I’m sure you know the feeling. Sometimes you burrow down a rabbit hole and when you come back up you’re not sure whether it’s you or the world that has gone crazy.
That happened to me when I tried to learn a bit more about a case that has been making headlines in Germany over the past few days.
When I began to look at the case of German national Jamshid Sharmahd, who is facing imminent execution in Iran, I realised that a central detail has been missing from all of the reporting.
My search for answers only left me with more questions.
Last week, Iran’s supreme court confirmed a death sentence given to Sharmahd in February when he was found guilty of a list of crimes including organising a deadly explosion at a mosque in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz in 2008 that is believed to have killed a dozen people.
The supreme court’s decision means that Sharmahd, 67, could be executed at any time.
Amnesty International has described his trial as “grossly unfair”, saying that he was subjected to torture and prolonged solitary confinement.
Born in Iran, Sharmahd moved with his family to Germany as a child. He received German nationality in the 1990s and brought up his two children in the small town of Peine in Lower Saxony. Roughly 20 years ago he and his family moved to Los Angeles.
When he was transiting through Dubai on a business trip to India in 2020, Iranian spies kidnapped him and smuggled him back to the country of his birth, where he has been in prison ever since.
The German government’s reaction to the death sentence has so far been somewhat muted. Two weeks after he was condemned to death Berlin expelled two Iranian diplomats.
More recently, foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has called the sentence “completely unacceptable” and claimed that her ministry is “using all its resources” to stop his execution.
Sharmahd’s daughter wants Berlin to do more. Gazelle Sharmahd has been talking to every German media outlet that will listen and pleading with the German government to use sanctions against Tehran to secure his release.
“My dad has to be saved,” she told Der Spiegel last week. Pointing out that Germany is still Iran's largest economic partner in Europe, she said: "That is leverage that can be exploited.”
According to German press accounts, Sharmahd is a harmless activist who has suffered the misfortune of becoming a pawn in Tehran’s attempts to win concessions from the West.
Most media outlets have satisfied themselves with printing his daughter’s version of events. A typical example is an article published over the weekend by public broadcaster WDR.
"My father is going to be executed because he ran a radio station, because he gave people a voice. That is what so many activists do through Twitter and Instagram," Gazelle Sharmahd told WDR.
When reporting on his case, most German outlets have decided to describe him as “an opposition activist in exile.”
Some news outlets have been a bit more concrete, stating that Sharmahd was a member of a opposition group called Tondar. A few newspapers have gone as far as to point out that Tondar is a monarchist movement. One mentions that it once ran an internet site and radio channel that “offered advice on resistance.”
Opposition leader Friedrich Merz has also decided to take Sharmahd under his wing. He has become his ‘political patron’ and describes him as a “journalist.” The Wikipedia entry for Jamshid Sharmahd also describes him as a journalist.
But it is not very hard to find out what Sharmahd really did in his free time.
Far from being a democracy activist, he was a member of an anti-Islamic organisation called The Kingdom Assembly of Iran, which believes in returning the country to the pre-Islamic era of absolute monarchs such as Darius the Great.
Sharmahd was responsible for running the group’s website. His daughter has confirmed as much. “My father is a graduate engineer and was very good at creating websites that could not be taken down by the regime,” she told Die Zeit. She claimed that the website was there to “give a voice to people who otherwise had no voice, not only monarchists.”
That website that he ran - tondar.org - is no longer online. But it is possible to find old pages that have been archived elsewhere on the internet. These make clear that the name Tondar - meaning ‘thunder’ in Farsi - refers to a plan to violently overthrow the Iranian regime and replace it with a monarchy.
Statements published in the website in English and German dated to April 12th, 2008 - the day of the explosion in the Shiraz mosque that Iran accuses him of organising - proclaim it to have been the work of “brave soldiers” loyal to the Kingdom Assembly of Iran.
The German statement claims that the attack was “the beginning of the second phase of operation Tondar” and that future operations “will show no mercy to the regime's mercenaries and stooges, regardless of their rank and position.”
As you can probably imagine, I was quite surprised to find this information and wondered why no German media outlet had reported on it.
