Iran’s hardline judiciary this week sentenced Iranian-American, Siamak Namazi, to ten years in Evin prison. His 80 year-old father, Baquer, who was once the governor of Shiraz province under the Shah, received the same sentence.
Siamak was working for a Dubai energy company in 2015, when he made a visit to Iran to see his Iranian family. During his stay, he began receiving e mail inquiries from someone who called himself Alex Shirazi (not his real name). Shirazi said he was writing a profile of his family for the Daily Beast and sought information about his family’s business relationships and politics. From the tone and content, Namazi immediately worried that the article would be what it turned out to be, a hit piece.
Namazi then wrote to Shirazi’s editor, Michael Weiss, and said he was disturbed and concerned that the article, besides being false, might endanger him and his family. Weiss refused to intercede with Shirazi. The day Siamak tried to leave Iran, he was detained at the airport by Iranian authorities, who told him he was not permitted to exit the country. It’s evident that the Iranian intelligence services had easy access to this e-mail traffic between ‘Shirazi’ and Namazi.
In the next several weeks, the Daily Beast published the article, The Shady Family Behind America’s Iran Lobby. It permitted readers to believe that “Alex Shirazi” was a real person. Later, it published a disclosure that “Alex Shirazi” was a pseudonym, an especially damaging admission for a reputable publication. The article was even more slashing and unsubstantiated than Siamak had feared. Shortly after its publication, Iranian police came and arrested him. This cannot have been a coincidence either. Thus, the interests of neocon anti-Iran figures like Weiss and Shirazi and those of the hardline Iranian intelligence services aligned.
The Iranian-American was brought to Tehran’s dreaded Evin Prison and has remained there for the past two years. A few months after his arrest, when he apparently refused to cooperate with his interrogators, his father was also arrested.
Last August, I published an in-depth profile of Michael Weiss here, which detailed the tragic story of Siamak and his father. Before I published, I asked Weiss, “Alex Shirazi” and Daily Beast managing editor, John Avlon to answer a series of questions I sent to them. All chose not to respond.
In its reporting of Siamak’s jail sentence, the NY Times’ Thomas Erdbrink also acknowledged the role played by this scurrilous piece of gutter journalism (though naturally the Times used more judicious prose):
Around the time he was arrested in Iran in September 2015, an online news outlet in the United States, The Daily Beast, published a long article saying that Mr. Namazi and his family were a driving force behind the “Iran lobby” in the United States and that they stood to profit from the lifting of sanctions after the nuclear deal. The identity of the writer of the article was shielded with a pseudonym.
In preparing the Weiss profile, I consulted with and interviewed many Iranian-Americans on various matters. But I especially wanted to identify the real individual behind the “Alex Shirazi” pseudonym. A number of people told me who they thought he was. They all said they’d heard that when Shirazi was trolling for information about the Namazis, he accidentally used his real e mail address rather than the one for Shirazi. The real address belonged to Iranian political cartoonist and anti-regime dissident, Nikahang Kowsar. Iranians who received such messages told them this though they later refused to come forward when pressed, out of fear of Kowsar. When I wrote to Kowsar asking to confirm or deny this, he refused to respond.
Ironically, just after Siamak’s arrest, Kowsar posted a strange tweet blaming the NY Times for remaining silent about the incident. An exceedingly odd response from the very individual who was responsible for his imprisonment.
— Nik Kowsar (@nikahang) October 29, 2015
Earlier this week, the Iranian hardliners released an odd one-minute video showing Siamak. He did not say anything and there was no sound to the video other than music added subsequently in a studio. The hardliners like to air video confessions by their victims in which they admit their sins and beg forgiveness. It’s noteworthy that Siamak refused to choose this path.
The video was covered by the world media, which didn’t know what to make of it. But the other shoe fell on October 19th, when the Iranians announced that Siamak and his father were being sentenced to ten years in prison.
This follows of similar path with earlier U.S.-Iranian citizens who were arrested and tried in Iran. The hardliners, seeking to embarrass the moderate Rouhani regime, need victims to parade before the media as spies and traitors. They use these show trials to prove that foreigners like Namazi are in league with both the Rouhani government and western intelligence agencies to undermine the Islamic Revolution.
There’s a second purpose to these arrests and trials. The hardliners then use the victims as bait for prisoner exchanges with the U.S. This is what happened when five Iranian-Americans were traded for Iranian citizens imprisoned in the U.S. Among them were Jason Rezaian, the former Iran correspondent for the Washington Post, who recently announced a lawsuit against the Iranian government for his treatment at its hands.
The Daily Beast betrayed Siamak and is largely responsible for him losing the next ten years of his life. John Avlon, Michael Weiss and Nikahang Kowsar have a moral responsibility to face up to the role they played. At the very least, they could organize a public campaign on behalf of the Namazis and pressure the U.S. government to negotiate for their release.
But progressive media could’ve played a more assertive role as well. After Max Blumenthal commissioned my original Weiss profile for Alternet, publisher Jan Frel killed it. He feared attacks and possible lawsuits from Weiss, who has an vociferous group of acolytes. Many other publications rejected the piece as well including The Nation, Truthdig, the Columbia Journalism Review, London Review of Books, and The National Interest, among others.
It took a publisher with guts–someone willing to face intimidation—to publish that piece. I only wish there were more such publishers out there willing to go to bat for Siamak and Baquer Namazi.