By Daniel Keyvanfer
June 18, 2021
Many Iranians were surprised to see Mohammad Ali Hadi Najafabadi, a clergyman who no longer wears clerical garb, sitting among the defendants in the multi-billion dollar Bank Sarmayeh corruption case. Few knew that Iran’s former senior negotiator in the Iran-Contra Affair had since become a member of the bank’s board of directors.
The first court hearing took place on May 14, 2019. Najafabadi sat behind Mohammad Hadi Razavi, the son-in-law of President Rouhani’s Labor and Welfare Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari. He was the eighth listed defendant in the case and was ultimately found guilty of 12 counts related to breach of trust, and sentenced to five years in prison, 74 lashes and a permanent ban from government jobs.
This, of course, was not the full story. In most of the court hearings Najafabadi had sat next to his fellow defendants. But then he was abruptly separated from them. On September 3, 2019, presiding judge Asadollah Masoudi-Magham announced that since Najafabadi had proved that he was a clergyman with affidavits from religious authorities, the court had no jurisdiction over him and his case would be transferred to the Special Clerical Court.
Of course, the question remained as to how the Special Clerical Court was to handle a case that needed specialized knowledge of banking transactions.
At the time of the trial, some media outlets mentioned Najafabadi’s past and specifically his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, which is known in Iran as McFarlane Affair. But a lot was left unsaid about the role of this veteran clergyman in the power structure of the Islamic Republic. Who is Mohammad Ali Hadi Najafabadi, and what is his record?
Hunger Strike at Saint Mary Church
Mohammad Ali Hadi Najafabadi was born in 1948 and is a graduate of Haghani School in Qom, a seminary that aims to train up future clerics with both a traditional and modern curriculum – including a secular education in science, medicine, politics, and Western and non-Islamic philosophy.
Najafabadi is the uncle of Mohsen Mirdamadi, the secretary-general of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front. His name first came to the attention of the public in 1969 when he went to the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf in Iraq to offer his services to Ayatollah Khomeini, who was living there in exile at the time. Khomeini eventually ordered him to go to Lebanon to work alongside Palestinian and Shia militia groups. In those years, Najafabadi also visited many other countries in the region, including Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
On October 3, 1977, a group of Iranian students in Europe decided to stage protests against Khomeini’s treatment in Iraq. According to the memoirs of Sadegh Tabatabai, brother-in-law of Khomeini’s son Ahmad, the demonstrations were meant to include sit-ins and hunger strikes at the Vatican and the Church of Saint Mary (Église Saint-Merri) in Paris. Their plan for the Vatican got nowhere but the students did succeed in staging a three-day sit-in and hunger strike at the church. The leader of this group was Mohammad Ali Hadi Najafabadi.
In 1978, as the uprising against the Shah was reaching its climax, Iraq expelled Khomeini. The leader of the Islamic Revolution then came to Neauphle-le-Château, a suburb of Paris, on October 6 that year on a tourist visa. Hadi followed him there and acted as an interpreter for the ayatollah. On February 1, 1979, the pair returned to Iran aboard the same plane.
The First Mission: Negotiations with McFarlane
After the Islamic Revolution, Najafabadi was appointed to the fledgling council supervising Iran’s national TV and radio networks. Shortly thereafter he was elected an MP in the first and second parliaments of the Islamic Republic.
Najafabadi was a member of a group known as the “Isfahani politicians”. Abdollah Nouri and Mehdi Hashemi, a founder of the Revolutionary Guards and a brother of Ayatollah Montazeri’s son-in-law, were among other prominent figures in this group.
Hashemi played an important role in revealing the Iran-Contra Affair. He paid for it with his life, executed in September 1987 before his death sentence had even been formally announced. One of the charges against him was publishing underground newsletters in which he had accused Hadi Najafabadi of having worked with Savak, the Shah’s secret police.
Najafabadi was among the Iranians who negotiated with Robert McFarlane, President Reagan’s national security advisor, who had come to Tehran in secret on November 4, 1986, to make a deal with the Islamic Republic.
When the deal was exposed, it caused a political scandal in both the United States and Iran. Violating American laws, Reagan and senior members of his administration had persuaded arms dealers and the Israeli government to sell arms to Iran while the country was in its sixth year of war with Iraq. In exchange, Iran arranged to release Americans being held hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The proceeds from the arms sale were sent to the Contras, guerrillas fighting the Sandinista revolutionary government in Nicaragua. The Islamic Republic, despite all its anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, was desperate for military equipment and agreed.
In his 2014 book, Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power, Malcolm Byrne, deputy director and director of research for the US National Security Archive, writes that the only person who met McFarlane after he arrived in Tehran was a man introduced to him as Dr. Najafi.
