Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian-Canadian blogger known for supporting the Iranian government's suppression of dissidents and alleged collaboration with Tehran's security apparatus, has been awarded a prestigious fellowship, shocking many Iranians inside the country and in the diaspora and human rights advocates around the globe.
The fellowship, with MIT Media Lab and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy based at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, was announced on January 11. Derakhshan had previously co-authored a report on misinformation on social networks, which was published by the Shorenstein Center in 2017.
Kave Shahrooz, a Toronto-based lawyer and Harvard Law School graduate, is among those who took to Twitter to campaign against Shorenstein's decision, expressing hope that it would "rethink this mistaken decision."
Shorenstein's director, Nicco Mele, defended Derakhshan's appointment. "The work that Hossein is doing at the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center is not about Iran or politics related to Iran," Mele said in a statement emailed to IranWire. "The school does not endorse a particular position regarding the Iranian opposition."
"We are supporting Hossein's genuinely important research on the role of digital platforms in information ecosystems," he added, citing as examples of Derakhshan's previous work a blogpost he wrote on "the future of the web," as well as the co-authored Shorestein report.
Derakhshan has not responded to IranWire's requests for comment.
Derakhshan, the father of blogging in Iran, comes from a family with impeccable revolutionary credentials. His uncle Ali Derakhshan was a founding member of an influential pre-revolutionary pro-Khomeini political party, some of whose members engaged in assassinations, and he was killed himself in a bombing by the People's Mojahedin of Iran, also known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), in 1981.
Like many Iranian journalists of his generation, Derakshan started his career in reformist media outlets, beginning work in 1997. During the first years of his career in Iran and after his immigration to Canada in 2000, he was highly critical of the Islamic Republic hardliners who support Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Derakhshan's early blogs in Canada were full of praise for Iran's reformist movement, as well as his love of Western culture — in particular drinking wine and eating Parma ham with melon. He was also one of very few bloggers who openly criticized Ayatollah Khamenei. In 2006 and 2007 he travelled twice to Israel using his Canadian passport. Iranian citizens are banned from travelling to Israel and dual citizens who openly travel there can expect to being charged with espionage upon their return to Iran. Derakhshan claimed that as a citizen journalist, he wanted to show the reality of Israel to Iranians. "The Islamic Republic has shown an evil image of Israel whose citizens are killing Muslim men and women. I want to go to Israel and challenge this portrayal of Israel."
But later, he went through a dramatic political transformation, distinguishing him from most of his peers. Sometime in 2007, Derakhshan changed his ideas and began supporting the hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a Holocaust denier who openly called for elimination of Israel. During Ahmadinejad's trip to New York for the United Nations in September 2008, Derakhshan advised him to separate Zionism from Judaism. He suggested that Ahmadinejad should celebrate Jewish holidays — while continuing his anti-Israeli rhetoric. "By doing this, Ahmadinejad can reveal the real identity of Zionism as a colonialist political movement," Derakhshan wrote on his blog on September 21, 2008. "Doing this will harm Israel much more than any military attack. This is what the Great Khomeini started and Ahmadinejad resuscitated with valor."
Maziar Bahari, IranWire's founder and a documentary producer, says Derakhshan's failure to fulfil his dreams in the West might have caused this radical change. "I met Hossein in 1998 when he'd just started his blog in Iran. All he wanted to do was go to the West and, as he said it in Persian, 'beterekooneh,' which literally means 'making it in the West.'" Bahari says Derakhshan's ambition was to become a prominent public intellectual who would write articles in major publications and make documentaries — "someone like Michael Ignatieff in Canada or Bernard Henri Levi in France," says Bahari. "I saw him in Toronto in 2004, a few years after he moved to Canada, and it was obvious that he hadn't made it yet. He was full of different ideas and wanted to reach fame and recognition quickly. He was aggressively asking me for contacts in the media and academia. So aggressive that I had to ask him to calm down. So I wasn't that surprised when a few years later he visited Israel publicly and wore 'I ❤ Tehran T-shirts'. That's the ultimate taboo-breaking for an Iranian, and an attention-grabbing act in Israel and the West."
