Apr 22, 2023
Sherry Hakimi (back right), founder and executive director of a gender equality nonprofit, became the subject of online attacks following her meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) in 2022. | Cliff Owen/AP Photo
"I’ll Burn You Alive"
Disputes within the Iranian diaspora are getting uglier — and complicating U.S. foreign policy as the regime gets closer and closer to having a nuclear bomb.
By DANIEL BLOCK
Last October, as women filled the streets of Iranian cities to protest the Islamic Republic’s violent repression, Sherry Hakimi accepted an invitation to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In an ornate State Department reception room, Hakimi and a handful of other Iranian-American women sat across a table from Blinken and discussed Iran’s antigovernment protests, the regime’s brutal response and how the United States should handle the events.
Three of the participants — Hakimi included — appeared in a photo with the secretary, which he posted on Twitter. “We continue to find ways to respond to the Iranian government’s state-sponsored violence against women,” Blinken wrote. “Today, I met with civil society partners to discuss what more the U.S. can do.”
Hakimi didn’t think too much about the photo. She is founder and executive director of a nonprofit that promotes gender equality around the world. She supported the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015 and led roundtables with Mohammad Zarif, Iran’s then-foreign minister, during and after the negotiations. But Hakimi generally eschews the spotlight. She has a modest social media presence and does not receive much publicity.
Yet in the hours after the Blinken photo appeared, that changed. “Why the FUCK,” one tweet asked, was Hakimi at the meeting? The account went on to call her an agent “of the Mullahs and Butcher regime.” Other posts referred to her as an apologist for the Iranian government. She found the comments upsetting — and baffling. She was born in the United States and hadn’t been in Iran since 2006, when government officials threatened to arrest her for delivering a talk on sexually transmitted diseases. There is no love lost between her and the regime.
The attacks on Hakimi got worse when a 2015 video of her speaking about taking a photo with then-foreign minister of Iran Mohammad Zarif emerged on Twitter. | via YouTube
Hakimi went to bed that night hoping the attacks would subside. Instead, they got worse. The next day, Kaveh Shahrooz, a Canadian lawyer and think tank fellow with more than 30,000 followers, posted a 2015 video of Hakimi speaking excitedly about taking a photo with Zarif. Shahrooz tweeted the photo and said that she lobbied for the regime. His accusations gained traction: Over the course of just two days, she was mentioned on Twitter nearly 35,000 times. Many of those posts called Hakimi an Islamic Republic supporter. Others said she was a regime puppet. One suggested that Hakimi had her hands “up Zarif’s ass.”
Twitter was tame compared to Instagram, where she was inundated with violent messages, almost all in Persian. Some threatened to rape her. Others threatened to kill her. “I’ll find you and I’ll burn you alive,” one declared. Some of the people who messaged her said they knew where she lived.Hakimi didn’t sleep at home for the next week. She had security systems installed in her apartment. She downloaded the “DeleteMe” app to help get her personal information offline. She laid low. But the threats kept coming. People began trolling her nonprofit.“It was a wild time,” Hakimi told me.
“People have tried to take me out, essentially, as an organizer.”For Iranians, the last seven months have been extraordinarily turbulent. Since last September, when Mahsa Amini — a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman — died in police custody after being arrested for “improperly” wearing her hijab, people across Iran have taken to the streets to protest the regime. They have been staunchly supported by the diaspora, which has held demonstrations around the world in solidarity.But the government’s horrifying suppression of the protests has stirred up the diaspora’s emotions, and many Iranian expats have been smeared, harassed and threatened by their angry peers.
The attacks overwhelmingly target women, most notably in North America and Europe. The victims include gender equality activists, journalists, foreign policy analysts and a historian, each of whom has been accused of colluding with the authoritarian Islamist regime in Tehran.
