As the Biden administration still chases after Iran’s regime for a deal to curb its nuclear program, a longtime resident of California and dissident journalist, Jamshid (Jimmy) Sharmahd, may be executed for a crime the regime itself has admitted he did not commit. According to his daughter Gazelle Sharmahd, the execution is imminent.
Sharmahd has broadcast into Iran for many years about the human rights violations of Iran’s regime and the people’s struggle for freedom. In July 2020, while he was on a layover in Dubai, he was kidnapped by agents of Iran’s regime and taken to Tehran, where he has since been imprisoned and brought out before cameras for seven show trial hearings, including his last on July 26. The regime’s propaganda videos show Sharmahd, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, heart problems, and diabetes, looking gaunt, with sunken eyes and a blank, traumatized expression. During his 734 days of solitary confinement since his kidnapping, Sharmahd’s wife has spoken with him only twice. The family believes he is being tortured. He is missing all but two teeth.
There is good reason to be concerned that a totalitarian regime with hostage-taking and summary executions in its DNA will go through with killing Sharmahd. Though the Iran regime’s own national security council has said the 2008 terror attack in Shiraz, which left 14 dead and 200 injured, and for which Sharmahd is being held, was not the work of anyone in the regime’s opposition, the Islamic Republic is hardly bound by the rule of law or due process protections.
Sharmahd’s latest show trial hearing comes amidst yet another televised forced confession, this time of a brave, bold woman who defied the Islamist theocracy’s forced veiling, as well as a spate of new hostage taking to counter Sweden’s universal jurisdiction trial of a regime official responsible for killing thousands of political prisoners; the arrest of mothers demanding justice for the killing of their children who dared protest the regime’s repression and corruption; the intensified persecution of the Baha’i religious minority, and the ramping up of executions, particularly against minorities such as the Baluchis, to name just some of the regime’s recent human rights violations.
In 2020, an Iranian journalist living in Paris was lured to Iraq, kidnapped, and brought to Iran for torture and televised forced confessions before he was executed. Ruhollah Zam was well-known among Iranians, but his life was not spared despite outrage and appeals. Since the execution of the French resident, not to mention a history of terror attacks on dissidents on French soil, Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron has been too eager to accommodate the regime, having just spent two hours speaking with its president, Ebrahim Raisi, who is personally culpable for executing thousands of political prisoners in a prison massacre in 1988.
Hostage-taking is a key means for the regime to extract financial and other concessions from appeasing Western governments. Sharmahd has been living in California with his family since 2003, but he is a German citizen, and his family is angry at the German government for doing little to secure his release. Not only has the German Foreign Ministry not responded to the family’s pleas to exert financial disincentives on Iran in the form of trade restrictions, it has only condemned the nation’s threatened use of the “death penalty” in Sharmahd’s case—as if Sharmahd was legally detained and brought before a fair court for a crime he committed and the only issue was with his sentencing.
The Biden administration has also never meaningfully intervened. Even in the case of U.S. citizens taken hostage, the administration has refused to exert pressure. On the contrary, the long string of concessions provided to the regime with hopes of bringing it back into the Iran nuclear deal has emboldened it further.
The landscape is dangerous for Iranian dissidents, even on American soil. Just a few days ago, in Brooklyn, a man with an AK-47 was arrested after “lurking for two days” outside the residence of Iranian dissident journalist Masih Alinejad. Police found a high-capacity magazine and 66 rounds of ammunition in his car. Last year, Alinejad was also the subject of a kidnapping plot in which four Iranian intelligence agents planned to abduct her from her home in New York.
Sharmahd himself was nearly assassinated on U.S. soil in 2009. The man who had plotted to take his life was permitted to return to Iran after serving only eight months in a U.S. prison.
Sharmahd’s daughter Gazelle Sharmahd has led a global campaign to free her dad. “I am proud to be the daughter of a man who dedicated his life to advocate for human rights. I am honored to see that he was brave enough to continue broadcasting about the grave human rights violations that the regime brings upon its own citizens for all of these years,” she said. She believes that her dad being both a U.S. resident and German citizen has worked against him because it has allowed the countries to pass the buck.
“When foreign governments break international law and want to enforce their terror outside of their borders, we cannot sit back and ignore this,” she told me. “We have to make it clear that this is unacceptable, because if we don’t, these terror attacks against our people are just the beginning of a new era.”
Gazelle and other human rights advocates are vocal about mounting transnational repression. According to her, it can be stopped only if governments of free nations prioritize security and freedom within their own borders over profits or diplomacy with tyrannical states. If free nations fail to take a principled stance, the world’s worst rights abusers will be emboldened to take more hostages and terrorize with greater impunity. They certainly cannot be trusted in negotiations over issues which have trumped human rights, such as the nuclear program or foreign investment and trade.
It is imperative to start with an insistence on the release of all hostages as the first step in any “confidence building” with repressive regimes, says Jason Poblete, who has been serving as an attorney for Jamshid Sharmahd and other hostages taken by the regime. Poblete emphasizes, as former hostages and political prisoners who have been freed typically do, that “quiet diplomacy” never works and is merely a ruse to continue holding captives for leverage. Sharmahd’s detainment is meant to pressure the West to succumb to Iranian demands. But these hostages have the best chance of freedom if Biden exerts more pressure, not less.
When he was a free man living in California, Sharmahd would explain to his daughter his lifelong commitment to exposing the regime’s rights abuses. “I want to tell him I get it now,” says Gazelle. If her father’s life is taken, he will join thousands who have been executed by an Islamist cabal that began its revolutionary rule with hostage-taking, and continues it to this day to sustain its power.
Mariam Memarsadeghi is Founder and Director of the Cyrus Forum, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a leading advocate for a democratic Iran.