Rifts in Iran widen as of­fi­cials clash over jailed reporter

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY BRIAN MUR­PHY brian.mur­phy@wash­post.com

Duel­ing nar­ra­tives in the Ira­nian press last week over a jailed Wash­ing­ton Post jour­nal­ist are bring­ing into sharper fo­cus the coun­try’s in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal strug­gles and how they could be play­ing out as the reporter’s case moves to­ward sen­tenc­ing on charges in­clud­ing es­pi­onage.

The con­trast­ing ac­counts in ri­val me­dia — one con­ser­va­tive and the other re­formist — emerged a week af­ter an Ira­nian court an­nounced it had con­victed Post cor­re­spon­dent Ja­son Reza­ian fol­low­ing a closed-door trial that drew wide­spread con­dem­na­tion. Crit­ics in­clud­ing rights ac­tivists and press free­dom groups as well as United Na­tions ex­perts and the White House de­nounced the trial as un­fair and the charges as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

While the op­pos­ing Ira­nian me­dia re­ports dif­fered over var­i­ous al­le­ga­tions against the 39year-old Reza­ian — in­clud­ing a claim that he had in­sider ac­cess to Iran’s re­formist gov­ern­ment — the broader im­pli­ca­tions high­light the long-run­ning ide­o­log­i­cal clashes within Iran be­tween en­trenched hard-line fac­tions and op­po­nents seek­ing to un­der­cut their in­flu­ence.

Reza­ian’s at­tor­ney, his fam­ily and The Post strongly de­nied the charges, say­ing that all his con­tacts and work re­flected only nor­mal news gath­er­ing.

Such power wran­gling in Iran is not new. It goes back to the shake-outs af­ter the 1979 Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion and flared with greater in­ten­sity af­ter the elec­tion in 1997 of re­form-lean­ing Pres­i­dent Mo­ham­mad Khatami.

But the cur­rent bat­tles have had deeper res­o­nance since Ira­nian ne­go­tia­tors reached a nu­clear deal with world pow­ers in July. The ac­cord was seen as a slap at hard-lin­ers and a boost for Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani’s poli­cies of mod­er­a­tion and out­reach to the West.

The power strug­gle also comes amid re­gional pres­sures on Iran in par­al­lel fights to weaken one pow­er­ful foe, the Is­lamic State, and prop up a key ally, the em­bat­tled gov­ern­ment of Syria. Within Iran, mean­while, the po­lit­i­cal clock is tick­ing to­ward Fe­bru­ary’s elec­tions for par­lia­ment, which has lim­ited pol­i­cy­mak­ing pow­ers but re­mains an im­por­tant barom­e­ter of the coun­try’s mood.

A vic­tory for Rouhani’s back­ers in the elec­tions would be a sig­nif­i­cant blow to the reach of ul­tra­con­ser­va­tives and anti-Western fac­tions, who share ties with the pow­er­ful Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard and many cler­ics within the rul­ing theoc­racy.

“The tug of war be­tween hard­lin­ers and their op­po­nents touches al­most ev­ery as­pect of Iran,” said Ra­sool Nafisi, an Ira­nian af­fairs ex­pert at Strayer Univer­sity. “The courts and high-pro­file tri­als are no ex­cep­tion.”

Such in­fight­ing has been pushed onto the world stage in the past by cases in­volv­ing de­tained for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing three Amer­i­can hik­ers ac­cused of stray­ing over the bor­der in 2009 who were later freed in a two-stage re­lease me­di­ated by Oman. The pros­e­cu­tion of Reza­ian, an Ira­nian Amer­i­can dual cit­i­zen, has fur­ther po­ten­tial as a light­ning rod af­ter sug­ges­tions from Tehran of a pos­si­ble swap for Ira­ni­ans held in the United States.

The list, while not made pub­lic, ap­par­ently in­cludes some Ira­ni­ans charged with vi­o­la­tions of U.S. sanc­tions on Iran, which would be eased un­der the nu­clear ac­cord.

Last week, Iran’s Fars News Agency — which has close ties to the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard — quoted a high-rank­ing par­lia­ment mem­ber as of­fer­ing the most de­tailed run­down of the pur­ported al­le­ga­tions against Reza­ian, who has been de­tained since July 2014 and has had lim­ited ac­cess to his fam­ily and le­gal coun­sel.

In the re­port, Javad Karim­iQod­dusi, a mem­ber of the se­cu­rity and for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee in Iran’s par­lia­ment, was quoted as say­ing that the panel asked Iran’s ju­di­ciary two months ago to re­ject pro­pos­als for a pos­si­ble pris­oner ex­change un­til Reza­ian faced trial.

“Amer­i­cans made ef­forts for his re­lease, but did not suc­ceed,” Karimi-Qod­dusi said with­out of­fer­ing de­tails, ac­cord­ing to the Fars re­port.

