The Ayatollah’s Den of Espionage How Iran Came to See Its Revolutionary Core as Compromised By Maysam Behravesh
Forty years ago last week, a group called Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage. Iran’s new revolutionary government, under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dubbed the embassy the “den of espionage.”
The ensuing hostage crisis cast a long shadow over Iran’s relations with the United States—one still visible today. Perhaps less remarked upon in Washington, however, is the lasting influence of the event and its symbolism on the Iranian government’s view of intelligence and counterintelligence.
From the time of the embassy takeover, the Islamic Republic would spend decades looking for spies and infiltrators wherever there was a strong trace of the West. The mentality, which revolutionary ideology served to bolster, was one that ultimately directed the suspicions of the security apparatus toward individuals and institutions associated with the elected components of the postrevolutionary state—the “republic” part of the Islamic Republic, which derived its power from mechanisms that looked uncomfortably similar to those that prevailed in Western democratic states.
Perhaps for the first time since the 1979 revolution, this mentality has started to change, within both intelligence circles and the public. The “maximum pressure” campaign of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed Iran’s otherwise factionalized political system toward homogenization and consensus over matters of security and survival. And egregious intelligence failures—including the one that allowed Israel to extract more than half a ton of Iran’s “atomic archives” from a warehouse in Tehran last year—coupled with shrinking state resources as a consequence of sanctions have triggered rare soul-searching in the Iranian intelligence and security apparatus.
Confronted with growing military threats abroad and daunting prospects of unrest at home, Iranian leaders seem to have concluded that they can no longer afford to overlook the possible presence of moles and spies—not in the country’s elected offices, such as the presidency and the parliament, to which reform-minded politicians have traditionally had better access, but in the state’s most revolutionary and anti-Western institutions.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
Mahmoud Alavi, Iran’s minister of intelligence, raised the alarm on live television on August 24. Never before in the life of the Islamic Republic, Alavi intoned, had “enemies gotten so close to the insiders” as today. He alluded to hard-line centers of power such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which runs its own parallel intelligence organization. The country’s top authorities were “astonished,” said Alavi, when they received his ministry’s reports on “where [within the government] we discovered spies.”
Alavi went on to announce the formation of a “directorate of infiltration” within the Ministry of Intelligence whose main task, he suggested, would be to closely monitor “fixed” (or unelected)—as opposed to “changing” (or elected)—parts of the state. These were the branches where Alavi believed hostile elements, backed by foreign intelligence agencies, had planted themselves over a shockingly long duration—20 years, he indicated—in a slow-burning strategy of infiltration.
Rooting out spies, Alavi suggested, would primarily be a matter not of finding those who seemed openly sympathetic to foreign states but of scrutinizing their opposites: “Infiltrators usually adopt the hottest [revolutionary] slogans and accuse others [of wrongdoing] very quickly before they are subject to the slightest suspicion and cynicism themselves,” Iran’s intelligence minister explained.
Not long before Alavi gave the interview, the IRGC, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly oversees, had reshuffled some high-profile commanders. The changes were meant both to strengthen Iran’s offensive posture in the region and to address previous security lapses. Iranian intelligence had after all failed to foresee or prevent several significant losses: of the country’s “missile father,” General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, in a 2011 explosion near Tehran; of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists who were assassinated between 2010 and 2012; and, more recently, of a treasure-trove of top-secret nuclear documents that Israel made off with in a historic heist. Such failures suggested that all was not locked down as it should be within the most secretive organs of the state.
A new narrative has started to take hold with the Iranian public—one in which hard-liners could be spies and the most revolutionary state bodies might harbor the real “dens of espionage.” The notion gained further credence when Amir Tohid Fazel, an Iranian journalist with the hard-line Moj News Agency, defected to Sweden in late August. Fazel boasted strong hard-line credentials, and influential figures and organs within the security apparatus trusted him to use his media ties to advance their political interests amid fierce factional rivalries. His appeal for asylum in Sweden raised questions about the faithfulness and reliability of hard-liners in the government’s inner “revolutionary” circles.
