This is an updated version of the profile originally published at Unz Review. Thanks to Ron Unz for having the courage and moxie to stand behind this piece.
How Daily Beast Editor, Michael Weiss Helped Send Siamak Namazi to Evin Torture Chambers
It’s a long way from the campus of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire’s Great North Woods in 2003 to Tehran’s Evin Prison in 2016. But the path between them led to a fateful intersection of the lives of Michael D. Weiss (the Dartmouth student) and Siamak Namazi (a jailed Iranian-American). It was Weiss who helped put him there.
Weiss, age 36, has been an itinerant freelance journalist and military interventionist gun-for-hire, plying his trade from Washington DC, to London, to the outlying lands of former Russian empire, to the ruins of Syria.
With his role as CNN commentator and senior editor at the Daily Beast, he is a leading light among a new young generation of neoconservative intellectuals. These positions offer him the opportunity to shape American political discourse in much the same way Bill Kristol’s Project for the New American Century, shaped U.S. militarist-interventionist foreign policy for a decade or more after its famous 1998 letter to Bill Clinton.
A disciple of Christopher Hitchens, Weiss shares the late British intellectual’s penchant for intellectual combat and a gift for the deft, savage phrase. Like him, Weiss fancies nostalgic ties to some radical left tradition. Also like Hitchens, he has the knack for popularizing neoconservative ideas in media-friendly sound bytes. Unlike Hitchens, Weiss has proven to be exceedingly opaque in terms of some of the political and financial alliances he’s made.
Michael D. Weiss graduated in 2003 with a BA in History from Dartmouth College. In 2006, he signed the Euston Manifesto, a political broadside by liberal intellectuals embracing a new robust interventionist politics. It was written largely by the UK philosopher, Norman Geras. Here is how Weiss described the Band of [ex-radical] Brothers who devised it:
Amidst this moral and ideological muddle, a group of graying British Marxists and ex-Communists huddled together in a London pub in May of 2005 and began crafting a manifesto for the 21st century left. Enough was enough.
A 2007 profile in Geras’, Normblog, notes some of Weiss’ odd agglomeration of interests and predilections. He notes one of his earliest “successes” as a blogger was calling for a protest in “support of Denmark” in the midst of the Jyllands Posten-Mohammed cartoon controversy.
The blog he most admires is Harry’s Place, a notorious haven for refugees from various leftist movements who’ve “seen the light” and turned to the right. Among their chief occupations is bashing figures on the left, especially those who criticize Israel or endorse Palestinian rights.
Weiss lists as his special heroes Karl Marx, Irving Howe (a bit of a clash there between the founder of Communism and an ardent anti-Communist), and George Orwell. Among the surprising things this future neocon endorses is “socialized healthcare.”
After Dartmouth, he enrolled at the New School as a student disciple of one of his intellectual heroes, Christopher Hitchens. There he learned the art of stabbing his political enemies with an acid-tipped pen. It’s no coincidence that the title of his blog, defunct since 2010, was Snarksmith.
Later, he moved to Bill Kristol’s shop at the Weekly Standard. Still later, he became an editor at the online Jewish publication, Jewcy, where I first encountered him.
Around 2008, Weiss moved from New York to London where he became the founding director of Just Journalism, a pro-Israel advocacy group tasked with policing the media for “anti-Israel bias.” It based its model on the U.S. based CAMERA, which monitors U.S. mainstream media, acting as a form of media thought-police regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Just Journalism closed its doors in 2011 due to lack of funds. But before it died, Weiss had taken on a second post with the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) in 2010. From its founding in 2005 till 2009, HJS was a centrist foreign policy think-tank seeking to forge a middle-ground between the “conservative-realist right and the anti-imperialist left.” It was named for the staunchly anti-Communist U.S. Senator Henry Jackson, whose heyday was in the 1970s. Jackson was one of the last Cold War warriors, who’d led the drive on behalf of Soviet Jewry, thus making himself a close ally of Israel and the U.S.-based Israel lobby.
It hosted a variety of academics with differing geographic specialities and ideological orientations who used HJS as a springboard for debate in their various fields. UK academic, Markus Attila Hoare, was one of the co-founders and served as HJS’ Balkan specialist.
