Hamid Babaei Jailed For NOT Spying

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Just Another Ordinary Day in Tehran

You’re at an airport, waiting with your husband for your flight home. All of a sudden, officials come over and take him from you. The next thing you know, they tell you that your husband is a spy, and that you shouldn’t hold your breath to see him again. Do you come to terms with your fate and keep waiting? Or do you decide to fight this injustice as hard as you can?

 

Jailed For Not Spying

It might sound like the premise of an action-packed Hollywood film, but this is the amazing, sad and unfortunate story of what happened on the 5th of August to Cobra Parsajoo, wife of Hamid Babaei. Babaei was an Iranian grad student in Liege, Belgium, studying for a doctorate in finance and law. And she had a tough decision to make.

It started a few weeks before in July 2013: Iranian authorities approached Babaei with a request for him to spy upon other Iranians living in Belgium. He refused the “offer”, ensuring the people who contacted him that his lips were sealed, but that obviously wasn’t enough.

So, a few weeks later, after a family visit and waiting for a plane back from Tehran to his life, someone decided to deny him his life, and declared him a national security threat.

 

8 months in hell…and counting.

For the last eight months, the lives of Babaei and Parsajoo have turned into nightmares: Babaei first spend a month in solitary confinement before being transferred to Evin prison in September. On December 21st, after being denied representation by a lawyer of his choice and after a 10 minute trial, he was sentenced to 6 years in jail for “acting against national security by communicating with hostile governments”.

In the meantime, Parasajoo is managing a campaign to release him. Because of this, she is not allowed to travel and has been threatened repeatedly by the Iranian authorities for speaking publicly about Babaei’s case.

Babaei himself was pressured to make a televised confession against himself and Parsajoo which he has resisted until now… If he does break down, Parsajoo may find herself thrown in jail as well.

Iranian Expats, Beware.

It seems that you can decide to leave Iran but Iran can decide not to leave you, both metaphorically and literally.

So while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is trying to set up a committee for the return of Iranians from abroad and while President Hassan Rouhani promises to improve the state of human rights in Iran, the regime that preceded them is still working based on a code: either you root for Iran or you become its enemy. If you don’t spy for the regime, you must be spying against it…simple, and very very sad.

Was Babaei brave or stupid to refuse the “offer”? I would like to think that he was brave

This story could happen to anyone. Well, anyone who is an Iranian living abroad and visiting home. Was Babaei brave or stupid to refuse the “offer”? I would like to think that he was brave although I’m ashamed to say that I contemplated choosing the easier path…

 

With Friends Like These – Iranian ME Diplomacy (part 3)

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Bahrain Needs “Concrete Steps”

Following the Geneva deal in November, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif embarked on his “charm offensive” road trip in the region. The tour to Kuwait, Oman and Qatar finally included the UAE (“what unites us is far greater than our minor differences“) but significantly excluded Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa admitted on December 7th that, although there has been a “change in Iranian language”, there still is no “clear change of policy”. He added that Bahrain’s fears of Iranian “interferences with internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups” in the Gulf countries are alive and that he is still waiting for “concrete steps” by Tehran to prove that the change in diplomacy is real.

Within three weeks, Al Khalifa witnessed concrete steps – in the opposite direction: Bahraini authorities foiled Iranian-backed attempts of terror and subversion after discovering caches of explosives (“50 Iranian-made hand bombs” and “295 commercial detonators on which was written ‘made in Syria’”) and arresting 13 people in the process.

Riyadh Ready to Buy a Bomb

Saudi Arabia adopted a much more direct approach:

  • Disillusioned by the nuclear deal which the Saudis felt was inadequate to force Tehran’s program to remain peaceful, they renewed their search to buy their own nuclear bomb from Pakistan. Worried about Iran getting a bomb? Now, worry about two warring neighbors with nuclear bombs.
  • Disillusioned by the UN’s lack of control in Syria and Iran, the Saudis declined a seat in the UN Security Council and are suspected of supporting Al Qaeda’s operations in Syria and Lebanon to counter Hezbollah and Iran – including bombing the Iranian embassy in Beirut.

 Beyond The Gulf…

Apropos: Remember the retaliating bombing by the Hezbollah in Beirut last week that killed former Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah, a strong critic of Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and in Syria? Ironically (or not), he died only a week after sending an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani requesting him to stop Iranian interference, directly or through Hezbollah, in Lebanon and in Syria.

Anyway: like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Egypt suffered in the past from Iranian-backed spy rings and is fearful of an Islamic Revolution marshaled by Tehran.

Perhaps that’s why Egypt’s Tourist Minister closed Egypt’s gates to Iranian tourists for “reasons related to national security” and cancelled all flights to and from Tehran.

The Egyptians must know what they’re doing on this.

Related:

 

With friends like these – Iranian Diplomacy in the Middle East (part 2)

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Diplomats, Passports & Spies in Egypt

When it comes to Iran’s shadowy diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, it’s not easy to get a precise handle on its modus operandi. Unlike in the west, open-source information is sparse (no Library of Congress report here!), and what does trickle out is quite stingy (and occasionally convoluted).

Nevertheless, after noticing a certain pattern I decided to focus my previous post on Iran’s activities in the Gulf States. Scanning the region further, the case of Egypt caught my eye: not only because of similarities to the Gulf, but also to Asia. The common denominator: Diplomats, spies and passports.

