December 15, 2020
The dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam was executed in Iran on December 12. Last winter the founder of Amad News was lured from his place of relative safety in Paris to Baghdad, Iraq by the promise of an interview with Ayatollah Sistani, a noted Shia source of emulation. There, he was arrested, kidnapped and spirited back to Iraq by the Revolutionary Guards.
Three days after Zam’s execution a source close to Ayatollah Sistani confirmed that Iranian and Iraqi intelligence operatives had abused the senior cleric’s reputation and name to entice Ruhollah Zam to leave France.
Expressing his condolences to Zam’s family, the source said: “Iraqi intelligence agents and the IRGC, in collaboration with several people who had attended Mr. Sistani’s offices in Qom and Najaf, promised Ruhollah Zam he could set up a Persian-language television station and encouraged him to go to Iraq.”
Ruhollah Zam, a father-of-two, was hanged in the early hours of Saturday morning four days after his death sentence for “corruption on earth” was upheld by the Supreme Court. News of his arrest had first been published by the Iranian security apparatus on October 13 last year, with the Guards issuing a statement to say they had brought him to the country in a “complex security operation”. They did not elaborate further.
A few days later, Zam’s wife told IranWire that he had been abducted in Iraq. It was understood that Zam had travelled to the country on the invitation of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, but Sistani’s office wasted no time in rejecting the claim, saying: “There was fundamentally no reason for this meeting. As far as we know, Mr. Zam is a journalist and a member of the opposition movement against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Grand Ayatollah Sistani will not be interviewed by the media, and does not and will not have any contact with members of the opposition. This rumor is baseless.”
Shortly before news broke that Zam’s death sentence had been upheld, his lawyer in Paris confirmed that Zam had hoped to set up a new television station with the support of Ayatollah Sistani. The source close to Sistani has now insisted no such promise was made by Sistani’s offices; given the number of institutions under the cleric’s supervision in Iran, and the almost-deference he enjoys in the Islamic Republic, it would be unthinkable for his offices to engage in anti-government activities. “Unfortunately, Mr. Zam was deceived by these people and the promise of money,” they said. “Of course, it seems that some people close to Mr. Zam were also involved in this deception.”
Before travelling to Iraq, Zam had sent a trusted colleague and Amad contributor called Shirin Najafi to Baghdad a fortnight earlier. She was supposed to make arrangements for the meeting and make sure it was safe for Zam to go. Despite texting Zam regularly and encouraging him to pursue his travel plans, Najafi had been based all the while in Istanbul, not Baghdad, and her whereabouts now are unknown.
Ayatollah Sistani enjoys a special position in the hierarchy of the Islamic Republic and many officials regard him with respect and admiration. He is so important, in fact, that in October this year, Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor and representative of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran for the ultraconservative newspaper Kayhan – who is normally able to attack government officials with impunity because of its elevated position – was forced to publicly apologize after objecting to Sistani’s having met with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Iraq to discuss oversight of the Iraqi parliamentary elections.
After Ruhollah Zam was hanged, some people criticized Ayatollah Sistani for not having reacted more strongly to Zam’s death sentence. The source close to Sistani told IranWire that behind the scenes, a letter of protest by Javad Shahrestani, Sistani’s son-in-law and his authorized representative, had been sent to high-ranking officials of the Islamic Republic. Javad Shahrestani, they went on, had been “furious” at the appropriation of Ayatollah Sistani’s name to deceive Ruhollah Zam, and in his letter he had emphasized: “This abuse and kidnapping is an insult to the authority of this source of emulation, and an unprecedented sin.”
“Grand Ayatollah Sistani,” they concluded, “has representatives and offices in most parts of the world, and his followers should be asking questions through those offices. Neither this Ayatollah, nor any other source of emulation, would ever accept the use of their name and reputation to deceive people. On behalf of Mr. Sistani’s office, I once again extend my condolences to Mr. Zam’s family and emphasize that this office has played no role in this cowardly plot, and we condemn it.”