The hanging of Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam continues to make waves among Iranian exiles in the United States and Europe. Part of the reason is the sheer audacity of the plot: Zam apparently was lured from exile in France, where he lived under police protection, to Iraq, from where he was kidnapped and smuggled to Iran.
But the major surprise was the speed at which Iranian authorities executed Zam after his appeal against his death sentence was denied. Within four days of that sentence being upheld, it was carried out. Zam, though little-known outside Iranian exile circles in the West, was a household name in Iran and the son of a high-ranking cleric; photographs of his father and mother at his grave were widely shared.
Certainly, hardliners inside Iran were determined that Zam not become a lightning rod for international criticism. But the story of his hanging is more a story of what comes next in Iran.
Zam was a dangerous figure because of who he was and what he did: an insider from the revolution who went into exile to incite street protests against it. Facing a pivotal Iranian presidential election next year, and a new Biden presidency, there is little that hardline elements inside Iran fear more than the power of the street.
The kidnapping of Zam drew immediate comparisons with Habib Chaab, another Iranian dissident lured to Turkey and kidnapped in October. Chaab was a leader of a Europe-based separatist movement for Iran’s ethnic Arab minority. He appeared in a video “confession” from inside Iran in December.
Yet similarities of how they were captured are superficial, a question of logistics. A better comparison is a dissident called Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, who was shot dead in Turkey in November 2019. Turkish officials accused Iran of carrying out the assassination. Like Zam, Vardanjani had publicly attacked the Revolutionary Guards; like Zam, he was a former insider, reportedly involved in cyber security at Iran’s defense ministry. It is these children of the revolution that hardliners inside Iran fear.
What links Zam, Chaab and Vardanjani are street protests and the concern among hardliners inside Iran that next year’s presidential election could be disrupted by them.
Next summer’s election is one of the most consequential for Iran, especially with Biden in the White House, and the country’s conservatives are determined to win the internal contest with reformers. This contest, always present, is not always obvious: a rare example came in early 2019, when Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, firmly in the reformist camp, was left out of a meeting with Bashar Al-Assad that was organized by the Revolutionary Guards, who often act as the “tip of the spear” for hardliners. Zarif resigned but was eventually persuaded to return.
That contest will be on full display at next year’s election, when the term of the current reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, comes to an end. But while hardliners can count on their ability to suppress the vote, the “wild card” for them are street protests, of the sort that shook the country after the 2009 elections and again in 2017 and last year. Zam took part in those 2009 protests, was arrested and then fled the country, and the media organization he founded played an important part in coordinating the 2017 and 2019 protests.
For conservatives, street protests are a dangerous explosion of public opinion. A protest movement that gains momentum before the election could tip the balance against them, and one that develops after the election win of a conservative – especially if, as in 2009, that victory were to be disputed – would force a crackdown that the world would see.
These protests often provide political cover for Western governments to take decisive action, usually financial penalties rather than military action, and hardliners know that the new US president will face pressure to show he is “tough” on Iran, especially if the nuclear deal is revived.
It is only just over a year since Iran experienced its worst protests since the Islamic Revolution, sparked by an increase in gas prices but that rapidly escalated into widespread anti-government protests. Those protests, most dangerously for hardliners, drew much of their support from precisely the sort of conservative, often working-class communities that have historically backed their candidates.
That is what made Zam so dangerous; he was a child of the Revolution who defected and began attacking its leaders. It is what made Chaab so dangerous; some of the biggest protests and the harshest crackdowns took place in Khuzestan, the region with the highest percentage of Ahwazi Arabs.
It was why three of the leaders of the protest movement were prosecuted and sentenced to death in July this year. A mass social media campaign, which reached all the way to the White House, eventually paused their executions, and this month the Supreme Court agreed to new trials for them. Yet their situation is precarious.
Last year’s protests were firmly put down and the subsequent pandemic and its lockdowns fizzled them out, but the anger hasn’t gone away.
Iran’s hardliners have sought to use both violence and legal deterrents to keep people from protesting; they will view the execution of Zam as something of an achievement, a “December surprise” before the election, proving that they still retain the ability to put even exiled dissidents to death. The message has been clearly sent: Iran’s hardline revolutionaries are willing to hang their own children before they rise up and devour them.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.