Within days of Fazel’s defection, a number of religious eulogists—popular personalities who celebrate the achievements and martyrdom of historic Shiite figures—were arrested on suspicion of espionage for Israel. Two years earlier, three other eulogists linked to the Basij militia had been arrested on similar charges. Notably, religious eulogists often have close ties to hard-line governmental bodies, such as the Office of the Supreme Leader, and are central to the Islamic Republic’s campaign to win hearts and minds at home. They have not been the usual targets of counterespionage sweeps.
Even more unexpected was the story of Mohammad Hossein Rostami and Reza Golpour, colleagues at a hard-line, IRGC-affiliated website called Ammariyon. The two were jailed in late 2016, also on charges of espionage for Israel. And they, too, were trusted insiders with special access and close ties to senior IRGC officials. Rostami had previously served as a paramilitary fighter in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the IRGC. Golpour had published a book in 2002 titled Eavesdropping on Phantoms, which criticized the performance of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami. According to one well-placed source within elite hard-line circles, the IRGC tasked Golpour with a “sabotage mission” to undermine the credibility of the Intelligence Ministry, which the IRGC saw as a rival and distrusted. Such an agenda would have been extremely sensitive and required a high degree of trust.
For this reason, the espionage charges not only came as a shock to many but raised questions about the credibility and competence of the IRGC itself, which had apparently allowed a “traitor” to work within its innermost ranks for years. In retrospect, it appears Golpour was not technically a spy but perhaps leaking sensitive intelligence with an Israeli audience in mind in order to gain a personal or organizational advantage. Hard-line media outlets most likely publicized the charges against him with the IRGC’s blessing in order to put similar potential leakers or infiltrators on notice.
Iran’s top leadership has not embraced the view that Iran’s real “dens of espionage” lie in the hard-line bastions of the state. Rather, Iranian leaders fear that suspicion of hard-liners will weaken the Islamic Republic’s base of support and loosen its grip on power. Khamenei has made a point of reinforcing the prestige and mandate of the hard-line power centers of the state. In a September 26 speech, the supreme leader urged Iranian authorities to employ “devout and revolutionary forces” in “critical centers” of the state, as they are, in his words, “the same people who entered the scene” in defense of the Islamic Republic during popular protests in 2009 and 2017–18 and “frustrated the enemies.”
The 2009 protests, known as the Green Movement, expressed the widespread view that Iran’s presidential election that June had been rigged to favor the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Opposition both to the election’s outcome and to the state’s violent repression of the protest movement was so widespread that officials had serious concerns about systematic defiance or even a coup within Iran’s security and intelligence system. On Khamenei’s orders, the IRGC dealt with this possibility by developing its own intelligence unit into a larger organization that could serve as a counterweight to the Ministry of Intelligence.
Khamenei appointed a senior cleric named Hossein Taeb to head the newly empowered IRGC intelligence organization. A trusted associate of the supreme leader’s from the early postrevolutionary years, Taeb had a background in counterintelligence as well as close ties to Khamenei and the IRGC. These qualifications, along with his hard-line track record in dealing with antirevolutionary elements, rendered Taeb particularly fit for marshaling the intelligence and security campaign to quell the “Green sedition,” as the Iranian government officially termed the post-election protests in 2009.
Backed by the supreme leader for its ostensible revolutionary credentials, and inspired by a highly ideological view of national security, the IRGC intelligence organization has helped guard the hard-line establishment—or what is locally referred to as the “deep state” or the “hard core of power” in the Islamic Republic—against political and security threats at home and abroad. In so doing, the organization has arguably pursued a demonstrably political agenda, centered around empowering the revolutionary pillars of the state and marginalizing its challengers. Iran’s rival intelligence agencies do cooperate over vital matters of national security. But to the IRGC intelligence organization has fallen the job of preventing systematic nonconformity, defiance, and even revolt within the government’s intelligence and military ranks—or, put another way, of safeguarding the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary core.
