Yesterday or thereabouts, deaf to all the clamour this action created, the Iranian state put Ruhollah Zam to death. Zam was a journalist and blogger of a provocative bent. The Iranian state made sure to say that his work was provoking when defending its decision to end his life.
Zam was in his forties and his death elicited immense, immediate horror – experienced quite broadly. It was bizarre that he was chosen for punishment; and barbaric that the punishment in question was capital. On this at least, the world was uniformly agreed. What else to say beside condemnation – that was a little harder to decide.
Imagine this. You head or have a senior role in a state which executes minor critics which it finds troublesome. Hold the thought in mind. How might something of this sort feel? Would it feel powerful, even meaningful – doing to death the enemies of the state, the enemies in turn of righteousness? Or would it instead soon become another day at the office? – the selection of targets, their imprisonment, their appeals, the outcry, and the bitter final act: all of it shot through with bureaucratic boredom and procedure.
Even the ability to kill at random, without any sense that is externally visible – it could become something of a burden, and a drag.
Iran does this more often than you might guess. It takes foreigners hostage routinely – for leverage, perhaps, or simply because it can. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic, was released from Iranian custody in November. She had been picked up by Iran two years before, and imprisoned on the specious charge of spying. Her treatment was reportedly bad – but that’s hardly uncommon among the foreign detainees.
Deaf to the outcry – deaf to the strangeness of the accusations – Iran held onto her for god knows what reason, until she could be usefully exchanged for equivalent prisoners a month or so ago. It is not inconceivable – far from it – that she could have found herself killed. It was either that or be swapped, like some commodity, by a reckless and cold-hearted state.
Zam could not be traded and was possibly not worth all that much alive. He ran a channel on Telegram, the encrypted app, which had many followers. He was accused of marshalling unrest by noticing protests within Iran and giving his own view of the same to foreign media. Zam was in exile in Paris, not holed up in Tehran. How he arrived in Iran and was led to his death remains unclear.
Iran knew what it wants people to think of his arrest. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) rather glories in what it claims happened. Zam was ‘guided into the country’ via a ‘complicated intelligence operation’, its spokesmen held. This is almost certainly meant to sound more sophisticated than it could possibly be, and to strike a more oblique sense of fear into the right people than it perhaps deserves.
Implied entrapment of this kind is a stock in trade of petty tyrannies the world over. From China to the pettiest police state going, the plan is the same: even exiles, even disapora types whose feet have never touched their fathers’ soil, must know it – that they are under observation, under surveillance, and on notice. Foreign residence is no defence and no protection. To offend the state is betrayal, and to criticise is a hell of an offense.
One of the stories to which Zam was attracted was the protests against the Iranian state which occurred in 2017–18. Since the same sort of protests were bubbling up once more (before the pandemic tore through Iran and likely killed far more than official numbers could possibly convey), presumably the state is jumpy and in need of the means to send a message.
One more recent execution also fits the bill: that of the wrestler Navid Afkari. He was an athlete of some promise but he was killed by the state in Shiraz this year. The charge under which he was held, and for which he received two death sentences (although, when it came to it, only one was needed) – why, that was the death of a security guard in the same protests that Zam saw as his duty to cover.
Afkari is widely believed to have been tortured into making his confession – the words that condemned him to one of those two state-sponsored deaths. He confessed to an awful lot. You can even read the full list, badly formatted, on Wikipedia. Who could have put it there?
Needless to say, whether Afkari actually killed anyone is hardly the subject with which the state was concerned. He said he did, after the requisite force was applied. And anyway, the message sent was a godsend.
A young man of talent brought low by his involvement in those protests. His status and the international appeals on his behalf coming to nothing. His purported victim a lowly figure, perhaps, but a guarantor of order. And all of it resulting in a squalid little murder in a prison yard in an Iranian city. What a signal to be able to send.
See how these people end up? That is the truth of these actions. Kidnapped, entrapped, renditioned. All of them brought back in chains to face punishment disguised as justice.
The brutality is as much the point as the randomness of these proceedings.
In the iron reasoning of classical philosophy, the tyrant was not only the oppressor of others and the inevitable vessel into which corruption poured and from which it issued. He was also the least free and the least capable of all. Ruled by instincts, never confronted by contradiction – the tyrant soon succumbs either to overthrow by the ambitious or self-annihilation.
In the real world, you may have noticed, things go rather differently.
States which kidnap the citizens of other countries are largely bought off or allowed to use their hostages to bargain. Those countries who snatch their own off the streets of other states are possibly told not to do so in future. When they dispose of domestic enemies they may receive a strongly worded protest.
When an athlete is murdered on the say so of the courts, officials in the most corrupt of sports might say how disappointing all of this is from a nation which regularly sends its people to compete in the Olympic games.
But crucially, none of this matters. It does not matter even slightly. Those enemies the tyranny saw fit to kill are dead. If it has another killing urge, more will join them. Perhaps to dissuade new protest and new internal dissention. It might even work.
The game is well-established now, and in this the state – unlike its functionaries – is not likely to become bored. Habib Chaab, an oppositionist, arrived in Iran from Turkey for his own reasons; but his fate was to be arrested publicly and paraded in that state before the world.
Whether he will ever be released, or whether his imprisonment will terminate another way, is still in question. But Turkey at least has acknowledged one aspect of all this whose details may be known – the story surrounding Chaab’s cross-border travel, from his exile in Istanbul to an Iranian cell.
It was, Turkey now says, a sophisticated – and definite – operation. An operation likely to be repeated the world over. No one can be wholly safe from this kind of cross-border kidnapping, nor say for certain that murder – coldly sanctioned by the state – is unlikely to be its result. This is how the world is. And nothing else means a damn thing.
This essay was originally published at Correspondence, an occasional journal.