Later when he came aboard, Weiss was named HJS director of research (one of a shifting series of job titles over time). As such, he controlled the publication of HJS research scholars. One day, Hoare found he was no longer permitted to publish on the group’s website. Weiss declared that under the new regime only he had the right to determine what was published.
Hoare portrayed the 2011 merger of Just Journalism and another Tory think-tank, the Center for Social Cohesion, as a “putsch.” He left HJS sometime after his altercation with Weiss and wrote a long appraisal–at times sad, at times bitter–of the demise of the dream he and his colleagues once shared.
The “new” HJS was a muscular proponent of UK solidarity with Israel. It became a staunch opponent of anything that smacked of hostility to Israel, whether it be Palestinians or left-wing politicians, or European NGOs.
Another Weiss HJS job title was director of the Russia Studies Center (without speaking Russian or ever having lived there). In 2011, Weiss also began publishing a blog at the Daily Telegraph, (a publication sometimes derisively referred to as “Torygraph”).
Later, a former HJS insider reported to me, Weiss had a falling out as well with two of his former allies at HJS. Things became so acrimonious he had to hire a lawyer and later sign a non-disparagement agreement so as not to air any dirty linen in public. HJS removed all Weiss’ content from its website. The only vestige that remains are the titles of his articles.
The most comprehensive account of HJS’ rise and fall is Spinwatch’s, The Henry Jackson Society and the degeneration of British neoconservatism: liberal interventionism, Islamophobia and the ‘war on terror’.
Syria’s Civil War and Weiss’ New-Found Calling as Syria Interventionist
In 2011, Syrian civil unrest commenced and turned gradually into a regional proxy war. As Syrian rebels began their fight to topple Bashar al-Assad; and Russia and Iran rallied to support the Syrian dictator, Weiss saw a new opportunity to advance his interventionist agenda. Loving the sense of derring-do of the war correspondent, he smuggled himself into Syria in 2012 with the help of individuals he said were affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. In reality, the short, stocky bearded man pictured with Weiss is Yousef Alhadid. Shortly after this picture was taken, he switched allegiance to Ahrar al Sham, described here as a Sunni Salafist militant group. By August 2012 he’d died in combat somewhere in Syria.
Weiss also mentored another would-be American war reporter who sought to make his mark in Syria: Austin Tice. He shared his Syrian fixer with Tice and even helped him find a venue for publishing his work at Foreign Policy, where Weiss often publishes. Tice disappeared shortly after Weiss left Syria. Though a brief video of him in captivity surfaced, he’s not been heard from in four years and is presumed dead. It is a curious, depressing fact that Weiss’ closest comrades in Syria tend to end up dead.
Weiss became one of the leading neocon intellectuals advocating muscular U.S. intervention on the side of the Syrian rebels. He advocated those views in publications of the foreign policy élite like Foreign Policy, think tanks like the Carnegie Council for International Affairs, and TV shows too innumerable to mention.
He is a producer’s dream. Like his mentor Hitchens, he is glib and articulate. He explains complicated, confusing issues like ISIS in a media-savvy package. His slashing wit (again, think a dumbed-down version of Hitchens add a note of drama and conspiratorial mystery as well) piques the interest of his audience. Few producers will do enough due diligence to research articles like this one exposing Weiss’ foibles, or damning profiles by James Carden in The Nation or Mark Ames in Pando.
In one of the more memorable portrayals of Weiss’ career, Carden wrote to me:
…Given his past association with the Henry Jackson Society, in his work as an errand-boy for Christopher Hitchens and the Khodorkovsky family, and as a high-profile editor/contributor at the Daily Beast and CNN, Weiss has established himself as the leading neocon propagandist of his generation.
The Elizabeth O’Bagy Scandal
In 2013, Weiss teamed up with Elizabeth O’Bagy to write an article in The Atlantic which advocated regime change in Syria. Separately, she wrote a similar piece for the Wall Street Journal. What the WSJ didn’t reveal was that O’Bagy was a paid consultant for an NGO working to provide military weapons to the Syrian rebels and overthrow Assad, the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF). On the strength of her work, she was invited to testify before Congress. But she had a wee-small problem. She’d embellished her academic record, which led to being fired by the NGO and staining all those who’d championed her, including Weiss. WSJ’s failure to note her affiliation with SETF also posed a clear conflict of interest.