The Ministry of Intelligence, which since Khatami’s presidency has drawn closer to the moderate wing of the establishment, has periodically “manufactured” spies for political purposes, lest it fall behind in the unrelenting struggle for the revolutionary mantle of the Islamic Republic. But the current counterespionage campaign focusing on characteristically revolutionary forces is something new. For an agency as vital as the IRGC intelligence organization to suffer repeated security failures comes at great political cost to the entire Iranian leadership—so great, in fact, that letting these failures go unanswered would risk eroding the authority of hard-line institutions and their revolutionary narratives. And so the IRGC intelligence apparatus has responded, mainly by scapegoating others, such as Kavous Seyed-Emami, a widely respected environmental activist who was killed in jail last year, and eight of his conservationist colleagues who remain behind bars on shaky espionage charges. What the IRGC intelligence organization has not done is deny that enemies have infiltrated its ranks.
Four decades after the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, the Iranian leadership seems determined to keep alive the revolutionary spirit of anti-Westernism within the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus and governance structure. The fight to uproot the Western “den of espionage” and its perceived local incarnations remains the symbolic narrative Khamenei wants to project about Iran, at home and abroad. But an increasing number of Iranians—including some within the intelligence establishment itself—are telling a very different story.
في إسرائيل لا يحصل الكثير هذه الأيّام لأن شعبها ينتظر ولادة قيصريّة لحكومة بعد تعذُّر حصول "ليكود" نتنياهو وحلفائه و"كحول لفان" بني غانتز وحلفائه على غالبيّة نيابيّة واضحة في انتخابَيْن عامّيْن فصلت بينهما بضعة أشهر. فالأوّل كلّفه رئيس الجمهوريّة فور انتهاء الانتخابات الأولى والثانية تأليفها لكنّه فشل في المدّة المُحدّدة كما بعد تمديدها. فآثر الذهاب إلى انتخابات عامّة ثانية. أمّا الثاني فقد أسند إليه رئيس الجمهوريّة مهمّة التأليف بعد فشل نتنياهو في ذلك بعد الانتخابات الثانية. ولم يبدُ حتّى الآن وهو في نهاية المهلة الرسميّة التي يُحدِّدها له القانون أنّه نجح حيث فشل غريمه أو منافسه. ويُستبعد أن ينجح في مهمّته خلال المهلة الإضافيّة القانونيّة لأنّه لا يمتلك مع حلفائه اليهود في الكنيست الغالبيّة فيه، ولأنّ امتلاكها يفرض عليه إلى التحالف مع شركائه التعاون مع الإسرائيليّين العرب أي الفلسطينيّين من النوّاب. وهذا أمر لا يتجرّأ بني غانتز على الإقدام عليه لرفض حلفائه في الكتل النيابيّة الصغيرة ذلك، ولرفض نوّاب أفيغدور ليبرمان الثمانية ذلك، الأمر الذي يجعله عاجزاً عن تأليف الحكومة. ومن شأن ذلك فتح الباب أمام خطوة من اثنتين: الأولى الذهاب إلى انتخابات عامّة مرّة ثالثة رغم استهجان الشارع الإسرائيلي ذلك ورفضه إيّاه، ورغم أنّ أحداً من الفريقين المنافسين على الحكومة لا يضمن عدم تكرار النتائج غير الحاسمة مرّة ثالثة. كما لا يضمن عدم معاقبة الناخبين الإسرائيليّين زعيميهما نتنياهو وبني غانتز على تصلّبهما وتمسّكهما بمواقفهما. أمّا الخطوة الثانية فهي عودة الاثنين إلى خيار حكومة الوحدة الوطنيّة التي أختلفا عليها لأسباب عدّة معظمها شخصي وغير عام.
