Iranian Journalist Says He is Claiming Asylum in Sweden After Accompanying Zarif on Diplomatic Mission

ISTANBUL (The Washington Post) -
Iranian journalist Amir Tohid Fazel.

A veteran Iranian journalist is claiming asylum in Sweden after traveling there with Iran’s foreign minister, then fleeing his government detail in what he says was a daring escape.

Amir Tohid Fazel, an editor at a conservative news agency, had accompanied Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Europe when he fled his hotel in Stockholm on Aug. 21, slipping out for a cigarette break and then dashing away on foot.

Fazel described the getaway in an interview with Sweden’s public broadcaster Monday, saying that surprise circumstances had forced him to flee. According to Fazel, he was traveling with Zarif when a colleague messaged him to say that plainclothes police had arrived at their agency’s offices in Tehran. The officers were carrying an arrest warrant for Fazel, he said.

“My colleague wanted me to tell my family, because he knew that I was not in Iran, so that they could leave the home,” he said in the interview, which the network said was conducted in a secret location.

He couldn’t sleep, he said, and eventually decided to flee last Wednesday, just after breakfast and before Zarif planned to speak at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a local think tank.

He ran for blocks before changing his clothes, ditching his SIM card and hailing a taxi to the nearest police station, he said. Now, Fazel, whose career has spanned decades and who has also been linked to Iran’s conservative hard-liners, is under fire from all sides.

Iran, according to press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, is one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists. According to the Paris-based organization, Iran’s government “exercises extensive control over the media landscape” and more than 800 journalists have been imprisoned or executed since 1979, when the Islamic republic was founded.

The news agency Fazel worked for — Moj — is tied to a former minister for ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative firebrand. And some of his fellow journalists say that he cozied up to powerful hard-liners, including in the security services.

A social media post that includes his name and photograph show images of him interviewing senior figures in Iran’s government, including Ahmadinejad and senior Iranian commanders.

Fazel, who also once worked for Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, traces his troubles to earlier this year, when he helped publish a list allegedly naming the members of President Hassan Rouhani’s government who have dual citizenship. It was an issue hard-line opponents of Rouhani, who is a moderate, wanted to use to portray the president and his Cabinet as potential traitors. They oppose his government’s push for dialogue with the West and were critical of the nuclear deal Rouhani and Zarif helped negotiate with world powers in 2015.

Fazel said in his interview with Swedish media that a member of Iran’s parliament had leaked him the list of alleged dual nationals and that the report probably put him in the crosshairs.

On Tuesday, the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, which is linked to Iran’s powerful supreme leader, called Fazel’s move to claim asylum a “betrayal.” It also described him as having ties to Iran’s pro-reform journalists and political figures.

“Everyone can decide for himself. No one knows what will happen in the future,” Fazel wrote on Twitter this week, in defense of his decision to defect.

In his interview Monday, he said that his wife, who is a schoolteacher, has already lost her job.

“I don’t know what will happen to them,” he said of his family.