Iranians have held demonstrations around the world since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman who died in police custody last September after being arrested for “improperly” wearing her hijab. | Onur Dogman/Sipa USA via AP
It is unclear who many of the assailants are, because many of the attacks are anonymous, often using social media accounts without clear provenance. Some of the harassment may be orchestrated by institutions, rather than actual people. But there are plenty of humans launching the attacks, too. Some are well-known figures in the Iranian expat community, others are less-known, but all of them are hardliners with a commitment to aggressively isolating Iran. As for their targets, what they share is a history of either supporting Western-Iranian diplomacy or reporting information that adds subtlety to the debate over how the United States and its allies should handle the Islamic Republic.
“They are trying to claim that anyone who brings nuance or a degree of complexity into the conversation is a regime apologist,” said Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, the founder of a feminist organization that works with women-led peace initiatives in conflict-ridden countries.The debate around Iran has assumed newfound urgency. Since former President Donald Trump walked away from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has worked hard to bring itself within striking distance of obtaining a nuclear weapon, and today, it is closer than it has ever been.
A senior U.S. official estimated that Iran can now produce a bomb’s worth of fissile material in roughly 12 days. Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told Congress that Iran would need only a few months to build a working weapon.President Joe Biden, like his predecessors, has pledged to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is an issue that he must contend with alongside Tehran’s arms sales to Russia, its support for regional militias, its attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and, of course, its domestic repression. Individually, each of these problems is hard to address. Collectively, they pose an extraordinary challenge, and one that Biden is struggling to solve. It is no surprise, then, that plenty of diplomacy proponents and opponents alike agree that addressing Iran will require great creativity, especially from the diaspora.
The United States and Europe’s leading Iran hands are often of Iranian origin, making them more vulnerable to harassment. And the threats and harassment appear to be hitting their mark: At arguably the most critical juncture in relations with Iran since the two countries agreed to the nuclear deal in 2015, many pro-diplomacy analysts have shut up.“The goal of this campaign is to intimidate and silence people,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director for the pro-diplomacy International Crisis Group. He expressed deep concern that Iran will become much more dangerous if experts and observers cannot openly discuss and figure out a new policy for the country. “There is literally a ticking bomb,” Vaez said. “The risk is that Iran will become another North Korea. The authoritarian system will survive, and the threat to the world will grow.”
Many Iranian expats have been smeared, harassed and threatened by their angry peers. The attacks — which bear signatures of professional coordination — overwhelmingly target women, primarily in North America and Europe. | Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images
Among diasporas, political infighting is nothing new. Cuban Americans have been arguing about whether and just how vigorously the United States should oppose the island’s government since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Venezuelans living abroad have had similarly intense debates about President Nicolás Maduro. And American Jews have formed a variety of powerful advocacy groups that spar over Washington’s support for Israel. In an especially incendiary moment, David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, declared that his liberal Jewish critics were “far worse than kapos” — the Jews who helped Nazis run concentration camps.
For Iranian Americans, accusations of collaboration are widespread. But the attacks go beyond occasional smears. Farnaz Fassihi, a New York Times reporter who frequently writes about Iran, has received death threats, rape threats and had her home address doxed. Naraghi-Anderlini was once sent a Twitter message with an image of a noose. Elahé Sharifpour-Hicks, a former Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch and a nuclear deal proponent, said she has come across graphic imagery of herself, including a cartoon depicting her naked in the arms of Iran’s supreme leader.
Sharifpour-Hicks’ son, who is not involved in politics or diplomacy, has received death threats as well.The harassment has not been limited to the internet. In mid-October, the University of Chicago received a bomb threat after it invited Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American freelance journalist, to participate in an event. In response, the university beefed up security. The harassment has also targeted members of the diaspora in countries other than the United States. When Rouzbeh Parsi — an academic and sanctions skeptic — joined a panel on Iran’s protests at a Stockholm museum, demonstrators outside tried to storm the building.