في كلّ الأحوال يعتقد المُتابع الأميركي الجدّي جدّاً نفسه أن "عصر" نتنياهو قد انتهى، وأن يمين الوسط بلا قيادة وتحديداً ليس عنده صاحب "قامة" سياسيّة مُهمّة بالمقارنة مع بني غانتز والقادة العسكريّين الذين تشاركوا معه في تأليف حزبهم "كحول لفان". إلى ذلك لا بُدّ من أخذ جولة العنف الأخيرة بين إسرائيل والفلسطينيّين في قطاع غزّة في الاعتبار رغم أنّها ليست رئيسيّة وكبيرة في حجمها. فهي حصلت بعد استهداف إسرائيل قائداً في "الجهاد الإسلامي" وليس في "حركة حماس"، وهي انتهت أو تكاد تنتهي جرّاء بعض الذيول المُستمرّة. علماً أنّ ذلك هو عقاب تُنفِّذه إسرائيل من زمان للّذين كان لهم دور أساسي في قتل إسرائيليّين يهود وأحياناً يهود غير إسرائيليّين.
ما هي خيارات إسرائيل في ظلّ التطوّرات الأخيرة في المنطقة والمستمرّ منها
يُجيب المُتابع نفسه بالقول أوّلاً أنّ الحرب بين أميركا وإيران لم تقع وليس مُحتملاً أن تقع بسبب تردُّد دونالد ترامب في دخول مغامرة عسكريّة مباشرة معها. وبالقول ثانياً أنّ الإيرانيّين نجحوا حتّى الآن في "البقاء" (Survive) رغم العقوبات الشديدة القساوة المفروضة عليهم. ولا يبدو أنّهم يريدون الجلوس على طاولة المفاوضات مع أميركا كما أمل رئيسها. وبالقول ثالثاً أن الإيرانيّين يُتابعون بناء ترسانتهم الصاروخيّة وتخصيب الأورانيوم خاصّتهم مع رفع نسبة نقائه. وبالقول رابعاً أنّ الإيرانيّين لن يُنتجوا الآن سلاحاً نوويّاً، لكنّهم يعملون كي يصلو إلى مرحلة يستطيعون فيها إنتاجه في مدّة قصيرة إذا إشعرتهم أخطار إقليميّة داهمة أو تطوّرات بالغة السلبيّة بالحاجة إلى ذلك. وبالقول خامساً أنّ الإيرانيّين باقون في سوريا، ويبدو أنّ الروس لم ينجحوا في إخراجهم منها أو لم يُقرِّروا إخراجهم منها، رغم أنّهم لن يدافعو عن منشآتهم وقواعدهم العسكريّة المقامة في سوريا عندما تتعرّض إلى اعتداءات إسرائيليّة. وبالقول سادساً أنّ "حزب الله" يبقى تهديداً بترسانته الصاروخيّة الضخمة، ويبدو أنّ العقوبات الأميركيّة قد ألحقت به الأذى عسكريّاً. وبالقول سابعاً وأخيراً أنّ تركيا أصبحت الآن لاعباً في سوريا وأن دعمها لـ"حماس" وللإسلاميّين الأصوليّين (المُتطرّفين) لم يتوقَّف بل لا يزال في أوجه. في ضوء ذلك كلّه ما هي خيارات إسرائيل؟ المُتابع الأميركي نفسه يُلخِّصها بالآتي: هل هجوم إسرائيل على المنشآت النوويّة الإيرانيّة خيار قابل للتطبيق؟ والجواب هو كلّا إذا امتنعت إيران عن إنتاج أسلحة نوويّة. وفي حال حصول الهجوم بعد انتاجها فإنّ ضرب المنشآت المذكورة ستشارك فيه أميركا وربّما المملكة العربيّة السعوديّة. وعدم إشتراكهما في ذلك يمكن أن يؤدّي إلى صراع إقليمي لا يُريده الرئيس ترامب ولا القيادة السعوديّة ولا الأوروبيّون، فضلاً عن بقيّة العالم. علماً أنّ السعوديّة لا يحتمل أن تمنح إسرائيل إذناً باستعمال مجالها الجوّي لإقتناعها بأن إيران ستعرف ذلك وتردّ عليه بعمليّة انتقاميّة. وحتّى لو أُعطيت إسرائيل ضوءاً أخضر متوهّجاً من أميركا والسعوديّة لتنفيذ هجوم كالمذكور أعلاه بقوّتها وحدها وبأسلحة تقليديّة فإنّ الأذى الناجم عن ذلك سيكون محدوداً جدّاً بسبب الدفاعات والتحصينات الإيرانيّة. ورغم ذلك فإنّ الهجوم قد يقود إلى صراع مُحتدم مع إيران و"حزب الله"، وقد يؤذي إسرائيل جديّاً، ولهذا فإنّ هجوماً تقليديّاً كالمُشار إليه لا يستحقّ المغامرة. علماً أن ردّ إيران قد يشمل أيضاً منشآت أميركية إقليميّة والبنية التحتيّة النفطيّة السعوديّة.