So I called up a professor at St Andrews University, where I did my Masters in International Relations. Ali Ansari is of Iranian descent and is one of the UK’s most respected voices on modern Iran.
When I showed him the website he seemed baffled. “I find it just as strange as you do,” he said.
He added that, while he had never heard of the group, it also wasn’t his speciality subject. Instead, he gave me the contact for Saeid Golkar, an Iran expert at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
I arranged an interview with Dr Golkar and asked him whether it was plausible that this Tondar group could have carried out an attack on the Shiraz mosque.
“It is possible," he said. “You can always find dissatisfied people in Iran.”
He added that: “You cannot rule out (that Sharmahd was responsible for the attack) because he accepted responsibility for it on his news channel.”
Golkar still lived in Iran at the time of the attack. He told me that Sharmahd also recorded a video claiming the attack at the time. "I remember watching those videos that were quite widely seen inside Iran at the time," he said.
But he also cautioned that he is “not 100 percent sure” that they carried it out, saying the Shiraz bombing could have been a “false flag” operation by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. “Since the founding of the state in 1979 there are several examples of the Iranian security forces using false flag operations.
Sharmahd may have “naively” taken responsibility to make himself seem more powerful than he actually was, Golkar said, stressing that there is little evidence that Tondar exists beyond its internet presence.
“Sharmahd was the head of the group. But being head of the group doesn’t really mean anything. It could just consist of five people who were working together on a TV channel in Los Angeles.”
“We never had any concrete evidence that they had people on the ground… the only evidence we have is a TV confession in 2009 by two men who said that they were members of Tondar. But if you are familiar with how Iranian police investigations work then you don’t trust anything like this.”
Ultimately, Golkar says that Iran’s security and justice systems are just too impenetrable for us to know for sure what happened in Shiraz 15 years ago.
Ok, I thought, that’s interesting. It seems like there are a lot of open questions around the mosque explosion.
After the weekend, I wrote Dr Golkar an email thanking him for the interview and asked him whether there was anything about the mosque or the timing that suggested it could have been a “false flag” operation.
This was his reply:
“To clarify, the explosion that occurred in Shiraz in 2008 was due to inadequate ammunition maintenance in the mosque. It's important to note that every mosque, including the Hosseynieh Seyed al-Shohada Mosque in Shiraz, has a Basij (Revolutionary Guard Ed.) base.
Some of these basij bases have a depot of ammunition, guns, grades, etc. these Basij bases are controlled by the IRGC Basij civil militia. The theory is this was not a terrorist attack but an unplanned explosion due to poor storage conditions.”
Now, I’m not sure what new information came to light over the weekend, but I was stunned by the sudden change in his response.
In our telephone conversation I had brought up the theory that the explosion had been an accident. Golkar replied that that was “a version given by the Iranian state at the time… but you cannot say what happened.”
But, far be it for me to suggest that one should doubt information provided by an employee of Tony Blair.
There is very little independent information available in English on the explosion at the Hosseynieh Seyed al-Shohada Mosque, so it is impossible for me to verify just what happened.
Reuters did a short report on it at the time, as did Al Jazeera.
A longer article was written two days after the explosion by the US government-funded Radio Farda (i.e. should also be treated with grain of salt). That report stated that Iranian authorities initially claimed that the explosion was an accident but eyewitnesses were unconvinced:
“Eyewitnesses and some local officials say it appeared to be a bomb blast, while Iranian officials in Tehran say the explosion was accidentally caused by leftover ammunition from an exhibition recently held in the mosque.”
Quoting an editorial in a local newspaper, the report continued:
"Giving reasons such as the explosion of a gas capsule or ammunition from an exhibition - when such munitions are neutralized and sealed - show that those who say these things ignore the people's intelligence,"
I’m left with the nagging feeling that the full truth is being sacrificed for some greater good with this story. Why have the German press not investigated his background properly? Why did an expert change his tune so unexpectedly?
Perhaps that is understandable when a man is on death row after facing trial in a repressive dictatorship. On the other hand, sacrificing the truth hasn’t always led us in the right direction in the Middle East in recent years.
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…..”doubt information supplied by an employee of Tony Blair “ is probably the only bit of this article that provides any reliability 😉