U.S. prosecutors announced last week that a former Air Force intelligence specialist defected to Iran, and charged her with espionage for allegedly sharing sensitive national security information with the Tehran regime. The revelation has reopened an uncomfortable conversation about treason. It is also raising questions about the murky world of Americans who cooperate with the Iranian regime.
Hundreds of thousands of American citizens, through heritage or marriage, are eligible to become citizens of Iran. Many, including me, hold both passports. Some end up emigrating to Iran. They do so for many reasons. In some cases — a very small number of them — the reasons are ideological.
It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before an alleged American defector to the Islamic republic would be publicly exposed. Monica Witt, an Air Force veteran who is not Iranian by national origin, was indicted last week on charges that she passed secrets to the Iranian government.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Witt’s story is how she went from being an active member of the U.S. military to becoming an ideological convert to the theocratic regime in Tehran. According to U.S. authorities, she visited Iran, then converted to Islam and ultimately went to work for the Islamic republic. She first served the regime as a propagandist and later helped to lure her former colleagues into cyber-traps that resulted in classified information falling into the hands of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Last month, another U.S.-born employee of the Islamic republic, Marzieh Hashemi, was detained by U.S. authorities for nine days and compelled to testify as a material witness in an as-yet-unnamed case. Many people called upon me to condemn the arrest as a blow against press freedom.
They said it was my responsibility to push back against what some called American “hostage taking.” But my own experience as a prisoner of the Iranian regime — which included watching newscasts of Hashemi and her colleagues — made me skeptical, and so I didn’t bite.
Hashemi works for Press TV. The English-language network of Iran’s state-funded media organization, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, was at the forefront of a disinformation campaign that worked overtime to personally discredit me and support the Iranian regime’s public narrative during my imprisonment in Iran; it has done so to many others over the years. For that reason, I don’t see her temporary detention as having anything to do with press freedom issues. A propagandist in the service of an authoritarian regime cannot be compared with an independent journalist.
Although officials have declined to comment on whether Hashemi is the “Individual A” in the Witt indictment, Post reporting strongly suggested that she is: The person cited worked for state-funded broadcasters in Iran and testified to recruiting Witt to take part in an anti-U.S. film (the sort of work that Hashemi has been doing for years).
And, of course, the timing of Hashemi’s detention and release — right before the Witt announcement — feels like more than a coincidence.
If Hashemi is indeed Individual A, according to the text of Witt’s indictment, then she is alleged to have hired Witt to work on anti-U.S. propaganda productions. At the time, Hashemi had already been working for Press TV as one of its most visible on-air anchors for several years. But the indictment also charges that Individual A “engaged in acts consistent with serving as a spotter and assessor on behalf of the Iranian intelligence services.”
Witt and Hashemi are, in fact, not the first Americans to turn against the United States to work for the Iranian regime. Dawud Salahuddin, originally known as David Belfield, was hired in 1980 by the Islamic republic to murder one of its opponents.
He allegedly carried out the hit, dressed as a U.S. postal worker, at the Bethesda home of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, who had been the press attache at Iran’s embassy before the revolution. Salahuddin then fled to Iran, where he has lived ever since.
Salahuddin is also the last known person to have seen former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007.
Salahuddin, like Hashemi, worked at Press TV from its inception. The two were American-born employees at the same fledgling propaganda operation for years, which made me think that Hashemi’s detention could have something to do with Salahuddin.
The FBI still considers the Levinson case open and continues to work every angle to find answers. Given Hashemi’s long proximity to Saluhuddin — who is wanted for murder in the United States and is a person of interest in the disappearance of a former FBI agent — she would be a logical person to question.
Too many mysteries remain. Why did the U.S. government choose this moment to reveal Witt’s defection, which took place, according to the indictment, in 2013? The charges were made public on the same day that U.S. officials gathered in Warsaw for an international conference designed to highlight the supposed global threat posed by the Islamic republic.
But there’s one question that I’d especially like to see answered right now: How many other Americans may be working in the service of the Islamic republic?