More recently, Weiss traveled to Turkey to interview a supposed escapee from the ISIS gulag. His three-part Daily Beast profile purported to offer a behind the scenes look into life as an ISIS fighter. He gave his informant a pseudonym, ostensibly to protect him from reprisals by his former comrades. The stories he was told contained just enough detail to allow readers to believe in the authenticity of the narrative. But not enough to allow researchers to definitively corroborate the tale he told.
Weiss, Next Generation of the Neocon Intellectual Elite
Weiss seeks to mold a vision that is as ambitious as the one molded by his mentors, Hitchens and Bill Kristol.
It was Kristol who co-founded PNAC for the New American Century with the goal of reshaping the Middle East in the image of the west. The Weekly Standard publisher pinned his hopes on the Bush administration and the Iraq War as the means to make an indelible mark on U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast. Unfortunately, the project didn’t turn out as expected. The baby, in an ironic echo of Condoleezza Rice’s infamous saying about the “birthpangs of a new Middle East,” died aborning.
Not to be outdone, Weiss has adapted the old anti-Communism of Scoop Jackson, tossed in a touch of Bill Kristol-PNAC’s projection of U.S. military might to reshape broad swaths of the Middle East, along with a heaping measure of Khodorkovsky’s dream of regime change in Russia. To this, he’s added a strong dose of anti-jihadism. It makes for a supremely ambitious, geopolitically sweeping, and exceedingly dangerous stew.
Like Kristol, Weiss too dreams of a war he can make his own. There is a fertile field of possibilities: Syria, Ukraine, the Baltic States, even Iran (though a more remote possibility currently after the nuclear deal). He failed to provoke war in Syria when Pres. Obama rejected a military adventure there. Nor has he succeeded in provoking NATO intervention in Ukraine. But there is still time…and hope.
Weiss Teams Up with Russian Oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky
He and Mikhail Khodorkovsky teamed up because the latter seeks to topple the Putin regime. One way to inch closer to the prospect is to inject anti-Putin propaganda into the world media. Hence, Weiss’ Weiss’ gig as editor of The Interpreter. Its mission is:
…The modest goal of translating articles from the Russian press, the better to lower the language barrier that separates journalists, analysts, policymakers, diplomats and interested laymen in the English-speaking world from events taking place inside the Russian Federation.
Oh the irony of a journalist who doesn’t speak the language, yet edits a journal designed to translate the Russian language and nation to a western audience!
Recently, Khodorkovsky supposedly passed the baton to Radio Free Liberty, which is the new sponsor of the online magazine. From information I have heard, RFE will essentially share content with The Interpreter, with no funding involved. With leaves open the question of where funding for the venture originates.
Given that Weiss regularly testifies before Congressional committees on the danger posed by Putin and ISIS, it’s clear he has patrons within the government, along with patrons within the think tank community. Other journalists have speculated to me that the U.S. may be reviving covert Cold War funding mechanisms to finance projects like Weiss’. But you don’t have to be as conspiratorial as all that to believe that a GOP Congressmember with anti-Muslim, anti-Putin sympathies would be only too happy to slip an appropriation into a bill as a favor to Khodorkovsky or any of a number of Weiss’ neocon patrons.
Weiss’ New Friends at the Legatum Institute
Among them are Jeffrey Gedmin and Anne Applebaum of the Legatum Institute, a neocon think tank founded ostensibly to promote freedom and democracy through capitalism. Legatum’s targets are places like Russia and former Soviet satellites like Ukraine, the Baltic states and Poland, perceived to be under threat from Putinist hegemony. Gedmin is a former CEO of Radio Free Liberty and a signatory of the Project for a New American Century, which led to our disastrous war in Iraq. Applebaum is an award-winning writer who has documented the crimes of the Soviet gulag.
Legatum has financed a number of Weiss anti-Putin projects which received widespread media coverage and resulted in Congressional testimony, including a report with the suitably racy title, The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money.