انطلاقاً من ذلك ما هو الخيار الإسرائيلي القابل للحياة؟ شعوري، يُجيب المُتابع الأميركي نفسه، أنّ على إسرائيل أن تنتظر مفاوضات نوويّة جديدة بين إيران وأميركا وربّما شركائها في اتفاق الـ 2015 تتناول أيضاً البرنامج الصاروخي لإيران ونشاطاتها الإقليميّة المخرّبة ونزع سلاح "حزب الله". وإلى أن يتمّ الاتفاق على ذلك ستُتابع إسرائيل استراتيجيّتها الحاليّة وهي استهداف قواعد إيران ومنشآتها في سوريا بموافقة روسيا وأميركا. في أي حال إذا شعرت إسرائيل أن إيران تُشكِّل لها تهديداً وجوديّاً فإنّها ستضع كل خياراتها المُمكنة على الطاولة لاستعمال ما تحتاج إليه منها.
Grass-roots movements in Iran, Iraq and other nations continue to push for rights nonetheless.
Having covered the Middle East my entire adult life, I’m seeing some trends emerging there that I’ve never seen before.
One is from the streets of Beirut to the streets of Baghdad to streets all across Iran, Middle Easterners are demanding to be treated as citizens with rights, and not just members of a sect or tribe with passions to be manipulated. And they’re clamoring for noncorrupt institutions — a deep state — and the rule of law, not just the arbitrary rule of militias, thugs or autocrats.
And right when Middle Easterners are demanding to be treated as citizens — not Sunnis or Shiites — Americans are devolving into Sunnis and Shiites or, as we call them, Democrats and Republicans, with the same tribal mentality: rule or die.
And worse, the G.O.P. has elevated the exact same kind of autocrat that Middle Easterners are trying to get rid of. Our sultan is just like one of theirs: He shirks the rule of law, nurtures a cult of personality through his own state-directed media, surrounds himself with sycophants, con men and conspiracy buffs, and denounces our professional deep state — its bureaucrats, diplomats and military officers — for trying to shackle him with our 230-year-old constitutional checks and balances.
Go figure. We’re becoming them right when they want to become us — or what used to be us.
The other trend I’m seeing is the striking contrast between what Middle East politics has long been about in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen and what average people in these countries are now seeking.
For years, Sunni and Shiite party bosses and militia leaders at the top have manipulated sectarian and tribal identities below to cement themselves in power and make themselves the brokers for who get jobs and contracts. But there’s been a stunning shift in the whole flow of politics in some of these countries. It’s gone from Sunnis versus Shiites across the board to Sunnis and Shiites at the bottom locking arms together against all their leaders at the top.
