Dueling narratives in the Iranian press last week over a jailed Washington Post journalist are bringing into sharper focus the country’s internal political struggles and how they could be playing out as the reporter’s case moves toward sentencing on charges including espionage.
The contrasting accounts in rival media — one conservative and the other reformist — emerged a week after an Iranian court announced it had convicted Post correspondent Jason Rezaian following a closed-door trial that drew widespread condemnation. Critics including rights activists and press freedom groups as well as United Nations experts and the White House denounced the trial as unfair and the charges as politically motivated.
While the opposing Iranian media reports differed over various allegations against the 39-year-old Rezaian — including a claim that he had insider access to Iran’s reformist government — the broader implications highlight the long-running ideological clashes within Iran between entrenched hard-line factions and opponents seeking to undercut their influence.
Such power wrangling in Iran is not new. It goes back to the shake-outs after the 1979 Islamic revolution and flared with greater intensity after the election in 1997 of reform-leaning President Mohammad Khatami.
But the current battles have had deeper resonance since Iranian negotiators reached a nuclear deal with world powers in July. The accord was seen as a slap at hard-liners and a boost for President Hassan Rouhani’s policies of moderation and outreach to the West.
The power struggle also comes amid regional pressures on Iran in parallel fights to weaken one powerful foe, the Islamic State, and prop up a key ally, the embattled government of Syria. Within Iran, meanwhile, the political clock is ticking toward February’s elections for parliament, which has limited policymaking powers but remains an important barometer of the country’s mood.
A victory for Rouhani’s backers in the elections would be a significant blow to the reach of ultraconservatives and anti-Western factions, who share ties with the powerful Revolutionary Guard and many clerics within the ruling theocracy.
“The tug of war between hard-liners and their opponents touches almost every aspect of Iran,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs expert at Strayer University. “The courts and high-profile trials are no exception.”
Such infighting has been pushed onto the world stage in the past by cases involving detained foreigners, including three American hikers accused of straying over the border in 2009 who were later freed in a two-stage release mediated by Oman. The prosecution of Rezaian, an Iranian American dual citizen, has further potential as a lightning rod after suggestions from Tehran of a possible swap for Iranians held in the United States.
The list, while not made public, apparently includes some Iranians charged with violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which would be eased under the nuclear accord.
Last week, Iran’s Fars News Agency — which has close ties to the Revolutionary Guard — quoted a high-ranking parliament member as offering the most detailed rundown of the purported allegations against Rezaian, who has been detained since July 2014 and has had limited access to his family and legal counsel.
In the report, Javad Karimi-Qoddusi, a member of the security and foreign affairs committee in Iran’s parliament, was quoted as saying that the panel asked Iran’s judiciary two months ago to reject proposals for a possible prisoner exchange until Rezaian faced trial.
“Americans made efforts for his release, but did not succeed,” Karimi-Qoddusi said without offering details, according to the Fars report.
U.S. officials have not made any direct comments on possible overtures on swaps, but they have repeatedly denounced the trial and have demanded Rezaian’s release and that of at least two other Americans held in Iranian custody.
Although the charges against Rezaian have never been officially disclosed or explained publicly, his attorney, Leila Ahsan, said in April that he faced four charges, the most serious of which was espionage. Last week, the Revolutionary Court spokesman, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, said Rezaian was convicted in a decision that was not made public until weeks after his trial ended.
The judge who heard the case, Abolghassem Salavati, is known for handing down harsh sentences. Depending on the particular charges in Rezaian’s conviction, he could face as much as 10 to 20 years, according to Iranian media reports. It is unclear when the sentence could be announced.
The Fars report includes claims by Karimi-Qoddusi that Rezaian “confessed” to having links with U.S. officials and Iranian protesters who joined mass demonstrations after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. But Post lawyers say Rezaian has never confessed to any crime, and Ahsan has repeatedly asserted his innocence.
The lawmaker also alleged that Rezaian had contacts with a Foreign Ministry source who “provided him with all updates about the [nuclear] negotiating team.”
But he did not explain how such contacts would constitute a crime, and there is nothing to indicate that Rezaian had unlawful access to protected information.
Some hard-liners opposed the nuclear deal’s provisions as too great a concession. Under the pact, world powers agreed to ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on Tehran’s nuclear program. On Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed the deal, effectively silencing the dissenters.
The Post and international media groups say Rezaian acted only as a journalist.
“These are simply the latest false, ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims being circulated by hard-line members of Iran’s parliament,” said Douglas Jehl, The Post’s foreign editor.
“The absurd allegations against Jason have shifted endlessly over many months. Now we have a fresh batch. The only thing missing now — and all along — has been actual evidence,” Jehl added. “Jason is innocent, and his treatment has been abhorrent. Jason needs at long last to be given back his freedom.”
On Thursday, a reformist newspaper, Aftab-e Yazd, hit back at the claims in the Fars report in a further sign of the internal feuds.
The newspaper quoted several parliament members as characterizing hard-liners as trying to use Rezaian’s case to discredit Rouhani and his inner circle, including the chief negotiator of the nuclear deal, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Hadi Shooshtari, also a member of the security and foreign policy committee in parliament, was quoted as saying he was “absolutely unaware” of any ties between Rezaian and Rouhani’s government.
“Neither do I recall this issue being discussed at the committee with such details,” he said.
Another lawmaker, Ebrahim Nekou, cast the claims against Rezaian as attempts at “political gains” by Rouhani’s opponents.
Nekou accused hard-liners of trying to “launch a new scenario” after suffering a defeat over the nuclear deal.
“After the government’s achievements on the international scene, the case of Jason Rezaian is raised to challenge the government,” Nekou said, according to Aftab-e Yazd. He dismissed the hard-liners’ assertions that Rezaian had “cozied up to the government,” calling the claims “ridiculous,” the paper said.