najafi Zadeh spoke to Zam from Iraq and claimed to be in possession of a large cash donation from Sistani's office (amounting to €15 million in €500 notes, according to the statement), which was intended to make possible the launch of the new TV channel by Zam in France. She asked Zam to travel to Iraq in order to collect the cash and bring it back to Paris. This, according to Zam's friend, was the bait that drew Ruhollah Zam to Iraq, where he was, of course, immediately arrested.
Shirin Najafi Zadeh, now reportedly in hiding, has issued a statement denying these claims, and asserting that she in fact sought to prevent Zam from traveling to Iraq. The allegations have caused a storm in Iranian opposition circles.
Iranian opposition activists are also angry at what they regard as the failure of French authorities to make adequate efforts to save Zam during the 14 months he was in custody prior to his execution.
The recent killing of Iranian nuclear scientist and IRGC Brig.-Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in the Tehran area revealed the Iranian regime's own vulnerabilities with regard to its security. It appears, however, that when it comes to harassing and silencing its civilian opponents, the regime is somewhat more effective. The details of the kidnapping and judicial murder of Ruhollah Zam reveal both the deep penetration by Iranian state agencies of exiled opposition circles and, no less gravely, the extent to which certain agencies of the official Iraqi state now appear to be openly doing the bidding of Tehran.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.