The American team tried for hours, in discussions with Washington, to establish the real identity of this Dr. Najafi. Their best guess was Mohammad Ali Hadi Najafabadi: at that time chairman of the parliament’s foreign policy committee, and advisor to the parliament’s speaker in foreign affairs.
In his memoirs, the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also refers to Najafabadi as Dr. Hadi: “I was at home when Dr. Hadi arrived,” he states. “Another high-level official, Hassan Rouhani, accompanied him. Dr. Rouhani was a member of the Supreme Defense Council and the head of National Air Defense… On their insistence I decided Dr. Hadi should go to negotiate with the American delegation. He reported that that McFarlane was unhappy but also annoyed, because he had not met with higher-level officials, and his gift [a Bible signed by President Reagan as a symbol of goodwill] had not been accepted… McFarlane angrily protested, ‘Had I gone to Russia just to buy fur, Gorbachev would have met me at least twice a day!’”
Needless to say, the Islamic Republic must have had great trust in Najafabadi and his abilities to choose him for such important secret negotiations, at least at that time, even though the result was a scandal for Iran, the US and Israel.
The Second Mission: Securing the Release of Mahmoud Seif
On September 13, 1989, after the Iran-Contra mess had subsided and the war with Iraq was over, Hadi Najafabadi was appointed the Iranian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and resided there until September 1991. From late 1991 to 1976, he then served as Iran’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. After Mohammad Khatami became president in 1997, he was appointed deputy foreign minister for consular affairs and remained in this role until early 2005, when he was dispatched to the UAE as Iran’s ambassador again. The difference this time around was that he had a secret mission of his own.
The story of the mission went back to the arrest of Mahmoud Seif and his wife Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan in Austria. The pair were charged with trying to buy 3,000 helmet-mounted military night vision goggles from Austria, ostensibly for Iran: a violation of the US arms embargo.
At the time, American media reported that Seif was a retired Revolutionary Guards commander and had played the pivotal role in the scheme. After behind-closed-doors petitioning by the Islamic Republic, the couple were released from prison in Vienna and returned to the UAE on February 4, 2005.
The UAE was the legal residence of Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan. Before his arrest in Vienna, Mahmood Seif had been engaged in trying to buy sanctioned military equipment and other items for the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guards, first and foremost by creating dozens of shell companies. Three days after returning to the UAE, Seif, who was trying to get back to Iran, was arrested as a result of US pressure on the Emirati government.
It was in the midst of these events in 2005 that Hadi Najafabadi returned to the UAE as the Iranian ambassador. The Iran-Contra affair had convinced the Iranian government that he was a reliable, skilled negotiator. His secret mission was to secure the release of Seif: a task of utmost importance for the Islamic Republic because were Seif extradited to the US, the Americans could gain access to any amount of military secrets and information about Iran’s methods of sanctions-dodging.
Eventually, after lengthy, covert negotiations between Iranian and UAE officials, to which Hadi Najafabadi was constantly party, Seif was released from prison in Abu Dhabi. Thus the threat of his extradition to the US was temporarily removed, although UAE officials took away his and his wife’s passports to prevent them from leaving the country.
In her memoir Shahrzad: A True Story, Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan later wrote that after his release, her ex-husband made endless plans to escape the Emirates and return to Iran but none of them worked out. In the meantime, however, he continued his secret commercial activities for the Islamic Republic and the Revolutionary Guards.
A number of senior Iranian officials traveled to the UAE incognito, both to meet Seif and to lobby the officials of that country to allow him to return to Iran. One of them was Mohsen Rezaei, a candidate in tomorrow’s presidential election and then major-general with the Revolutionary Guards, who even paid a visit to the couple at home.
In several places in her book, Mir Gholikhan mentions the efforts made by Hadi Najafabadi on behalf of Seif. Finally, on May 31, 2006, Seif returned to Iran, followed shortly after by the supposed ambassador.
Notably, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the presidency in 2005, he replaced all the Iranian ambassadors to countries in the region except for Hadi Najafabadi, who was kept in post for a year so that he could complete his mission to extract Mahmoud Seif.
Then in 2017, Seif was arrested in Iran for corruption and later sentenced to 30 years in prison. He has been in jail since early 2019 and was transferred to Evin Prison’s Ward 4 in the summer of 2020.
However, he has not yet managed to thank Hadi Najafabadi for rescuing him in person behind bars – because the latter has yet to be summoned to begin serving his five-year prison sentence. The delay comes even as countless other political prisoners were hauled into Evin mid-pandemic. Perhaps a third mission is in store for Iran’s secretive clergyman without a turban – one that keeps him out of jail, at least for now.