A central figure in what is supposed to be a vast international conspiracy to overthrow the Iranian regime has been officially invisible until now. The information he provided has been key to the confabulations presented in the Stalinesque show-trials in Tehran. An American scholar, a British embassy employee, a prominent economist, and leading members of former Iranian governments have been given long jail sentences. A young French researcher now languishes under house arrest in her country's Tehran embassy, and Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari passed four grueling months, mostly in solitary confinement, before finally he was released. All because of their alleged roles in the surreal narrative presented by the regime. Yet the key witness is described by the lead prosecutor only as "this arrested spy, whose name we do not mention out of security considerations."
Credibility problems are the more likely reason. In truth, we know who this guy is, and he's not the kind of character that even the hallucinatory conspiracy theorists of Tehran should want to build a case around. The regime's description of the so-called spy's travels, contacts, and opinions make it unmistakably clear that he's the mercurial, maddening Hossein Derakhshan, a.k.a. Hoder, a.k.a. The Blogfather. He is the man who started the Persian-language explosion on the Web in the earlier part of this decade that led directly to the blogging, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube phenomenon that helped bring huge protests into Iran's streets last June and get the protesters' message to the outside world. Yet without Derakhshan—or at least without what he's alleged to have said and what he previously posted on the Web—the Iranian regime, even by its own lights, would not have much of a story to tell.
When the trial of some 110 defendants began on August 1, the Tehran Aide to the Deputy Revolutionary Attorney General Abdor-Reza Mojtaba, as the prosecutor is called, laid out the ostensible plot against the government in great detail. Hostile powers supposedly conspired with former members of the Iranian government and members of the press to create a "velvet revolution" aimed at overthrowing the current Iranian regime just as "color revolutions" overthrew governments in Ukraine and Georgia.
There was no real popular discontent. No. The reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was "beautiful and glorious," said Mojtaba, while the alien plot to discredit it was utterly nefarious. And to bolster his argument, he had several defendants who had been held incommunicado for weeks "confess" that they might have played a role in the great conspiracy, even if they didn't know it at the time.
But it's the testimony of the unseen "spy" that really pulled the prosecution's narrative together. He was quoted talking about travels from Holland to Boston to Israel over the past few years, touching base with major figures who promote nonviolent resistance to dictatorships around the world.
Since the spy's itinerary and Derakhshan's were precisely the same (he even posted Tel Aviv as one of his 10 favorite cities on his Facebook page), there was speculation from the start that he might be the mystery witness. Reporters Without Borders raised the issue tentatively from day one of the trial. But the circumstances leave no real room for doubt about his identity. When I checked with several of those named by the prosecution as people the so-called spy contacted, they said Derakhshan is the man. What is not so clear is whether he was spying against the regime, or for it, or, indeed, at all.
A Canadian-Iranian citizen, Derakhshan disappeared into the clutches of the security services in Tehran in early November 2008. But even before that, many of his erstwhile apostles had come to believe he'd gone over to the dark side, joining forces with those opposing freedom rather than building it. (More on that later.) Not until almost a year after his arrest did his family make any effort to speak out and demand his release. It is not clear whether they thought his cooperation with the regime would result in his liberation (most prisoners do cooperate one way or another, and Derakhshan may well have been tortured), or whether they thought they had connections that might help, or whether they were simply respecting Derakhshan's expressed wish to let Iranian justice run its course when he thought that justice might treat him leniently. But now they are calling on the Canadian government to try to help, and even people who have been attacked by him are saying that, until Derakhshan is allowed out to tell his own story, we are not going to begin to get close to the truth.
I first met "Hoder" in Tehran in 2000 when he was a tech columnist for a reformist newspaper. Later, I followed his career and his blog posts as he moved to Canada and traveled around the world. Personable, funny, and a dedicated if penurious bon vivant, he tried to make a little extra money at first by publishing anonymously a Web site called Belluccistan.info, with lots of soft-porn pictures of the eponymous Italian actress. His YouTube channel, Hoderstan, told us he was "into post-structuralist theory, leftfield music, Thai coconut soup, Persian Tahdeeg, and wine from Borgogne [sic]."
An indefatigable self-promoter, Derakhshan gloried in his status as the man who wrote the first how-to manual on blogging in Persian. And by the middle of the decade, he was much in demand for conferences, panels, and TV talk shows about the media. He made many contacts in the international blogging community. He was lionized in books such as Nasrin Alavi's We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Soft Skull Press, 2005).