The term “weaponization” in the Russian context was first coined by NYU Russian studies scholar Mark Galeotti, who has since expressed reservations about the sweeping manner in which anti-Putin ideologues (like Weiss) use it. Weiss has glommed onto the phrase himself and used it to argue that the west too must weaponize information as Putin has. Among the policies he envisions in the western fight against Putin is censorship regimes against dissident voices which advance a pro-Russian agenda.
Weiss also approvingly quoted NATO commander Philip Breedlove who speaks of Putin’s “weaponization of refugees.” In the latter case, most scholars see absolutely no evidence that the Assad regime has recruited sleeper agents to attack the west or anything of the sort. This is precisely the sort of shoddy analysis and reportage of which Weiss is often and manifestly guilty.
Mark Ames reports that Legatum is financed by an obscure New Zealand vulture capitalist (as Ames calls him), Christopher Chandler, who invested millions in distressed Russian debt and failing companies, which he subsequently turned into billions. In other words, he is the western equivalent of Khodorkovsky. That makes for a perfect fit for Weiss.
His relationship with oligarchs offers mutual benefit to both: Weiss gains financing, media access and social approval; while the billionaires exploit his dashing exploits in combat zones and intellectual panache to advance their own political and financial interests.
In the Middle Ages, European rulers had court Jews who financed their wars and building projects. But these modern oligarchs don’t need money. They need popularizers who can package and transform political jihad into a simple, appealing mantra. Weiss performs this role admirably.
When Unz Review originally published this profile, Weiss and his acolytes went on a tear complaining that the “court Jew” meme was “anti-Semitic, though they never made clear why it was. I researched a number of articles on the subject including an essay by the dean of American Jewish historians, Howard Sachar. None mention any pejorative connotation to the term.
Weiss and the Anti-Putin Rumor Mill
Applebaum’s husband, Radek Sikorski, is a former Polish foreign minister who invented a conversation between Vladimir Putin and Polish President Donald Tusk, in which the former suggested that both countries carve up Ukraine.
Weiss dutifully featured this as a prominent scoop on Twitter.
— Michael Weiss (@michaeldweiss) October 20, 2014
Sikorski was confronted at a press conference by Polish journalists, demanding clarifications regarding his remarks. However, the ex-foreign minister was vague about whether or not he made the remarks published by Politico. Before long Sikorski admitted that he never personally heard of Putin offering to divide Ukraine, then refused to go into more details or answer additional questions from the media.
Weiss’ Take-No-Prisoners Approach to Adversaries
Weiss is not above sabotaging the careers of his adversaries. Beware if you cross him in one of his spheres of interest. John Rosenthal is a Europe-based author, who wrote a book about Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups in the rebellion against Qaddafi. Until 2012, he wrote regularly for The National Review (NR). His penultimate piece was a report largely translated from Germany’s leading daily newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The German story said that a massacre in a village called Houla had not been perpetrated by the Assad regime as had been reported previously. Rather, Sunni rebels had orchestrated the attack and the victims were largely Shia and Alawite.
Since the massacre, as first reported, had generated enormous outrage against the Assad regime (a Weiss bete noire), he and a group of like-minded anti-jihadi analysts took up the cause against Rosenthal. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Philip Smyth wrote a scathing rebuttal of Rosenthal’s piece for NR.
Smyth, who is an adjunct fellow at Aipac’s think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, is quoted liberally and approvingly in many Weiss articles in Politico, the Daily Beast and Foreign Policy (among others). Tamimi however, seems to have later fallen afoul of Weiss when the former attacked him in a 2014 story he published at his website. Weiss and allies like Armin Rosen at Business Insider, went on the counter-attack and accused Tamimi of being overly chummy with his ISIS sources. They clearly sought to derail his career (Rosen opined that it had “come apart” and predicted its imminent demise in his article).
The Weiss-Rosen attacks don’t seem to have had their desired impact, as Tamimi continues to be cited and published in the mainstream media. Someone Rosen quotes as criticizing Tamimi, Daveed Gartenstein Ross, even later co-authored an article with him at Foreign Affairs.
