“Goodbye, my son; a son who was a father, a husband, a brother and a comrade; a comrade to the very end,” wrote prominent reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Zam in an Instagram post. He was the father of dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was brutally executed on December 12.
In 2019, Ruhollah was lured to Iraq, arrested upon arrival and handed over to Iranian intelligence agents who then took him to Iran where was put on trial for a long list of allegations. Among those were spying for Israel and France, provoking armed forces to mutiny and collaborate with the United States. Zam, who was tortured into confessing, was executed just fourteen months after his arrest.
Ruhollah, born in 1979 and named after the Islamic revolution’s leader, was one of the thousands of young people arrested and tortured following the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green movement. He had supported presidential candidate Mehdi Karoubi, a reformist who remains under house arrest today, and helped run Karoubi’s Saham News at the time. Fleeing Iran in 2011, he spent time in Malaysia and Turkey before seeking refuge in France.
From Paris, Ruhollah launched Amad News, an outlet that utilized his family connections to the clerical establishment to publish inside information, including both credible exposition of corruption and bogus allegations. During the 2017-2018 protests, Amad News gave voice to the popular demands of the protesters as Iran’s shutdown imposed an internet blackout. The Amad News channel had more than one million followers on the popular messaging app Telegram before it was shut down by the app’s Russian founder, Pavel Durov, after it published a Molotov cocktail manual—a violation of the app’s rules. Ruhollah then promptly launched Sedaye Mardom to continue the same work. In his charge sheet, the prosecutors named his running of Saham News, Amad News, and Sedaye Mardom as evidence of criminality. Clearly, his work was threatening enough for the regime to go to the length of kidnapping him.
The events leading to Ruhollah’s death were brutal by any standards, but his father revealed that the executed journalist’s treatment had been even more outrageous than previously imagined. According to the cleric, when he met with Ruhollah on the night before his execution, Zam wasn’t allowed to tell his son that the Supreme Court had confirmed his death sentence. Father and son prayed together but Ruhollah didn’t know that this would be his last prayers. He was woken up in the early hours of the morning and hanged without prior notice.
Zam, the father, took to his Instagram account—the only social media platform not censored in Iran—on December 12 to condemn the “criminal republic” that had killed his son. He published pictures of Ruhollah from his childhood and of his Paris-based granddaughters, aged five and sixteen. On the seventh day after Ruhollah’s death, as the family gathered for the traditional Muslim mourning in Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran’s largest cemetery, Mohammad Ali Zam was pictured publicly crying with a picture of his son in hand.
Zam’s mourning of his son appears ordinary. However, the cleric’s status as a high-ranking and longstanding official of the Islamic Republic makes it noteworthy, given that the regime’s forty-one-year history is filled with fathers who didn’t mourn the killing of their children by the republic they served.
Fathers not mourning their sons
The phenomenon is not unique to Iran. The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, such as Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, had been squarely based on breaking family ties and ensuring the primary loyalty of citizens to the state and its political projects. In George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian masterpiece, 1984, children spying on their parents for Big Brother’s benefit is portrayed as a most poignant symbol of the system’s immorality.
Like other authoritarian revolutionary states of the twentieth century, the Islamic Republic tore families apart from day one. The revolutionary coalition that had brought down Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 was a big tent that included many different variants of Marxism, nationalism, and Islamism. But the founding leader of the republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, soon started purging everyone except his own most loyal followers. As Khomeinists gained absolute power by 1981, all other political groups were persecuted. Not unlike 1984, many families were careful not to reveal their political leanings to their children, lest they speak “too much” at school—even in kindergarten. On the other hand, parents who had sided with the Khomeinists for ideology or pure calculations of power sometimes disassociated themselves from family members who belonged to opposition groups.
One of the most disturbing signs of the revolution destroying families were parents who publicly and loudly denounced their own children—and even helped with their capture and execution. The message was clear: the revolution comes before all.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was the earliest prominent example. Today, at almost 94-years-old, he is the head of the Assembly of Experts, an influential body of clerics tasked with supervising the Supreme Leader. But one of his sons never got to see old age. In 1982, Hossein Janati was a 31-year-old activist with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (Mujahedin-e Khalq)—at the time the strongest opposition force to the nascent republic—when he was killed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in a clash. The ayatollah has publicly defended his son’s killing ever since and, according to his other son, former culture minister Ali Jannati, the ayatollah has never expressed regret about Hossein’s death—even in private.
Jannati wasn’t alone in putting the revolution before his family. In the early 1980s, Qolamreza Hassani, Khomeini’s envoy to West Azerbaijan province, gave up the whereabouts of his son, Rashid Hassani, a member of the Marxist group Fadaiyan-e-Khalq, to the authorities. Like thousands of other Marxists, Rashid was executed following a short trial in Tabriz.
Few officials of the Islamic Republic sent more men and women to their deaths than the infamous judge, Mohammad Gilani. Gilani, who later headed Iran’s Supreme Court, had famously sentenced two of his own sons to death during the 1980s. While details remain murky until this day, the fact that Gilani agreed to execute his own sons has been confirmed by upper echelons of the Iranian establishment, including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and regime insider and editor of Kayhan, a hardline daily, Hossein Shariatmadari. When Gilani died in 2014, Qom’s Society of Seminary Teachers praised him for “doing his revolutionary duty, not even stopping short of sentencing his own relatives.”
From the early years of the revolution, this abhorrent behavior had an opponent in Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani. Despite being close to Khomeini, Taleqani was known for his more progressive politics. Interestingly, many of his children were known to back anti-Khomeinist groups on the left. In April 1979, when the IRGC arrested one of his sons, Mojtaba, a Marxist activist, Taleqani briefly left Tehran in protest, making it clear that he disagreed with the regime’s repression of critics. Taleqani died in September 1979—in what his family considers to be a suspicious death—and, thus, didn’t get to see the worst of the violence enacted by the regime he helped found. But no one forgot that Taleqani demanded justice for his family members—even if they were Marxist opponents of the Islamic Republic.
The path of Taleqani, not Jannati
From the early years of the revolution, Mohammad Ali Zam was a leading official in the shadowy Islamic Development Organization (IDO), a behemoth cultural institution directly controlled by the Supreme Leader that enjoys an unaccountable budget worth millions of dollars. As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shuffled positions of power and gave the top posts only to those with the clearest track record of loyalty to him during the 2000s, Zam would fall out of favor—though he still held mid-level positions and never joined the opposition.
While Zam didn’t support his son’s dissent, he also never denounced or linked him to the clerical establishment’s spurious allegations. He is not alone. Ruhollah’s sister and teenage daughter have openly spoken of their anger and proudly defended the late journalist. Their outrage speaks volumes. Gone are the days when officials proudly sent their family members to death in the name of protecting the Islamic Republic.
Although Ayatollah Jannati is still in power, it is the path of Ayatollah Taleqani that has been historically vindicated: a path of demanding justice and putting the victims before the authoritarian republic.
Arash Azizi is a writer and scholar based at New York University. He is the author of, “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions” published by Oneworld Publications. Follow him on Twitter: @arash_tehran.