In Berlin, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, a German think tank associated with the country’s governing party, canceled a December event on Iran after panelists and employees were threatened. The British Parliament postponed a hearing on Iran after one of the experts scheduled to testify was bombarded with attacks in apparent retaliation for publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a revived nuclear deal between the West and Iran.The cancellations are just one of the ways the harassment has made it harder for diplomacy proponents to make their case. Iranian foreign policy experts have turned down invitations to write articles for policy magazines like the one I work for.
Others have told me they are avoiding media altogether. Vaez, a former adviser to current U.S. Iran envoy Robert Malley, said the attacks have made the entire subject of diplomacy “toxic.”Although Iranians have received most of the harassment, the attacks are not limited to the diaspora community.“The harassment has made me think twice about tweeting and publishing,” said Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. It was a fact she was “not proud to admit,” but one that’s easy to understand. After writing an article proposing a new path for Iranian-U.S. nuclear diplomacy, Davenport was inundated with threats, including against her children.
She received four consecutive phone calls in which the caller said she was “whoring for the ayatollahs.”In addition to frustrating the work of diplomacy proponents, the harassment has exacted an intense personal cost on the recipients. Naraghi-Anderlini said her family has come across accusations that she is a regime apologist, a painful smear for most Iranian expats. Mortazavi told me she is careful when she goes outside. Hakimi said that many of her friends would not defend her, and that some no longer wanted to be associated with her at all. The campaign has made her and others worry that, even if the Islamic Republic were to fall tomorrow, the diaspora would make it challenging for Iranians to build a liberal replacement.“This is autocratic behavior,” Hakimi said. “This is not how you build a democracy.”
Some express concern that Iran’s “authoritarian system will survive” and the country will become much more dangerous if the West cannot figure out a new policy for the country. | Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AP
The Iranian expats launching the attacks, of course, see matters differently. To them, and to many other hawks, the best way to stop Tehran is by aggressively isolating it from the rest of the world. But unlike other hardliners, this group sees supporting diplomacy not just as counterproductive; they see it as tantamount to supporting the regime.
Shahrooz, the lawyer who is a senior fellow at Canada’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute, tweeted that his ideological rivals “should be ridiculed and treated as the dictator-coddling clowns they are.” He has insinuated, without providing evidence, that many dovish analysts are on the regime’s payroll. “Collaborators and Vichyites hate it when their patron collapses,” he posted.It is not the only time that Shahrooz, one the most bombastic voices in the West’s Iran debate, whose posts can be retweeted hundreds of times and attract hundreds of comments, has drawn Nazi parallels.
He tweeted that one analyst critical of the online attacks was akin to Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Holocaust. He posted that Fassihi, the Times reporter, was “mouthing talking points she’s not herself bright enough to understand.” In a particularly graphic comment, Shahrooz tweeted that Mortazavi and people like her had just one critique of Tehran: “that it doesn’t send Zarif to the U.S. more often so that they can fellate him more thoroughly.”
To better understand what was driving the harassment, I called Shahrooz in late February. Over the phone, he was less pugnacious. During the first part of our conversation, he instead came off more like the prominent analyst he is, one who has written for the Wall Street Journal and the Globe and Mail and who makes appearances on Canada’s national broadcaster. “I think the West should do everything short of military action to help Iranian people overthrow this regime,” he said. He outlined a theory of change that entailed sweeping transatlantic sanctions and an end by Europe to diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Kaveh Shahrooz, a Canadian lawyer and think tank fellow with more than 30,000 followers, was the one who posted a 2015 video of Hakimi speaking excitedly about taking a photo with Zarif. | Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Shahrooz was born in Iran shortly after the 1979 revolution. He moved abroad when he was 10, and he said his family’s experience inspired him to become an Iran analyst. “I lost many family members in Iran’s prisons because of their activism,” he said. “I knew and my family knew [the regime] could not be trusted.”
Among Iranian expats, personal pain was a commonly cited reason for condemning peers. I also called Sana Ebrahimi, a computer science Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who frequently launches attacks against dovish analysts. She told me her father had once been arrested and tortured by the Iranian regime for his activism. She said that, as a student in Iran, the system had fed her immense amounts of propaganda.