Returning to Rosenthal: after the Tamimi-Smyth attack piece was published, Weiss boasted on Twitter that NR had “barred” Rosenthal from the pages of the publication.
Al Monitor publishes John Rosenthal, who was barred from National Review after spreading regime lies about Houla: http://t.co/zesMaukXdc
— Michael Weiss (@michaeldweiss) March 4, 2014
Rosenthal attempted repeatedly and unsuccessfully to ascertain his status at the publication. His pitches began to be rejected until editors stopped responding at all.
Rosenthal believes that Weiss interceded with NR editors in some fashion and advocated that they stop publishing his work. Even if he did not intercede directly, Rosenthal believes that Weiss was told directly by NR staff that Rosenthal would be barred. Weiss’ efforts to sabotage Rosenthal’s publishing career seem to have faltered. The latter now publishes at Al Monitor, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal Europe, and elsewhere.
Weiss and his crony circle played a similar role in attempting to suppress publication of this profile. It was originally commissioned by Max Blumenthal for publication by Alternet. But a member of Weiss’ circle contacted former Alternet staff, who relayed a message to publisher, Jan Frel, that it would be a mistake to publish the piece. Frel killed it. He was afraid.
One Middle East analyst familiar with Weiss’ work called him a “hack,” Weiss is clearly a journalist-pugilist with a long memory who nurtures grudges.
Weiss Joins Daily Beast
The Daily Beast’s (DB) editor, John Avlon, hired Weiss as senior editor, in June 2015. Avlon is a former columnist for the neocon New York Sun and former chief speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani. In his new role, Weiss has recruited some of his pals to contribute to DB. They include Maajid Nawaz, a former Liberal Democratic MP candidate who made a reputation as a Muslim reformer till he was videotaped getting a lap dance at a UK sex club. He called his escapade “sex-positive feminism.” He fancies himself a “former Muslim radical” who’s seen the error of his ways. Now he wants to tell the non-Muslim world how to attack Islamism and defeat it.
He founded the “counter-extremism” NGO, the Quilliam Foundation with a $1-million grant from the right-wing Christian, Templeton Foundation. The British government awarded nearly $4-million to Quilliam for the intellectual component of its “war on terror” amid the country’s Muslim community.
After abandoning his first Muslim wife, Nawaz remarried the American artist and writer, Rachel Maggart. He’d been introduced to her by another former Muslim turned neocon, Ayan Hirsi Ali. Before the wedding he posted this incredibly prurient and juvenile tweet featuring a his wife in a model-like sexy pose: “”Don’t ya wish your wifey. was. hot. like. mine? …. Don’t ya? … Don’t ya?”
In the past few years, Nawaz has made an “American pivot,” where the money seems to be good: he’s received grants from the right-wing Bradley Foundation and nearly $1-million from Gen Next, a philanthropic network affiliated with the Koch brothers. Here in American, Weiss has now become one of his greatest boosters and offered him a perch at Daily Beast (DB)
Weiss, the Daily Beast and the Road to Evin
Another puzzling, problematic author Weiss brought to the magazine was “Alex Shirazi” (a pseudonym). Until he published his first piece in July 2015 (a month after Weiss took on his new editorial role) under a joint byline with Weiss, there is no online record that “Shirazi” ever existed. When queried by Huffington Post, DB conceded that the name was a pseudonym and added this to the author bio accompanying the piece with this explanation.
UPDATE 12/14/15: Alex Shirazi is a pseudonym for a well-known Iranian dissident who requested that The Daily Beast keep his identity concealed for fear of what might happen to his family in Iran in retaliation for this article. We regret not noting this earlier.
The editor of a national newspaper based in New York offered me an appraisal of this practice after hearing about this case: “there is no journalistic justification, on first glance, for a pseudonym. It appears to break faith with readers and public accountability vis a vis the writer.”
In preparation for his second DB article, “Shirazi” first approached Iranian-American oil executive Siamak Namazi, while the latter was visiting Iran in June 2015. At that time, the “journalist” did not reveal his real identity to his subject. He e-mailed a list of questions he wished Namazi to answer about the supposed financial benefits the Iranian regime offered his family.
