Iranian opposition activist Jamshid Sharmahd, a California-based member of an obscure exile opposition group that seeks to overthrow Tehran's Islamic regime, was traveling to India via Dubai in late July on a business trip for his software company, his son has told RFE/RL.
Instead, the 65-year-old Sharmahd of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, or Tondar, appeared blindfolded in an August 1 video clip on Iran's state-controlled television.
Iranian officials have linked him to a 2008 attack on a mosque in the city of Shiraz that killed 14 and wounded more than 200.
Iran's Intelligence Ministry said in a statement on August 1 that Sharmahd was detained and it accused him of having directed "armed operations and acts of sabotage" inside the country in the past. It added that he was the "ringleader" of what it called a "terrorist" group.
The statement also claimed Tondar, which means "thunder" in Persian, planned several high-profile attacks across the country, including blowing up a dam in Shiraz and detonating cyanide-laden bombs at Tehran's annual book fair.
Sharmahd's son, Shayan Sharmahd, told RFE/RL that his father had been captured "most likely in Dubai, transported to Oman, and taken to Iran." Shayan Sharmahd is in the film business in southern California.
He said that the family -- which includes his mother and sister -- had been able to track his father through Google Maps to Oman.
Shayan Sharmahd said his father had been trying to get to India for some time, but had been unable to travel there due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He added that his dad -- who is a German citizen but had been living in Glendale, California -- had been out of the United States since March.
The Intelligence Ministry’s statement did not say when and where Sharmahd had been detained. The ministry only said that Sharmahd's arrest was the result of a "complex operation" but did pledge to reveal more details at a later date.
Shayan Sharmahd said his family spoke to Jamshid Sharmahd via video chat on July 28.
After that, Sharmahd went silent and no longer responded to his family's text messages or phone calls. On July 31, the family received a text message from his phone number saying that he was alright and that he would contact them soon, his son said. The family is unsure if Jamshid wrote the message.
In an interview with state TV, Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi said Jamshid Sharmahd, whom he accused of having the support of U.S. and Israeli intelligence services, had been detained inside the country. He did not elaborate.
Iranian media and officials described Sharmahd as the leader of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran. But his family said he was only the spokesman of the little-known group, whose founder, Fatollah Manuchehri, known as Forud Fuladvand, disappeared along with two aides during a trip to Turkey in 2007.
Manuchehri was a filmmaker in Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The Javan daily newspaper, which is affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), had said earlier that Sharmahd had been detained in Tajikistan and transferred to Iran, a claim denied by the Tajik government in a statement to RFE/RL and by Sharmahd’s family.
Sharmahd used to speak to his followers on the group's radio and TV channel, where he was seen sitting at a desk in a dark room. The group does not appear to have a significant following inside Iran.
Tondar's Instagram page has only 2,333 followers and its YouTube channel has 979 subscribers. The group did not respond to RFE/RL's e-mail request for an interview.
Sending A Message
Sharmahd’s reported arrest follows the 2019 capture of Ruhollah Zam, the administrator of the opposition Amadnews Telegram channel that was accused by authorities of stirring up domestic dissent.
The channel posted information about upcoming protests, videos of protests, and damaging information about Iranian officials to its 1 million followers. During Iran's 2017 street protests, the channel reportedly also posted a video about how to make Molotov cocktails.
Zam -- who lived in Paris and was reportedly captured by the IRGC during a trip to Iraq and forcibly taken to Iran -- has been sentenced to death after being found guilty of "corruption on Earth."
The case raised questions about the reach of the Islamic republic's feared intelligence services, while highlighting Tehran's determination to silence dissent inside and outside the country.
Sharmahd’s publicized arrest appears to be aimed at sending a similar message at a time when Tehran faces unprecedented pressure due to crippling U.S. sanctions and a deadly coronavirus pandemic that has significantly decreased the country's exports and exacerbated its high unemployment and inflation figures.
"This is nothing but a show of force," New York-based analyst Roozbeh Mirebrahimi says, adding that Tehran is likely to use it for political purposes and to pressure opponents.
Following Sharmahd's reported detention, lawmaker Ebrahim Rezai was quoted by Iranian media as saying everyone should know that "the Islamic republic does not joke with anyone when it comes to its security."
Rezai warned that soon other "counterrevolutionaries," including New York-based anti-compulsory-hijab activist Masih Alinejad, who anchors a program on Voice of America (VOA), would "fall into the trap" of Iran’s intelligence agents.
Sharmahd, according to his son, suffers from an advanced stage of Parkinson's disease that requires timely medication. "We are extremely worried and in absolute shock that something like this could have happened," his son said, adding that the family had been in contact with German and U.S. authorities to push for Sharmahd's release.
The family has also posted a petition online calling for Sharmahd's immediate release.