Biden Aides Condemn 'Horrifying' Iran Execution Despite Nuclear Deal Hopes

Top foreign policy figures within President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration have condemned Iran's "horrifying" execution of a journalist accused of fomenting anti-government unrest, in a development that could signal trouble ahead for Biden's plan to re-establish dialogue with Tehran.

Iran executed journalist Ruhollah Zam, 47, who it accused of supporting mass protests against the regime in 2017. Zam had been living in exile in France until 2019, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bragged of having lured him back to Iran by way of Iraq.

Antony Blinken—nominated to be Biden secretary of state—and Jake Sullivan—nominated to serve as national security adviser—both condemned the killing on Twitter and vowed to hold Tehran to account for this and other abuses.

The 2017 protests in Iran, which stretched into 2018, represented the most pointed challenge to the theocratic regime since the 2009 Green Movement. Zam's AmadNews website and a Telegram channel he created spread details of planned protests and shared embarrassing information about regime officials.

Iranian state televisions described Zam as "the leader of the riots." When sentenced to death in June, a court said he was guilty of "corruption on Earth," a charge often leveled at those accused of trying to overthrow Iran's authoritarian government.

The execution has prompted broad international condemnation. Ambassadors from France, Germany, Austria and Italy withdrew from an Iranian online business forum scheduled for Monday. Paris had described Zam's sentence as "a serious blow to freedom of expression and press freedom in Iran."

Sullivan wrote on Twitter late Sunday: "Iran's execution of Ruhollah Zam, a journalist who was denied due process and sentenced for exercising his universal rights, is another horrifying human rights violation by the Iranian regime. We will join our partners in calling out and standing up to Iran's abuses."

Blinken simply retweeted Sullivan's statement, adding: "This."

The incoming Biden administration will have to juggle public condemnation of Iranian human rights abuses with its desire to reopen dialogue with Tehran and revive the beleaguered Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.

The new team will also have to dodge Republican accusations and internal Democratic concerns that engaging with Iran will encourage its abuses at home and abroad. Biden has said he will center his foreign policy platform on multilateralism and "American values" including human rights and democracy.

Biden's Iran goals will be complicated by the regime's continued move away from the JCPOA. Last month, the country's parliament passed a new measure ordering its nuclear agency to increase enriched uranium production and block international inspectors from nuclear sites.

The bill was a response to the assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on a country road outside Tehran in November. Iran has accused Israel of being behind the operation, and hinted the killing may have had U.S. support.

Iran began violating the JCPOA piecemeal when President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018. Tehran then said it would no longer abide by any elements of the deal after the Trump administration assassinated top commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January.

Iran's leaders have said they are open to returning to compliance with the JCPOA, but have demanded that Biden return the U.S. to full compliance first. Tehran has also vowed revenge for the Fakhrizadeh killing, and continues to promise retaliation for Soleimani's death.

Dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam executed by Iran
Ruhollah Zam, a dissident Iranian journalist executed on Saturday, speaks during his trial at Iran's Revolutionary Court in Tehran on June 2, 2020. ALI SHIRBAND/MIZAN NEWS/AFP via Getty Images/Getty