The nature of the questions alarmed Namazi and members of his family Shirazi also contacted. As a result, they contacted Shirazi’s editor, Weiss, requesting that he review the questions himself, suggesting that they were unfair and even libelous. Weiss declined to intervene, so Namazi escalated his concerns to managing editor, John Avlon. He warned the Daily Beast executive that such an article was likely to harm both him and his family. All this was to no avail.
Within a week of receiving Shirazi’s inquiry, Namazi was stopped at the airport by Iranian security officials and refused permission to leave the country. Several months later, in September, DB published Shirazi’s profile, and within a month Namazi was in the notorious Evin Prison. This raises the strong probability that Iranian hardliners were monitoring either Shirazi or Namazi’s e-mail accounts, and that the questions and implicit accusations raised in the messages were exploited by Iranian intelligence officers to implicate Namazi.
Who is Siamak Namazi? His good friend, Reza Marashi, wrote this appreciation of him in Huffington Post:
He helped run a world-renowned consulting firm – staffed predominantly with Iranian-born citizens – that facilitated badly-needed foreign investment from blue-chip multinational corporations.
Neither money nor power was ever a driving force behind Siamak’s work. It was the indigenous development of his motherland that motivated him. Siamak wanted Iran to live up to its vast potential, and he was at the forefront of teaching international best practices and standards in business and management to scores of young Iranians. The pride on his face was always evident when his employees would move on to successful careers across a variety of fields in Iran.
…As U.S. sanctions were causing medical supply shortages in Iran, he independently researched and published what became the authoritative literature on the subject. I was in the audience when he presented his findings in Washington DC. As Siamak began to describe the disastrous impact of sanctions on innocent Iranians, he choked up, paused for a moment, composed himself, and then proceeded to finish his presentation. That’s how much he loves the country that is currently keeping him in prison.
It might surprise Siamak’s captors to know that he actively discouraged me from getting involved in politics. After sparring over the pros and cons of such a career, I matter-of-factly told him that I truly believe in making the world a better place. He leaned back in his chair, smirked, and told me: There are plenty of ways to make the world a better place without making yourself a target in Washington and Tehran. Hardly the advice of a man who was “collaborating with enemy states” and “heading a political, economic, and cultural mafia gang.”
It’s ironic that DB claims it agreed to use a pseudonym for “Shirazi” in order to protect his family in Iran, considering that Weiss’ smear of Namazi landed both the latter and his 80 year-old father behind bars. Last month, yet another Iranian-American, Robin Shahini, was arrested in Iran and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested earlier, in April.
Rather than protecting family members from harm, the use of a pseudonym had the effect of shielding the author from proper scrutiny regarding his motives, his associations, and any conflicts of interest he might have.
The Namazi family and its supporters have established a website, Free Siamak and Baquer Namazi, which offers updates on their case and the campaign to free them.
That second DB article was entitled, The Shady Family Behind America’s Iran Lobby. Published in September 2015, it was a lurid “expose” filled with innuendo and unsupported allegations regarding the cozy commercial relationships an Iranian family enjoyed with the clerical regime. The article placed special emphasis on Siamak, the son of the patriarch of the family, Baquer Namazi.
To reinforce the ominousness of the charges against Namazi, the graphic art accompanying the DB article consisted of a series of shady-looking Arab militants sporting beards, long hair, a turban and sunglasses. The image is a cross between an Arab playboy and an ISIS fighter. No one in Iran dresses this way. The graphic is little more than an Iranophobic pastiche. Clearly, rather than an exposé or serious profile, this was meant as a hit-piece.
The Ongoing Neocon Attack on NIAC
The main contention implicit in the headline was itself wrong on several counts. Neither Siamak nor his family are “behind” the so-called “Iran Lobby.” Nor is the Iranian-American NGO attacked in the article, the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) “America’s Iran Lobby.”
A common smear tactic of DC Beltway neoconservatives and the Iranian cult group, Mujahadeen e Khalq (MEK) has been to label NIAC a stooge of the Iranian regime. In reality, NIAC is a completely independent, nonpartisan organization.