You read some amazing stuff coming up from the bottom these days. Here’s Christine McCaffray van den Toorn, writing on Al-Monitor.com on Nov. 22, describing the scene in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations there for a nonsectarian, civil state in Iraq:
“Protesters are seizing their country, which was wrenched from them by a corrupt government. In doing so they reaffirm their Iraqiness in the most positive ways. They have even set up reverse checkpoints that welcome citizens but exclude the armed forces. Communities intermingle; different sectors of society stand side by side. Patriotism is on full display. Iraqi flags are everywhere. Women are highly visible. There is a clear rejection of sectarianism, as ‘Iraqi’ identity is emphasized. Everyone helps each other by whatever means — money, chaperones, medical care, internet. There is even a laundry service.”
Elsewhere, she adds, Iraqi resourcefulness is emerging from the bottom: “Startups, including Iraq’s version of Amazon, a grocery-delivery service, co-working spaces and culture cafes, have grown by being outside the purview of the government. There is no shortage of talent or determination to create opportunities in areas where the government has failed. Independent civil society groups, youth and women’s organizations have made major headway.”
And here’s a young Lebanese lawyer friend describing to me what’s been happening in Beirut:
“This is Lebanon’s ‘We the People’ moment. The demonstrations are massive, across all regions, across all sects, and against all political parties (no exceptions). They are also overwhelmingly spontaneous, and the protesters are opposed to the entirety of Lebanon’s sectarian political establishment, which gives the protests credibility in the eyes of the population. Only Lebanese flags are raised at the demonstrations — no partisan flags or sectarian symbols. The slogan ‘The people want a civil state’ is one of the top slogans of the protests.”
These movements are authentic and inspiring, but their chances of taking power remain remote, largely because their biggest opponent — the Islamic republic of Iran — is ready to arrest and kill as many democracy demonstrators as needed to retain its grip on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, not to mention at home. Iran’s clerical regime has emerged as arguably the biggest enemy of pluralistic democracy in the region today. There are plenty of Arab dictators keeping their own people down, but Iran is doing it at home and in three other countries at once.
Iran has used its Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Syria and its Popular Mobilization Forces militia in Iraq to try to snuff out all their bottom-up secular democratic movements — while also crushing the biggest secular-democracy uprising in Iran itself in 40 years.
The Iranian ayatollahs even had to largely shut down their own internet to prevent the domestic rebellion from spreading. Ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has never wanted to see a stable, multisectarian, secular democracy emerge in Baghdad, because then Iranian Shiites would be asking why Iraqi Shiites get to live freely and they don’t.
If President Trump really wanted to use Twitter for impact, he’d be tweeting every morning at the supreme leader of Iran: “Hey, Supreme Leader of Iran, which nonsectarian Arab-Muslim democracy movement did you crush today? It’s Monday, so it must be Lebanon. It’s Tuesday, so Syria. It’s Wednesday, Iraq. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it must be your own people.”
There is no good time for a country like Iran to be suppressing popular movements for pluralistic democracy, but this is a uniquely bad time. We are in an age of acceleration. Technology, globalization and climate change are all accelerating at the same time. The Middle East has got to get its act together if it has any hope of thriving in the 21st century.
For example, Lebanon’s protests were sparked when the government proposed taxing WhatsApp and other internet calling services to pay down huge government debts incurred by corrupt politicians. But they were also fueled by the government’s inability to deal with massive forest fires spread by high temperatures and prolonged drought. Meanwhile, in places like Libya, Yemen and Syria, kids have missed years of basic schooling. All of this is happening while populations have exploded.
The Arab world and Iran cannot afford to waste another drop of their water, when every climate study shows temperatures rapidly rising in the region; they cannot afford to misspend another dollar of their diminishing oil revenues on guns, civil wars, yachts or corruption, when they need to rebuild so much of their self-destroyed infrastructure that no superpower is going to rebuild for them; they cannot afford to miss another day of school, when lifelong learning is more important than ever to secure and hold a decent job.