The Case of Qassem Hosseini

Iranian diplomat Qassem Hosseini was arrested in Cairo back in 2011, and subsequently deported, for organizing spy rings to gather classified information about Egypt and the Persian Gulf states – including information about the economy, politics, and military – in return for money. He reportedly passed the information to Iranian intelligence.

Egyptian prosecutor Taher El Khouli accused Hosseini of trying to organize spy rings in the country while working in the Iranian Embassy in Cairo as an undercover operative ( spying equipment banned in Egypt was found in his home). Luckily for Hosseini, he was saved by diplomatic protocols he had violated himself and used his diplomatic immunity to escape.

Interestingly enough, right around the time of Hosseini’s arrest his foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Salehi, held an important meeting with his Egyptian counterpart on the sidelines of an international conference. In view of Salehi’s well-documented efforts to promote Iran’s strategic interests, we wouldn’t be surprised if they discussed the diplomat’s release.

More Arrests, Rapprochement, Silence

This wasn’t to mark the end of Tehran’s strange doings in Egypt. A year later, three Iranians carrying fake Turkish passports were arrested and interrogated by the security services after trying to enter the country from Iraq. While a significant incident, perhaps it was brushed aside because Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had just risen to power.

Indeed, by the end of 2012 there were signs of a Cairo-Tehran rapprochement: a meeting between intelligence heads, a visit  by Qods force commander Qassem Suleimani and a meeting between Morsi and Salehi.

These developments were short-lived, particularly in view of further political changes in Egypt (the recent arrest of an Egyptian returning from Iran – with policemen’s uniforms well concealed  in his suitcase -  after he allegedly failed to find work is probably an indication of this). But one thing has surely not changed: Iran’s continued exploitation of diplomatic privilege in countries of the region. For Tehran, there’s no difference between Cairo and Riyadh.

With friends like these – Iranian Diplomacy in the Middle East (part 1)

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Updated from November 4th: “A Bahraini court sentenced four Shi’ite Muslims to life and six others to 15 years in jail on charges of setting up a militant cell linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that aimed at assassinating public figures in the Gulf Arab kingdom”.

Iran and the Gulf States

It’s no secret that Iran is not only reaching out to the West (a la the recent NYC visit by Hassan Rouhani); it wants to revive and cement friendships closer to home. The big difference between Iran’s efforts in Middle East countries is that they are usually home to large populations of Iranians, Shia worshippers, Iranian investors and/or Iranian diplomats.

The Gulf States are a definite focal point for Tehran.

Two states are currently on particularly good terms with Iran. Oman, which has supported Tehran since the Islamic revolution, is especially key these days: Muscat reportedly served as intermediator in thawing relations between Washington-Tehran, which so far has led to a Rouhani-Obama telephone conversation and a brief bilateral between Zarif-Kerry)). In addition, Qatar has renewed its support since the ascent of Crown Prince Hamad Al Thani – an avid supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Assad.

In comparison, relations with the UAE have traditionally been tense. This state of affairs stems both from Abu Dhabi’s strong opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, as well as territorial disputes which keep on flaring up keeping diplomatic relations between Tehran and Abu Dhabi on edge. That leaves Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain – states which all suffer from different levels of shadowy diplomacy and subversion by Iran.

Iranian Spy Ring in Saudi Arabia

In March 2013, Saudi Arabia uncovered an intricate Iranian spy ring working in the country. At first 18 people were arrested and by May, that number had risen to 28 – mostly Saudis but including Iranians and Lebanese nationals.

This spy ring’s mission was to pass on vital information about Saudi Arabia’s strategic military installations as well as information of US installations in the region.

But that isn’t all: Rhiyad further accused Iran of trying to create unrest within the Shiite population in Saudi Arabia as part of an “undeclared war” between the two countries.

Tehran, of course, denied any involvement and called the accusations baseless and blasted back accusations at Saudi Arabia. Iranian diplomats have yet to be connected with this spy ring but Saudi officials are not ruling this possibility out.

An Earlier Spy Ring in Kuwait

Back in 2010, an Iranian spy ring managed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Kuwait was busted. The spy ring (four Iranians, one Kuwaiti, one Syrian – and one Dominican!) and linked to Iranian diplomats – was charged with photographing military bases and planning to carry out terrorist activities, such as blowing up pipelines.

Iran, again, denied the allegations which the foreign minister at the time, Ali Akbar Salehi dismissed as a “conspiracy against Muslim countries” blaming “malevolent (forces) who do not desire good relations between the two countries“.

Kuwait expelled three Iranian diplomats and an embassy employee and the spy ring members were sentenced by a Kuwaiti court to death – later reduced to life sentences.

Bahrain later expelled two top Iranian diplomats for their involvement in the Iranian spy ring in Kuwait, which caused another round of accusations and denials.

It appears, then, that Iran’s exploitation of diplomacy to advance strategic objectives is not relegated to Asia  , Latin America, Europe , Africa  and the Caucasus. Surprise,  surprise

And while Iranian President Rouhani has wasted no time reaching out  to Saudi Arabia, particularly, it remains to be seen whether Tehran’s shadow apparatus will follow suit vis-a-vis Riyadh and the Gulf states in general.