Attacks on Fellow Citizens and Eerie Propaganda
But it wasn't just Derakhshan's demand for attention that disturbed some of his fellow Iranians. His change of attitude toward the Islamic government led to some of the most damaging reporting by any Iranian public figure against his fellow citizens. By 2008, Derakshan's blog resembled a propaganda pamphlet issued by some of the most hardline factions of the Iranian government — as if he was trying hard to show his loyalty to the Islamic Republic before returning to Iran. For example, Derakhshan called Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps an "icon of justice and sacrifice... associated with pure patriotic and Shiite ideals about justice and sacrifice." Then almost every blog post was a revelation about an Iranian dissident inside the country or in the diaspora. It led Payam Akhavan, a McGill University law professor, to write, in 2007, of Derakhshan's "systematic defamation of human rights dissidents."
Nima Rashedan, a tech expert and former dissident with 20 years' experience focusing on digital research and cyber security, and the developer of a digital safety guide for Iranian civil society organization Tavaana, detailed how Derakshan "assisted torturers and interrogators working against Iranian dissidents," adding that although Derakshan did not have extensive programming or hacking knowledge — he says he had "basic tech knowledge and capabilities" — he provided "computer assistance" to interrogators, including helping to encrypt information about targeted individuals' online activities.
Rashedan also says that his work has uncovered clear evidence that the domain names of Derakshan's blogs and websites, including hoder.ir, were legally registered at an address located within a commander compound of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. "These domain names are not registered at the residence of ordinary citizens and they were registered by someone within the Shahrak-e Shahid Mahalati compound," which he points out houses senior Guards commanders.
In an article written in 2006, Derakhsan asserted that the forced televised confessions of Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo were authentic — even "the possibility of it being imposed on him by his interrogators... is rule[ed] out," he wrote. Derakhshan insisted that the jailed philosopher was guilty of "indirectly helping the Bush administration in its plans for regime change in Iran through fomenting internal unrest and instability," and by conducting "comparative analysis of socio-political change in contemporary east-central Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran"
Danny Postel, author and Assistant Director of the Middle East and North African Studies Program at Northwestern University and a former editor of OpenDemocracy, criticized the publication of Derakhshan's "eerily titled, and bizarrely argued, article" on Jahanbegloo, an action that was "well beneath OpenDemocracy's normally high standards."
After Jahanbegloo said on Canadian television that he had undergone psychological torture in Evin, Derakhshan attacked him for "hiding" the funding he had received from the US's National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Mocking Jahanbegloo —"what an honest and innocent man," he sarcastically remarked — Derakhshan defended Tehran's imprisonment of him as thelegitimate actions of a "sovereign country" and asked: "if serving at a federally funded program [NED]... is not political activity, then what is?"
In May 2008, he unmasked the real identity of the Winnipeg-based dissident blogger Arash Abadpour which he said he had discovered by tracking his IP address and through "five minutes of Googling." Abadpour was "trying to conceal his deeply-rooted weakness and hypocrisy," Derakhshan wrote. Abadpour had blogged under the pseudonym Kamangir, and Nima Rashedan says his exposure not only meant he couldn't return to Iran, it likely put his family in danger.
When Iranian civil society activists called for a referendum to change the constitution in Iran in October 2005, Derakhshan attacked activists Mohammad Maleki and socialist writer Nasser Zarafshan for signing a statement in support of the move. "How come Mr Mohammad Maleki or anybody else who has signed this statement can walk freely in the streets of Tehran without the government touching them?" Derakhshan wrote, ignoring the bravery the activists had shown— and the obvious danger they had put themselves in — by signing the statement while still living in the country.
In August 2008, Derakshan wrote an article on the scholar Haleh Esfandiari who had been arrested a few months before, at the age of 67, accused of espionage. Human rights organizations including the NGO American Islamic Congress had called for her immediate release. But Derakshan said that Esfandiari didn't deserve to be a "symbolic victim" of oppression in Iran. Pointing to her fellowship at NED, Derakhshan wrote: "Given what we know about NED today, I believe anyone in any country who has had any ties with NED and its affiliate organizations deserves to be charged and fairly and justly prosecuted." Apart from the matter of withholding her passport, Derakhshan continued: "the rest of her case was handled fairly and legally, given the laws in Iran, that like in many countries post 9/11, give the right to the judge to extend the time a detainee can be held without charges." After her release, Esfandiari wrote a memoir in which she chronicled the psychological torture interrogators inflicted on her.
