By Shima Shahrabi
October 3, 2020
On Wednesday, September 30, the Iranian-born human rights activist Mahdieh Golroo posted a video on her Instagram page alerting others to a threat made against her by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
According to Golroo, a student and staunch activist who finally left the country last summer after years of struggle in Iran, security officials contacted her asking her to collaborate in their operations abroad. Golroo was told that if she did not cooperate, the IRGC would publish private videos and photos that were confiscated from her laptop and phone during her arrest and detention in 2014-15.
In her video statement, Golroo told her followers that she would not be blackmailed into espionage on behalf of the Islamic Republic. “I have seen many women in prison being pressured, by means of threatening to publish a personal video, a photo or chat, to confess to something they had not done,” she said.
“Publishing private videos does not destroy us,” she added in a caption, “but further shows the obscenity and filth of the Islamic Republic. I apologize in advance to my friends who may be in the movies they publish.”
Activist Refuses Revolutionary Guards’ Offer for a Second Time
Early, peaceful activism saw Mahdieh Golroo banned from continuing her university education in Iran in 2007. The former industrial economics student then became a campaign volunteer for former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi in Iran’s 2009 presidential elections.
For this, she was arrested in December 2009, and not released until May 2012 after serving more than two years in prison on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
In October 2014 Golroo was arrested again after attending a rally to protest the acid attacks on three women in Isfahan province, for which not one person has yet been brought to justice. This time Golroo was held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison’s Ward 2 -A, which is in the purview of the IRGC, until her release on January 18, 2015.
Golroo was previously asked to spy for the state while living in Iran. One of the Evin Prison interrogators, she has since said, told her: “You can continue all your activities, both in the fields of students’ rights and women’s rights, but collaborate with us from time to time when we want to send a message to a group or when we want to divert a movement.”
After Golroo refused, she was repeatedly summoned to an office next to the Owj Arts and Media Organization – an “NGO” controlled by the IRGC – for further explanations and interrogation. In one of those meetings in January 2019, she was warned that if she did not cooperate, a suspended sentence against her husband Vahid would be enacted. The couple assumed this was an empty threat, but in early August they learned his case was indeed being processed again. They left Iran on August 5.
Desperate Attempts to Recruit Iranians in Exile
This is far from the first time security agents of the Islamic Republic have tried to persuade people from outside Iran to collaborate with them. The most recent publicized case was that of Behdad Esfahbod: an Iranian-Canadian Facebook employee and experienced programmer who has worked with as Google and has twice won gold and silver medals at the World Computer Olympiad.
In August, Esfahbod revealed that he had been arrested by the Revolutionary Guards in January 2020 during a visit to his family in Iran. He had friendly relations with some journalists and civil activists abroad and was asked to spy on behalf of the Islamic Republic in exchange for his release.
“One of the interrogators said, ‘You are not doing anything now, but you did something before’,” he told IranWire in August. “Now you have to go to court. The judge will rule on your case and probably sentence you to between two and 10 years in prison.’
“Then he said, ‘I talked to them; I would like to help. We can lift the ban on you traveling and keep your file as necessary; you can come and go whenever you want. Just keep the relationship you have with these people, keep talking to these people, or go out, have dinner and drinks.
Esfahbod said he felt he had no choice but to accept the offer in order to be released. Nevertheless, he was asked to pay a one billion toman [$35,000] bail – “just in case”. On arrival back in the United States he decided to make both the arrest and the offer public knowledge.
Other dual-nationals who have been imprisoned in Iran have had the same “offer” forced on them. Aras Amiri, a student of artistic management at Kingston University and an employee of the British Cultural Council, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for “running and forming a subversive network”. Last summer she wrote a letter addressed to judiciary head Ebrahim Raeesi, saying her interrogators had tried to make her spy for them and punished her when she refused to do so.
“In my third meeting,” she wrote, “I rejected their offer and said that I could only work in my field of expertise, and nowhere else. Shortly after the last meeting, a new charge of ‘managing and forming a network to overthrow the regime’ was communicated to me. In addition, on the pretext that I might try to flee the country, the bail order was changed to a detention order. I was sent directly to Evin Prison.”
The British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was imprisoned in 2016 on trumped-up espionage charges along with her young daughter, was also subjected by the Iranian security forces to pressure to spy for them.
Her husband Richard Ratcliffe told IranWire that in December 2018, interrogators had visited Zaghari-Ratcliffe in prison and told her that she would be pardoned and released if she agreed to gather information on the British Department for International Development. “More than two and half years after Nazanin was arrested, they made her this offer to put both her and her family under pressure,” he said. “But I do not think they necessarily want her to spy for them. Their intention is more to confuse and frighten her so that she will believe spying is her only way to freedom.”