U.S. of­fi­cials have not made any di­rect com­ments on pos­si­ble over­tures on swaps, but they have re­peat­edly de­nounced the trial and have de­manded Reza­ian’s re­lease and that of at least two other Amer­i­cans held in Ira­nian cus­tody.

Al­though the charges against Reza­ian have never been of­fi­cially dis­closed or ex­plained pub­licly, his at­tor­ney, Leila Ah­san, said in April that he faced four charges, the most se­ri­ous of which was es­pi­onage. Last week, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Court spokesman, Gho­lam Hos­sein Mohseni-Ejei, said Reza­ian was con­victed in a de­ci­sion that was not made pub­lic un­til weeks af­ter his trial ended.

The judge who heard the case, Abol­ghas­sem Salavati, is known for hand­ing down harsh sen­tences. De­pend­ing on the par­tic­u­lar charges in Reza­ian’s con­vic­tion, he could face as much as 10 to 20 years, ac­cord­ing to Ira­nian me­dia re­ports. It is un­clear when the sen­tence could be an­nounced.

The Fars re­port in­cludes claims by Karimi-Qod­dusi that Reza­ian “con­fessed” to hav­ing links with U.S. of­fi­cials and Ira­nian pro­test­ers who joined mass demon­stra­tions af­ter the dis­puted re­elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad in 2009. But Post lawyers say Reza­ian has never con­fessed to any crime, and Ah­san has re­peat­edly as­serted his in­no­cence.

The law­maker also al­leged that Reza­ian had con­tacts with a For­eign Min­istry source who “pro­vided him with all up­dates about the [nu­clear] ne­go­ti­at­ing team.”

But he did not ex­plain how such con­tacts would con­sti­tute a crime, and there is noth­ing to in­di­cate that Reza­ian had un­law­ful ac­cess to pro­tected in­for­ma­tion.

Some hard-lin­ers op­posed the nu­clear deal’s pro­vi­sions as too great a con­ces­sion. Un­der the pact, world pow­ers agreed to ease sanc­tions on Iran in ex­change for lim­its on Tehran’s nu­clear pro­gram. On Tues­day, Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, en­dorsed the deal, ef­fec­tively si­lenc­ing the dis­senters.

The Post and in­ter­na­tional me­dia groups say Reza­ian acted only as a jour­nal­ist.

“Th­ese are sim­ply the lat­est false, ridicu­lous and un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims be­ing cir­cu­lated by hard-line mem­bers of Iran’s par­lia­ment,” said Dou­glas Jehl, The Post’s for­eign editor.

“The ab­surd al­le­ga­tions against Ja­son have shifted end­lessly over many months. Now we have a fresh batch. The only thing miss­ing now — and all along — has been ac­tual ev­i­dence,” Jehl added. “Ja­son is in­no­cent, and his treat­ment has been ab­hor­rent. Ja­son needs at long last to be given back his free­dom.”

On Thurs­day, a re­formist news­pa­per, Aftab-e Yazd, hit back at the claims in the Fars re­port in a fur­ther sign of the in­ter­nal feuds.

The news­pa­per quoted sev­eral par­lia­ment mem­bers as char­ac­ter­iz­ing hard-lin­ers as try­ing to use Reza­ian’s case to dis­credit Rouhani and his in­ner cir­cle, in­clud­ing the chief ne­go­tia­tor of the nu­clear deal, For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif.

Hadi Shooshtari, also a mem­ber of the se­cu­rity and for­eign pol­icy com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment, was quoted as say­ing he was “ab­so­lutely un­aware” of any ties be­tween Reza­ian and Rouhani’s gov­ern­ment.

“Nei­ther do I re­call this is­sue be­ing dis­cussed at the com­mit­tee with such de­tails,” he said.

An­other law­maker, Ebrahim Nekou, cast the claims against Reza­ian as at­tempts at “po­lit­i­cal gains” by Rouhani’s op­po­nents.

Nekou ac­cused hard-lin­ers of try­ing to “launch a new sce­nario” af­ter suf­fer­ing a de­feat over the nu­clear deal.

“Af­ter the gov­ern­ment’s achieve­ments on the in­ter­na­tional scene, the case of Ja­son Reza­ian is raised to chal­lenge the gov­ern­ment,” Nekou said, ac­cord­ing to Aftab-e Yazd. He dis­missed the hard-lin­ers’ as­ser­tions that Reza­ian had “co­zied up to the gov­ern­ment,” call­ing the claims “ridicu­lous,” the pa­per said.


Post cor­re­spon­dent Ja­son Reza­ian, de­tained since July 2014, was con­victed af­ter a closed-door trial that has been widely con­demned.

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