Rashedan says Esfandiari was one of "dozens" of researchers and academics that had been given grants of fellowships with NED, and who Derakshan framed as being part of a "clandestine group of people aiming to topple the Iranian regime, which were backed by the CIA" — despite the fact that most of them were conducting research on subjects like academic freedom. He says that Derakshan simply built on the "already-existing scenario" that the regime had been fostering for years. He helped support the idea that these people "wanted to topple the regime, that they were anti-revolutionaries, missionaries for the enemies of the Islamic Republic" who should either be killed or imprisoned.
One of Derakhshan's most outrageous attacks was on Hossein Bashirie, Iran's most respected political scientist who was driven to exile and now teaches at Syracuse University. After decades of teaching at Tehran University, Bashirie was expelled in 2007, under pressure from the administration of President Ahmadinejad. Derakhshan said Bashirie shouldn't have been expelled — he should have instead been "put on trial for acting against national security" due to having received funding from NED. He then offered a long list of NED fellows that needed to be "dealt with." The list included respected figures including lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, the popular reformist member of parliament Fateme Haqiqatju and businessman Siamak Namazi (who was indeed arrested years later upon his return to Iran and remains in jail there).
Arrest and Collaboration with Tehran Against Dissidents
Hossein Derakshhan publicly announced that he would return to Iran in late 2008. "The last time I saw him was in Camden in London, a few days before he returned to Iran," says IranWire's Maziar Bahari. "He looked really dispirited and a bit tipsy. I asked him to be careful. That for the Islamic Republic, insulting Khamenei and visiting Israel are two crimes that can never be forgiven. He said that he was given 'guarantees' that he wouldn't be harmed, and then talked about how 'Rafsanjanists' were conspiring against him."
The term "Rafsanjanist" describes pro-rapprochement and market economy followers of Iran's former president, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is regarded as a spiritual father of some Iranian reformists. It is a term created and used, almost, solely by Derakhshan.
Derakhshan did return to Iran in October 2008, and was arrested two weeks later by the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Unit. The unit was also in charge of the arrest and interrogation of a number of Iranian reformist politicians and journalists after the Green Movement in June 2009.
Maziar Bahari was among those arrested by the Guards. "I was asked various questions about my connection to 'Rafsanjanists' a few days after my arrest," Bahari says. "I realized that they'd been reading Hossein's blog carefully." But then Bahari says during a line of questioning and beatings by his interrogator, he realized that Derakhshan seemed to be collaborating with the Guards. "Suddenly one day, they started to ask me about the owners of New Statesman Magazine. I edited an Iran section of the magazine in 2008. Hossein had been very critical of that and wrote a blog about the magazine's war-mongering against Iran. But New Statesman is really not well known in Iran and not much attention had been paid to it by the Iranian government. My interrogator couldn't speak English and had zero knowledge about Western media. So asking detailed questions about my articles in New Statesman was a sign that someone like Hossein, probably Hossein himself, was collaborating with them."
Bahari says that although he can never be sure, he strongly suspects that the line of questioning he faced in the torture chamber in Evin Prison came straight out of Derakhshan's blogposts against Iranian dissidents around the world. "Also, I was beaten and tortured several times by the interrogator, who told me that I should name names and reveal secrets the same way that Hossein Derakhshan had been doing in prison. Of course, there is no real proof that Hossein was collaborating with the Guards. But, at the same time, there is no evidence that he wasn't helping them incriminate other prisoners."
Other Iranian dissidents in exile have echoed Bahari's suspicions about Derakhshan. "My interrogator in 209 [Evin's notorious section for political prisoners] once told me: "Now, it's up to the tawab Hossein Derakhsan to hack your email," dissident Ashkan Yazdchi tweeted. Tawab is a Persian term used for prisoners who denounce their past and sometimes collaborate with authorities against other prisoners.
"Derakhshan was one of the most hated men among the political prisoners in Evin," a former political prisoner there told IranWire, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect prisoners who are still there. "Some told stories of how he had manipulated them in personal conversations to add 'crimes' such as insulting (Ayatollah) Khamenei to their cases. He actively worked with the Guards interrogators in the section 2-A."