If these countries are not able to find a way to break the hold of sectarian misgovernance and find their way to political pluralism, religious pluralism, gender pluralism and education pluralism, their people stand no chance in the 21st century, especially once Mother Nature starts to really hammer them. The entire region could become one giant human development disaster area, with everyone trying to get to Europe.
America, for its part, has to keep looking for ways to collaborate with them on that pluralism project, to the extent that they want our help, with creative diplomacy, and not just wash our hands of the region.
But the bad guys at the top won’t go easily, quietly or bloodlessly. And since no outside power will be riding to the rescue, it will take sustained, organized, bottom-up mass movements — in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran in particular — to enable the future to bury the past and topple all those at the top who want to use the past to bury the future.
The Ayatollah's end is slowly coming - slowly, but surely.
"Iran's leader orders crackdown on unrest as 1,500 Iranians already reported killed."
"A senior member of the IRGC says orders came from top officials in Tehran to end the protests, the bloodiest action since 1979 revolution; 'No more mercy, the protesters are aiming to topple the Islamic Republic,' he says"
A senior member of the IRGC says orders came from top officials in Tehran to end the protests, the bloodiest action since 1979 revolution; 'No more mercy, the protesters are aiming to topple the Islamic Republic,' he says
Iranian Chess Official Fears Going Home Over Hijab Photo By Maria Cramer
Shohreh Bayat said she was afraid of returning to Iran after an image of her at a chess tournament abroad seemed to show her not wearing a hijab.
A prominent Iranian chess official said she was afraid of returning to her country after an image of her, appearing not to wear a hijab at a world chess tournament, circulated online and in Iranian media.
At 32, Shohreh Bayat is one of the few top female chess arbiters in the world with the Category A classification, a distinction given to international chess referees who have shown an excellent command of the rules of the sport.
But she said discussions in Iranian media seemed more concerned with her hijab than her accomplishments, following a recent chess match during the Women’s World Chess Championship.
After she finished presiding over the third round in Shanghai on Jan. 8, she said she turned on her phone and saw a picture of her during the tournament circulating on Iranian media, which is heavily monitored by the government.
In the photo, it appeared that her head was uncovered, a violation of Iranian law.
“The accusation in these articles was that I deliberately had no head scarf in order to protest against the hijab,” Ms. Bayat said in an email. “I was shocked and panicked.”
Now, Ms. Bayat feels she can’t return to Iran.
“Not wearing the hijab is a crime in Iran which is punishable by arrest, invalidation of the passport or prison,” she said. “I would love to return to Iran but only if I’ll be safe.”
Ms. Bayat told the BBC that she was in fact wearing the hijab in the photo, which, in the image, hung loosely on the back of her head. Generally, she said, she did not even like wearing the hijab.
“I believe people must be free to choose what they want to wear,” Ms. Bayat said in the email. “I have never worn the hijab out of choice.”
She told the BBC that after reading the news accounts in Iran, she decided to stop wearing the hijab so she could “be myself.”
Ms. Bayat said in her email that the Iranian chess federation asked her to issue a statement supporting the hijab, but she refused.
“In my conscience, I could not do it,” she said.
The Iranian chess federation did not respond to a request for comment.
“It is frustrating that some people are more concerned with what I wear than in my achievements,” Ms. Bayat said.
The three-week tournament between Ju Wenjun, the defending champion from China, and Aleksandra Goryachkina, a Russian champion, is now in Vladivostok and ends on Jan. 25.
Misha Friedman, press secretary for the International Chess Federation, said the organization had not heard from the Iranian government or any ministry official asking that Ms. Bayat be removed from the tournament.
“We consider it that she is within the bounds of” federation rules, he said, “and we’re happy with the job that she is doing, so there is no problem from our perspective.”
Being picked as chief arbiter of such a prestigious tournament is a tremendous honor, said Mr. Friedman, who compared it to refereeing the Super Bowl.
He called her “a great ambassador for her country.”