Back then, I reported on Derakhshan's activities and ideas several times, including one column written after he dropped by the Newsweek Paris bureau. And I was struck by his nuanced view of what role the United States might, or might not, play helping Iran to democratize. He said he was terrified that the Bush administration would attack his homeland, and he thought he had a better idea, which he wrote about in early 2006:
In 2007, in what seemed a daring move for a subject of the Islamic Republic, Derakhshan broke Iranian law and traveled to Israel, blogging all the way. On his Facebook page, under a picture of him standing in front of the Dome of the Rock, Derakhshan wrote, "This is not a montage. I was really there." He also really did meet with precisely the same people that "the secret witness" says he met with, including former Israeli intelligence officer Yigal Carmon, founder of the U.S.-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which translates politically sensitive articles from the Arabic and Persian press.
"The guy indeed visited us," Carmon told me in an e-mail. "He reported on that meeting on his blog. It wasn't the most accurate report of a meeting I've seen in my life. But I didn't have too many expectations. ... Indeed, I told him about our flagship project—'Reform in the Arab and Muslim World' (which he could anyway see if he had even just skimmed our sites). Indeed, our goal is to amplify the voice of liberals/reformists/progressives in the Arab and Muslim world."
Yet by the time Derakhshan went to Israel, his posts were becoming increasingly and almost incongruously hostile to Iran's reformers—precisely the people with whom he originally identified. It is hard to know precisely why that was. There may have been pressure on his family in Iran. He may have been suborned in some way. Or he may have believed, as he told me the last time I saw him face to face in early 2008, that Iran's enemies were simply more dangerous for its people than its regime. The Bush administration was the big problem, but very quickly almost anyone who criticized Ahmadinejad was portrayed by Derakhshan as a pawn of the Bushies.
Some of his longtime acquaintances think he may have outsmarted himself, believing that—after a meteoric career writing from abroad in which he visited Israel, insulted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insulted the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, and readily acknowledged his taste for forbidden alcohol (whether from Burgundy or elsewhere)—he could reverse course so radically that the regime would welcome him back and he could live and work in Tehran once more. "When he said he was going to Iran, I was scared," says Nikahang Kowsar, another Canadian-Iranian blogger who had several run-ins with Derakhshan. "Whatever he had done to me and others, I didn't want anything to happen to him."
A little over a year ago Derakhshan decided he would take the plunge and went back home. Family members have said in recent interviews that they thought he expected at most a brief jail term for his visit to Israel. "He knew he would be arrested, knew he would face a trial," his younger brother Hamed told the Canadian Broadcasting Company. But Derakhshan did not think he would "be in prison for one year without a trial, without a lawyer, without charges."
Derakhshan's acquaintances and contacts, including many he had offended, followed his case as closely as they could. In April this year, blogger Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center at Harvard, posted an item about "my old friend, Hossein Derakhshan." He noted that Ahmadinejad, out of the blue, it seemed, had publicly asked the prosecutors to "protect the rights" of American journalist Roxana Saberi, a prisoner-hostage of the regime, and also of Derakhshan. Saberi was released a couple of weeks later. But not Derakhshan.
In the first installment of the Tehran show trial on Aug. 1, Prosecutor Mojtaba talked at some length about Zuckerman, the Berkman Center, and its Global Voices program for bloggers in developing countries. The unnamed spy is quoted as saying he participated in its first meeting at Harvard, and describes Zuckerman as someone who "has worked hard on using the Internet for soft coups in various countries and also has ties with American security-intelligence institutes."
"We're aware of the testimony of the 'spy,' who we agree appears to be Hossein," Zuckerman messaged me on Facebook. "Global Voices and Berkman both deny that we have any involvement with any plots to destabilize the government of Iran. Global Voices is, as it has been since inception, in the business of providing support to citizen media and online freedom of expression, not regime change.
"There are aspects of the testimony that align closely with reality." Zuckerman continued. "Hossein participated in the first meeting of Global Voices in November 2004, hosted by the Berkman Center." Just as the prosecutor said he did. Zuckerman and his organization, however innocent their motives and actions, had been sucked into the Iranian fantasy.
The core irony in all this, of course, is Iran's Blogfather describes nothing that would be, for you or me, a crime. Only a regime as introverted, unworldly, and uncertain as Ahmadinejad's could believe in the conspiracy theory that's been pumped up in the Iran show trials. But probably that fact is of little consolation to the scores of people enduring the nightmare fantasy that continues in Tehran's courts and prisons—among them, I believe, the Blogfather himself.