Ironically, Aipac, a group heartily supported by those like Eli Lake, Kenneth Timmerman and Weiss who’ve attacked NIAC, is far more of a slavish booster of the Israeli regime than NIAC is of the Iranian regime.
Further, “Shirazi” recycled another claim first advanced by Eli Lake in a 2009 article in the Washington Times, in which he falsely claimed Namazi played a key role in founding NIAC. Namazi soundly rejected this claim in a letter to the editor he wrote at the time. He was never affiliated in any way with NIAC other than paying a single annual membership fee in 2005. All it would’ve taken for “Shirazi” to ascertain this fact was a phone call to NIAC, which he never made.
Nikahang Kowsar=”Alex Shirazi”
Among Iranian-Americans, there has been a great deal of speculation about “Shirazi’s” real identity. A number of them have noted that shortly before his DB article was published a very similar post appeared in a Farsi-language blog written by a former Iranian journalist and activist, Nikahang Kowsar.
Kowsar began his career in the heyday of the liberal reforms of the Khatami era in the early 2000s. He became a journalist and one of Iran’s most well-known political cartoonists. His most famous cartoon pictured a hardline cleric as a crocodile strangling a journalist with his tail, which led to his arrest and imprisonment. On his release, he went into exile and fled to Canada. He was tried in absentia and given a four-month jail sentence. He now lives in Washington DC.
In 2009, he founded a blog called Khodnevis (Farsi for “pen”). The source of funding for this project isn’t known for certain. But Iranian-Americans have speculated that they may come from both the U.S. and Canadian governments. Though Kowsar began his career as a reformer, his new website quickly became a home for ardent opponents of the Iranian regime. It supported western economic sanctions against Iran. Even those advocating violent regime change have found a home there.
Kowsar has also become a critic of his former reformist allies in Iran. He called for boycotting the recent Iranian elections and attacked the reformers for offering election slates. He has also attacked the Iranian nuclear deal and those Iranian-Americans (NIAC among them) who advocated it.
In 2010, Kowsar published a tape recording he made secretly of a conversation between him and the son of Hashemi Rafsanjani. The father began his career as an ally of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and later become a chief leader of the reformers. The attacks which the son levelled against Ayatollah Khamenei in the tape landed him in jail for a 15 year prison sentence.
Iranians I spoke with believe Kowsar hates the Iranian regime so much, he hopes the hardliners will come to power. Then, it will be that much easier to promote a western attack on Iran that would topple the regime. So in a terribly perverse way, his interests coincide with those of the hardliners.
In the course of interviewing Iranian sources for this profile, one told me that the author “Shirazi” approached him with questions about the Namazi family. In the course of the e mails that went back and forth, “Shirazi” slipped up and forgot to use his fake e-mail address. Instead, he used his real email address and name: Nikahang Kowsar.
As with so many of Michael Weiss’ projects, he thrives on ominous conspiracies involving authoritarian regimes supposedly inimical to those western values he holds so dear. The very idea of peace and harmony between one such regime, Iran, and the U.S. causes Weiss to gnash his teeth in despair.
Unlikely Alliance Between U.S. Neocons and Iranian Hardliners to Sabotage U.S.-Iran Relations
The most profound irony of the entire episode is that a group of neocon polemicists, in an attempt to defame NIAC, have used the Namazi family as a sacrificial goat. The parallel force on the Iranian side, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and other hardliners, have exploited this struggle for their own purposes.
These Iranian forces are threatened both by the P5+1 nuclear deal and the recent victory of Pres. Rouhani and the moderate coalition which trounced the conservatives in recent elections for the Majlis. As a result, the hardliners worry that their power and influence may be waning. When a beast is wounded it seeks to lash out in order to avenge those who attacked it.
It’s also ironic that both Kowsar and the Iranian hardliners detest NIAC, and for similar reasons. They each detest the nuclear agreement as they detest any rapprochement in relations between Iran and the west. Inside Iran, the extremists even call NIAC and figures like Siamak “infiltrators.” As if they seek to inveigle themselves into Iranian society and infect with a western poison.