Ebrahimi cited such experiences as the reason she often alleges her opponents are working with the Islamic Republic. “As someone who lived there,” Ebrahimi told me, “it doesn’t make sense” how they could support diplomacy otherwise.Ebrahimi arrived in the United States in 2019, a moment she described as liberating. She began using Twitter, where she now has roughly 55,000 followers, to aggressively blast both Iran’s brutality and analysts with whom she doesn’t agree.
Her pinned tweet — which has been retweeted more than 8,000 times — accuses Mortazavi of fabricating the bomb threat at the University of Chicago. (In a call, a university spokesperson confirmed that there was a threat but declined to specify its nature. The college’s newspaper reported that it was a bomb threat, and the spokesperson did not dispute the report.) In another tweet, she accused Naraghi-Anderlini of “promoting the IRGC’s propaganda” and warned that “the day the truth comes out” would be “a sad and scary day in your life.”On the phone, Ebrahimi said she thought the pro-diplomacy camp was blowing the attacks out of proportion.
Ebrahimi also told me that she had received anonymous online threats, and that the harassment was not one sided. She sent over screenshots in which a then-employee of the National Iranian American Council — a dovish and controversial activist group — made fun of her English. The poster also accused Ebrahimi of being a “bootlicker” and a “bottom feeder.”Shahrooz also said he had received threats, and he objected to his treatment by analysts he disagrees with. He told me that he had been labeled a “warmonger” and a “child killer” for supporting strong sanctions.
The comments, he protested, were a bad-faith debate designed to “close the Overton window” — a social theory that posits people can shift the publicly acceptable range of policy options through aggressive and repetitive communication. The value of open debate and free speech is a theme of Shahrooz’s Twitter posts, one that exists alongside his invectives. In one tweet, for example, Shahrooz wrote that “the real test of your commitment to liberal democracy is the willingness to defend speech you hate. To stand up for the rights of your enemies.”In our call, I asked Shahrooz if his commitment to free speech was in tension with his surrounding posts, and in particular his invocation of the Third Reich.
He bristled. “Let’s dig into it, Daniel,” he said. “You’ve got a swastika-wearing Nazi. If I actually point out, ‘Oh hey, this person is actually a goddamn Nazi,’ is that somehow illiberal because it brings shame and anger upon the person? Or is that just a statement of fact?” His subjects, he argued, were being labeled accurately. “I think they’re the moral equivalent of Nazis,” he said. Shahrooz had a similar response when I asked him whether he felt responsible for some of the threats his opponents have faced, given his large social media following.“I condemn any sort of threat,” he said. But he argued that it was not irresponsible for him to “point out the truth.”
On Twitter and again during our call, Shahrooz even said he wanted his opponents to “tremble.”But the menace isn’t solely driven by individuals like him and Ebrahimi — in fact, the scale of harassment suggests plenty of the attacks do not come from people at all. Mortazavi, for example, was at one point being tagged by more than 55,000 accounts per day on Twitter, an astounding figure for a freelance journalist. Of those 55,000 accounts, at least 16,000 had little to no followers and were tweeting more than 100 times per day. One account was tweeting 1,600 times per day.
“There is artificial amplification,” said Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University and the author of Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East. Jones told me there is ample evidence that organized actors are using the internet to shape debates over Iran. In this case, it’s possible that at least some of these actors are funded directly by Tehran; U.S. intelligence officials have told Time Magazine that the Iranian government runs troll farms. Some of the attacks are likely funded by Iran’s enemies, too.
In April 2021, for example, Facebook removed hundreds of fake accounts linked to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial, belligerent Iranian opposition group based in Albania. And during the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department funded the Iran Disinformation Project: an opaque digital initiative that routinely called diplomacy supporters and journalists Iranian lobbyists.The initiative lost its grant after its Western targets complained it was using its platform to harass them, rather than sticking to criticizing Iran. The project’s Twitter handle has been inactive since 2019. But Mariam Memarsadeghi, the initiative’s reported founder, has been active online during the current protests, and she has not been shy about lambasting people she disagrees with. In October, she accused Mortazavi of fabricating the bomb threat.
