The son of an American-Iranian dissident kidnapped by the Iranian authorities and not seen in public for a year, has called on the international community to speak out – saying he increasingly fears for his ailing father’s wellbeing.
Days after Iran was accused of plotting to kidnap New York City-based reporter Masih Alinejad, and even researching making use of a speedboat to spirit her away from Brooklyn, the son of Jamshid Sharmahd said it was vital to speak out over the fate of his father, who was seized a year ago in a manner only sightly less unlikely.
“I would just say, ‘Don’t be keep silent, we have to speak up. Now is definitely the time’,” said 33-year-old Shayan Sharmahdsaid, who urged Iran to release his father.
“And that goes out not just to all the people, but to all the governments, and the organisations. It affects everybody.”
He said that had also been his father’s message.
“He said the only to get rid of the regime was to make the public aware, by exposing what it was doing- by fighting back with the same force it is fighting.”
His father, a 66-year-old software engineer who left Iran four decades ago and was the spokesman for a group seeking to overthrow the Iranian government, was seized in July 2020, apparently from a hotel close to Dubai International Airport, in the United Arab Emirates.
It is unclear precisely what happened, but the tracking device on Mr Sharmahdsaid ’s cell phone showed it moving from Dubai, to the city of Al Ain, and then crossing the border into of Oman. The last signal came from Sohar, a port on the coast of the Gulf of Oman.
Just days later, Iranian authorities announced they had seized Mr Sharmahdsaid in “a complex operation”, and showed him blindfolded on state television, confessing to a terror attack on the Iranian city of Shiraz that killed 14 people and wounded more than 200.
Mr Sharmahd, who has German citizenship but lives in California and was in Dubai while returning from India on business, was spokesman for a group, the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, that advocates getting rid of the Islamist movement that came to power in the 1979 Iranian revolution. It wants to replace it with the system of monarchy that had existed before.
Amnesty International, which has highlighted Mr Sharmahd’s case and said it feared for his life, pointed out the group for which he was a spokesman and produced weekly broadcasts, had previously claimed responsibility for explosions in Iran, aimed against the government. His family say he was never involved in any of the violence the authorities have accused him of.
Unlike some Iranian opposition groups, the Kingdom Assembly of Iran was not considered a terror group by the United States. (In 1953 the US and UK installed a monarch, or Shah, and ousted Iran’s elected prime minister in a coup.)
Mr Sharmahd said it was unclear where his father was being held, the precise charges against him, or if there was a date for a trial. He said his family was fearful for his father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, because in 2019 the authorities lured to Iraq 42-year-old dissident Ruhollah Zam, who was accused of “corruption on Earth”, and then executed in December 2020.
The accusation, for which no evidence was presented, is reportedly used in cases of alleged attempts to oust the government. Mr Sharmahd, who is Parsi or Zoroastrian, called for the replacement of the government, and accused it of misusing the Koran to abuse the Iranian people.
Mr Sharmahd said he had been able to speak to his father once every two months or so. Their last conversation was in May and lasted 15 minutes. He said he father sounded reasonably well and that it appeared he was cooperating with the authorities.
He said the Iranian government had assigned his father two lawyers, one of whom had allegedly demanded $250,000 from the family. He said the second had previously represented Mr Zam, the dissident who was hanged last year.
Mr Sharmahd said he believed the Iranian government was seeking to intimidate all dissidents.
“It feels a bit like desperation, like they’re backed into a corner, “ he said.
“The world is slowly waking up to the fact the regime running the country – which the people of Iran don’t like – are just bullying everybody around the world.”
The focus on Iran’s efforts to silence dissidents comes as the US government is preparing to restart talks that would see the country rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran Nuclear Deal, that saw sanctions against Tehran lifted in exchange for verifiable guarantees over its nuclear programme.
The historic deal was brokered during the administration of Barack Obama. Donald Trump denounced it while running for president, and withdrew Washington from it in May 2018. He also reimposed harsh economic and financial sanctions, and set in motion a propaganda campaign designed to lead to the collapse of the Iranian government.
In June, Iran held elections which saw the conservative former chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, win the presidency. Other members of the Iran deal – Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union – have been holding talks with Iran to try and revive the agreement, which was famously denounced by then-Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
One factor causing concern for many parties is whether the US can be trusted not to pull out again, with a change of president in the future.
“We want to make sure that what happened when Trump pulled out of the deal will not be repeated by any other American president in the future,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi told Al-Jazeera.
The family’s US lawyer, Jason Poblete, claimed Iran had been kidnapping people for four decades. It was doing so to get money, obtain political leverage, and to send a message, he claimed.
“They tried to assassinate Mr Sharmahd in 2009,” he said. “The Iranians have done this a lot of times.”
The US State Department directed The Independent’s inquiries to the German government, given Mr Sharmahd had been traveling on a German passport. There was no immediate response from German’s foreign ministry, or the foreign ministry of Iran.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian-American policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington DC think tank, said he did not believe the plot to seize Ms Alinejad, which authorities revealed this week, was related to the ongoing nuclear talks, given its hatching took place while Mr Trump was president.
Rather it was related to Iran’s “profound insecurity and lack of confidence” about their own confidence.
“I don’t think it will impact the Biden’s administration’s efforts to try and revive the nuclear deal,” he said. “But if a deal is reached, it will be a tougher sell, trying to justify providing the Iranian government with tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief while they are actively trying to kidnap US citizens in Brooklyn, and potentially execute them.”