The episode coincided with a statement by Kimia Alizadeh, a top Iranian athlete, who recently announced on Instagram that she was defecting from the country because leaders there had used her as a “tool.”
“They took me wherever they wanted,” she wrote. “Whatever they said, I wore. Every sentence they ordered, I repeated.”
Ms. Alizadeh, 21, who won the bronze medal in taekwondo at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, is the only female athlete to win an Olympic medal for Iran.
“My troubled spirit does not fit into your dirty economic channels and tight political lobbies,” she wrote. “I have no other wish except for taekwondo, security and a happy and healthy life.”
Kimia Alizadeh, 21, announced her decision in an Instagram post featuring a photo from the 2016 Summer Games, where she won a bronze medal in taekwondo.
The only female athlete to win an Olympic medal for Iran announced this weekend that she had defected from the nation because of “hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery” and said she had been used as a “tool.”
Iran has also been embroiled in a simmering conflict with the United States after an American drone strike killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a powerful Iranian commander, and Tehran retaliated with missile strikes on bases in Iraq that house American troops.
While Ms. Alizadeh’s statement did not refer to her country’s geopolitical troubles, she did address the “oppressed people of Iran” and pointed to restrictive policies on women’s public conduct and appearance, including the “obligatory veil.”
“My troubled spirit does not fit into your dirty economic channels and tight political lobbies,” she wrote. “I have no other wish except for taekwondo, security and a happy and healthy life.”
Photos shared on social media by Jaleh Yekta, an Iranian photographer based in Eindhoven, a city in the southern Netherlands, appear to show Ms. Alizadeh and her fiancé, Hamed Madanchi, taking part in a memorial service for victims of the Tehran plane crash. In the photo, Ms. Alizadeh stands alongside candles, flowers and pictures of those killed in the crash.
Mimoun El Boujjoufi, a taekwondo trainer in Eindhoven, told the Dutch broadcaster NOS that he had received a request about a month ago for Ms. Alizadeh to come train with him.
“She was on holiday in Europe but decided not to return to Iran with her partner,” Mr. El Boujjoufi told the broadcaster. “Of course she is welcome with us. We know her qualities. She is an asset to taekwondo in the Netherlands.”
A spokesman for the Netherlands’ migration minister said that the office would not comment on individual asylum applications.
Ms. Alizadeh was praised as an national hero after her Olympic win at age 18, and by many in Iran saw her as a symbol for emboldening girls to take part in sports despite the country’s oppressive policies for women and girls.
The president of Iran’s Taekwondo Federation, Seyed Mohammad Puladgar, said in a statement that his organization and the Olympic Committee had “made every effort to support” Ms. Alizadeh, and said the foreign media’s depiction of the situation was “simply false, unfair and untrue.”
Ms. Alizadeh’s announcement came four months after Saeid Mollaei, one of Iran’s biggest judo stars, defected to Germany. During last year’s judo World Championships, Iranian officials pressured Mr. Mollaei to either withdraw or intentionally lose his semifinal bout, to avoid being matched in the final against an Israeli rival.
Iranian athletes are forbidden to compete against Israelis.
“A lot of our athletes are forced to deal with these matters — and their suffering is growing by the day,” Mr. Mollaei told the German news outlet Deutsche Welle in September. “Many athletes have left their country and left their personal lives there behind to pursue their dreams.”
Ms. Alizadeh said that she had embarked on a “difficult path,” but that she “didn’t want to sit at the table of hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery.”
“This decision is even harder than winning the Olympic gold,” Ms. Alizadeh wrote, “but I remain the daughter of Iran wherever I am.”
Between North Korea and Iran I predict the Iranian mullahs regime will go first. I am inclined to think that, with people in a theocracy, and especially younger generations, it is easier to revolt against the highest imposed authority when it is a non-physical, abstract notion, God in this case, than it is in a communist dictatorship against an all present physical entity of flesh and blood, fatso Kill All Fun in N.Korea's case.