"It appears [Derakhshan] co-operated—or was forced to co-operate—with his jailers," a report in Canada's Maclean's Magazine stated in August 2010. Both the article and Nima Rashedan point to the evidence provided as part of the Revolutionary Prosecutor's Office indictment of a large group of people, including reformist politicians, some of whom had been ministers in previous governments, who were accused of trying to overthrow the regime. The information he provided led to forced confessions and televised show trials in 2009. Bahari was among those jailed that year, and appeared on the indictment list.
Anti-Semitism and Vindictiveness
Derakhshan denies such allegations. In a post on his blog on 29 May 2017, he wrote: "It is almost 15 years since some people, cruelly and without evidence or even logical arguments, spread the claim that I am a security agent of the Islamic Republic."
Derakhshan was sentenced to 19 and a half years' imprisonment. He was also sentenced to repay €30,750, $2,900 US, and £200 — apparently the money he'd received for speeches and articles in different universities. Later, the sentence was commuted to 17 years. Derakshan was pardoned by Ayatollah Khamenei in November 2014 and was released from prison.
It is not clear what books and resources Derakhshan had access to in prison, but some of his post-prison cultural comments include some of the worst anti-Semitic characteristics found in Islamic Republic's propaganda. When the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in 2015, Derakhshan tweeted, "What is the very pro-Israel J. J. Abrams hinting at?" His theory was that because Abrams, the director, is Jewish he must be pro-Israel — even though Abrams has never expressed an opinion about Israel — and because of that bias, Abrams named one of the villains in the movie Supreme Leader Snoke, implying it was yet another Zionist Hollywood portrayal of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The criticism is not so dissimilar to white nationalists claimingAbrams was promoting white genocide by having a diverse cast.
And he's guilty of promoting discrimination against other faiths too. Reacting to the worldwide outrage over the suppression of Baha'is, Iran's largest religious minority, Derakhshan wrote: "I think the Muslim countries have the right to view the Baha'i sect skeptically due its close relations with Israel." Because the Iranian constitution hadn't recognized Baha'is, they couldn't expect to enjoy equal civil rights, Derakhshan said in a blogpost.
Derakhshan's platform of choice is Twitter. Since his release, he's continued to viciously criticize Iranian government critics by calling them greedy agents of the US and the West. He's trolled a number of journalists and activists, including women's rights activist Masih Alinejad and IranWire's Reza HaghighatNejad. Derakhshan's insistent and vicious tweets about his targets has shown all the hallmarks of his pre-prison blogs. He has spread fake news about his targets, and then based arguments against those targets using the wrong information he generated in the first place. Derakhshan's comments have been incriminating and witty at the same time. As in the cases of Bahari, Esfandiari and Jahanbegloo, the Iranian government would be in a position to persecute Derakhshan's new targets, yet he has shielded his venom in clever humor, often referencing Iranian and American pop culture. He has used his Persian Twitter account to target individuals and organizations, though he has behaved in a much softer manner when using his English account.
Three different sources in Iran who spoke to IranWire on condition of anonymity, have told IranWire they corroborate claims that Derakhshan collaborated with the Guards. They claim he continues to work with the IRGC, "helping them to improve their work online and be more media-savvy and target Iranian dissidents abroad."
Two Iranian reformist former members of the government in Iran interviewed by IranWire expressed disgust at Harvard's decision to grant Derakhshan the fellowship. They both asked for their names not to be made public because they live in Iran and fear repercussions. "An elderly relative of mine was going to see his daughter in the US, but he wasn't granted a visa because the Americans thought this 85year-old man could be a terrorist," said one of the two men. "Now, you have someone who actively works with Sepah [the Guards] who is not only admitted in the US but also works for a prominent institution."
Another man who spent years in prison in the same ward as Derakhshan was even more damning: "The Guards don't just let someone like Derakhshan who had traveled to Israel go. I only see two scenarios here. He's either in the US gathering information for the Guards, or is in the US working with an American intelligence organization. If that is the case, the Americans should be very careful about the information he gives them."
In recent months Derakhshan has toned down his anti-dissident rhetoric. "My guess is that his friends have told him to soften his voice in order to be accepted in Harvard and other places," says Bahari. "When he was planning to return to Iran he started to criticize Iran's critics in harshest terms possible. Now, he seems to be doing the opposite to be accepted by the West."