By Shahab Moghadam
Iran is in the headlines again, this time for the treatment of one of its top scientists. The Islamic Republic has never been shy about doling out death sentences to people it suspects of ties to its arch nemesis Israel, or even people who merely protest aspects of the political system in the country. This harsh legal system, combined with high unemployment and few opportunities for educated professionals, has led to a large “brain drain” from the country as young professions seek better and more plentiful opportunities in Europe and North America.
Ahmadreza Djalali was one such educated emigre, who moved to Sweden where he has made a name for himself working “on improving hospitals’ emergency responses to armed terrorism and radiological, chemical and biological threats” according to the prominent peer-reviewed Nature magazine. Djalali was arrested in Tehran in April 2016 while on an academic visit, spending over a year in prison before it was revealed by international organizations that he had been sentenced to death with only 20 days to appeal.
The Iranians have spent Djalali’s time in prison pinning charges of espionage on him, including involvement in the assassination of Iranian scientists as part of a Mossad operation. Accusing suspects of involvement with Israeli intelligence is a common tactic in Tehran, however, for the government to pin multiple high-profile murders on one individual is much rarer. In addition to charging the expatriate academic with the murders of Iranian scientists, the Iranians claim that he received remuneration, academic positions and research initiatives from Israel in return for his spying.
Shortly before Djalali was sentenced, “a close contact of his (who would prefer to remain anonymous) circulated a document that claims to be a literal transcription of a handwritten text produced by Djalali inside Evin prison, where he is being held. The document states that Djalali believes he was arrested for refusing to spy for the Iranian intelligence service,” Nature magazine reported. Unless he appeals and is spared the death penalty, Djalali is set to be executed.
Executions and elaborate charges are nothing new in Iran, which has drawn international criticism for its human rights record. In one particularly notable case, thousands of anti-government activists were put to death in a matter of a few in a 1988 mass execution and buried in mass graves per an edict by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The regime has refused to give their families any information on the victims, including where they have been buried.
Once an international pariah, the Obama’s administration decision to sign the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has allowed the country’s stature to expand rapidly and attract foreign investment. This summer the pariah regime further improved its international standing when it opened a new relationship with Qatar.
The theocratic regime is also suspected in bombings targeted against Jews in Argentina in the 1990s that killed over 100 people and injured hundreds more. Persecution of dissidents and minority groups also remains prevalent in the Middle Eastern nation.
It remains to be seen whether Djalali will be added to the tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands, of victims of the Tehran regime since the 1979 Revolution.
Shahab Moghadam has worked on political campaigns on both coasts and is a professional writer in Washington D.C. He has traveled in and written extensively on the Middle East.