The community’s journalists have also suffered from Tehran’s regime. Family members of Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American freelance journalist, have been harassed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. | Vahid Salemi/AP Photo
Plenty of the diaspora’s hardline attacks appear to be crafted by professionals and pushed out by bots. But there is a reason why large numbers of ordinary expats are also retweeting and sending out threats. Within the diaspora, trauma runs deep, and many members who have suffered because of the Iranian regime are understandably furious at the idea of Washington loosening its sanctions.But the community’s journalists and more dovish members have also suffered at the hands of Tehran. Hakimi’s uncle was executed by the Iranian government.
Several of Naraghi-Anderlini’s aunts and uncles were jailed. Mortazavi’s family has been harassed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. Fassihi was accused of being a U.S. spy by Iranian state media and cannot go back. The last time Sharifpour-Hicks went to Iran, she received an anonymous message in her hotel saying she was a CIA agent and would be killed. Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist who has written about the value of diplomacy, spent more than 500 days in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. Shahrooz nonetheless tweeted that Rezaian had developed “intense Stockholm syndrome.”
After talking to people who had been harassed, as well as to Shahrooz and Ebrahami, I came to the conclusion that the victims’ real offense is not that they support the Iranian government. It is not that they blame all of Iran’s problems on the West. It is certainly not that they oppose the protests. It is, instead, that they do not back maximalist positions over how the West should handle Tehran.What the West should do is, of course, a very difficult question. And made without rancor, the case against diplomacy is quite strong.
Between the protests, Iran’s weapons shipments to Russia, and how close the country is to obtaining nuclear weapons, restoring the nuclear agreement that offered Iran money in exchange for a pause in the program may ultimately do more harm than good. Tehran may also not be interested in diplomacy of any kind with Washington. In Iran, “the ultra-hardline of the ultra-hardline are at the helm,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (second from right) participates in an exhibition organized for National Nuclear Technology Day in Tehran, Iran on April 9, 2022. If U.S. government analysts are correct, the country could be capable of creating a workable nuclear bomb soon. | Iranian Presidency via Getty Images
But the case for diplomacy is compelling, too. The 2015 nuclear deal, after all, did halt Iran’s nuclear development until Washington withdrew. A new agreement could not roll back Iran’s program to 2015, but any pause would still have benefits. If U.S. government analysts are correct, the country could create weapons-grade uranium and figure out how to fit it inside a missile with just several months of time.
The result — a workable nuclear bomb — might make Iran feel secure enough to send conventional weapons it keeps at home to its overseas proxies. It could also embolden the regime, allowing it to become even more violent in responding to domestic protests.And ultimately, there may be no alternative to diplomacy that does not involve military force. Some analysts even fear that the harassment campaign is designed to pave the way for an attack.
“In the run-up to the Iraq war, the Iraqi exile community was either not well-positioned to try to add nuance to the policy debate or was in favor of U.S. military intervention,” Vaez said. The same is not yet true among diaspora Iranians. But with all the threats, Vaez worried it might be soon.
Hakimi, for her part, feels the tension between these two positions. “I don’t want them to have money to continue their bad activities, but I also don’t want them to get a nuclear weapon,” she said. “You’re kind of between a rock and a hard place.”Hakimi has shifted her position in recent months. The government’s cruel crackdown on the protests eventually led her to oppose diplomacy altogether. But she does not expect to join the hawks’ push for maximalist pressure anytime soon.
In fact, she’s not sure how much she can push for anything. The trolling, harassment and bombardment may have proven too much.“I’ve never been one looking for attention. I’ve never tried to build my personal brand,” she told me. “But I have always wanted to have an impact and to bring people together. I’ve always wanted to create change. And now I feel like I can’t.”