Hardliners must plant fear and suspicions in the minds of the public that the ways of the reformers are dangerous. One way to do this is to pick a symbol of reform and mercilessly attack it. That is how Siamak Namazi was ensnared. Before his arrest he worked for the Dubai-based, Crescent Petroleum. Undoubtedly, one of his jobs was to set up deals with the Iranian oil industry, which had recently become free to sell oil to foreign companies. Thousands of businesspeople from scores of nations have stampeded to Iran to make similar deals.
But the Iranian hardliners benefited enormously from the decades of sanctions. They replaced all those corporations which abandoned Iran and cornered the market on formerly imported goods. With the resumption of free trade, these monopolies are under threat.
What better way to fight back against the new economic order than by showing that the foreigners are shady characters seeking to undermine the Islamic Revolution? That is why they trapped Namazi in their net.
Iran’s leader himself said, according to Reuters:
“Iran’s economy had not yet benefited from the Western delegations visiting Iran after the lifting of sanctions as they had failed to deliver on their promises. He added he saw some of the visits as suspicious as the West was trying to send ‘infiltrators’ in disguise.”
Add to this, ominous photos which hardliners published after Namazi’s arrest. They pictured his father, who was a provincial governor of Shiraz under the Shah, kissing the Shah’s hand. Speaking of Shiraz, it’s no accident that the pseudonymous Daily Beast author chose “Shiraz” for his last name. This is the city and province from which the Namazi family hails.
Haleh Esfandiari, the founder of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, knows Siamak personally and offered her own analysis of the underlying reasons for his arrest:
…Remarks by authorities and members of Iran’s parliament suggest that the Intelligence Ministry wishes to implicate Siamak Namazi in a supposed U.S. plot to infiltrate and undermine the Islamic Republic by promoting business exchanges between Iran and the U.S. Iranian authorities have not produced a shred of evidence to support this fantastical idea. Nor has a coerced confession yet surfaced.
…Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, and its enablers in the judiciary, have been desperate to prove that the U.S. is scheming against the Islamic Republic through various means, including cultural and business penetration. A recent warning by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about supposed U.S. tactics appears to have prompted intelligence officials to redouble their efforts. The end result is that innocent men and women are treated cruelly to satisfy security authorities’ whims; if a young man cannot be coerced into a false confession, then his father must be used as leverage.
Anyone who knows the Namazis would dismiss out of hand claims that they were working to undermine the Islamic Republic. Both men who have been arrested are Iranian patriots. Siamak Namazi was not a political activist. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader who believed in building bridges and engagement between Iran and the West, including the United States.
Esfandiari also offers a profile of the decades-worth of extraordinary humanitarian work performed by Baquer Namazi, Siamak’s 80 year-old father. He led a completely apolitical life after the Revolution. He went into exile and became a senior official for UNICEF. The agency, in fact, has released a statement in his support and asking for his immediate release:
In its appeal, UNICEF noted his commitment to children and his “spiritual courage and moral convictions.” As a UNICEF representative, Namazi survived a 1994 shooting in southern Egypt targeting a U.N. convoy that killed five people.
“Mr. Namazi dedicated many years of his career to improving the lives of some of the world’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable children, often working in difficult and even dangerous circumstances,” the statement released Thursday said.
The elder Namazi is long retired and poses no threat to anyone. But for members of the clerical regime, afraid of losing power and perks, even an old man offers leverage they may exploit to extract a confession from Siamak.
Perhaps the ultimate irony of this affair is that Michael Weiss and his neocon comrades, in their desperation to sabotage U.S.-Iran relations have made common cause with the most hardline and vicious of Iran’s clerical regime. They make for very strange bedfellows.
One can only hope that leaders on both sides will see reason and negotiate for Siamak’s release. His ongoing imprisonment harms bilateral relations and holds them hostage to the whims of marginal extremists on both sides. As Esfandiari wrote:
…President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have sought to secure Western goodwill toward their country. Will they take responsibility for the fate of those who placed confidence in their bridge-building with the outside world? Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the only person who can stop the Intelligence Ministry’s overreach. Will they persuade the supreme leader to intervene on behalf of the Namazis?
In preparing this article, I contacted the National Review, CNN, Kowsar, and Weiss himself for comment on various matters raised here. None responded to my inquiries.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.