WASHINGTON, DC: One of the arguments for the Iran nuclear deal was that it would encourage greater openness and investment from the West. But Iranian hard-liners have been working in recent months to sabotage the proponents of economic globalization and change.
The clearest example is the case of an Iranian-American businessman named Siamak Namazi, 44, who was arrested around Oct. 14. Iran hasn’t announced any formal charges, but he has been accused in the Iranian press of being a tool of such institutions as the World Economic Forum, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
According to Iranian press accounts, Namazi is being held by the intelligence service of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in a special section of Evin Prison. News organizations close to the IRGC have published conspiracy stories that appear to be drawn from his interrogation and from information on his laptop computer.
The allegations center, bizarrely, on Namazi’s status as a “Young Global Leader” under a program organized by the World Economic Forum. A story posted on the hard-line website Raja News describes the WEF and its youth fellowships as part of a “Zionist” network that uses investment and trade as tools of political subversion. Another story, posted by Jahan News, links Namazi to the other think tanks and foundations that it claims are part of a Western “influence network.”
The real target of the hard-liners may be President Hassan Rouhani, whose government has been a proponent of greater openness and economic integration with the West. Rouhani’s government had blessed a planned visit to Iran last June by 20 members of the Young Global Leaders, arranged through Sorena Sattari, Iran’s vice president for science and technology. But the trip was canceled after it was criticized by hard-liners.
The Namazi incident is a reality check for those who hoped that the nuclear agreement would be the prelude to a broader opening. Since the agreement was reached in July, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said that Iran won’t allow economic “infiltration” by an America he described several months ago as a “deceitful, crafty, skillful, fraudulent and devilish enemy.”
The imprisonment of Namazi in October came days after an Iranian court convicted Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, also an Iranian-American, on charges of espionage. Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, called the verdict an “outrageous injustice.”
“Their message is that they are going to scare and intimidate Iranians abroad who want to return to Iran,” argued Bijan Khajehpour, an Iranian who hired Namazi in 1997 at Atieh Bahar Consulting, a Tehran firm that advised Western companies investing in Iran. Namazi left Atieh Bahar in 2007, and Khajehpour left the country in 2011 under pressure from the regime. He now operates a similar consulting firm in Vienna.
There may be a class warfare aspect to these political attacks. Like many Iranians who have prospered in the diaspora, Namazi is from a family that was prominent during the Shah’s time. His father was governor of Khuzestan Province and left Iran after the revolution. Namazi graduated from Tufts University and then studied management at London Business School and urban planning at Rutgers.
The message from the hard-liners, whose IRGC-linked businesses have prospered since the revolution, is that they won’t give up economic or political power to the old elite, as sanctions are lifted and foreign investment grows in Iran.
Just as the IRGC evidently hopes, the Namazi case has chilled some Iranian-American business leaders who had considered investing in Iran. An example is a group called “iBridges,” which includes some wealthy Iranian-Americans, such as Hamid Biglari, who was a senior executive at Citigroup. The technology group gathered Iranian entrepreneurs for a first iBridges meeting in 2014 in Berkeley, California; they held a second, larger meeting with nearly 2,000 participants in June in Berlin.
But iBridges has been attacked in the Iranian press, and some of its members — who were enthusiastic just a few months ago about funding new startups in Iran — are said to be reconsidering. Says one Iranian-American who has pulled back from planned investments: “All this is a warning shot across the bow to the entire diaspora: Don’t even think about coming back to rebuild relations with the West.”
Rouhani and other pragmatists argue that foreign investment will strengthen Iran and boost its national security. But hard-liners insist that Western money is a tool of the Great Satan that will undermine the revolution. This battle over foreign influence will be one of Iran’s fault lines in the year ahead.
(c) 2015, WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP