The Wall Street Journal denied Iranian state media accusations that one of the newspaper's senior reporters spied and conspired against Iran's government.
The stories in the Iranian daily newspaper Kayhan and other outlets called Farnaz Fassihi a secret go-between for the Obama administration when it sought to make contact with the Iranian opposition Green Movement in 2009. The movement rose to prominence and sparked mass demonstrations following Iran’s disputed presidential election that year.
The allegations against Fassihi — a Journal correspondent in Iran and the Middle East between 2003 and 2014 who's currently based in New York — "are completely false, outlandish, and irresponsible," the newspaper said August 19.
“Fassihi is a highly accomplished, longtime Wall Street Journal senior writer who has reported fairly and accurately from the region for more than a decade,” said Gerard Baker, Editor in Chief of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Journal.
“Her reporting has been a model of courageous, fair and high-impact journalism. She has repeatedly risked her life and safety from the front lines of wars and uprisings to document the truth, which make these scurrilous allegations all the more galling.”
The accusations circulated in conservative media outlets in the Islamic Republic, after being published August 12 by Kayhan, which is considered a mouthpiece for Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Journal said the allegations appear to stem from an August 9 Forbes opinion piece that refers to a "Wall Street friend" of Senator Charles Schumer of New York who acted as a liaison between Iranian protesters and the U.S. government. Some media outlets in Iran "incorrectly and illogically" concluded the "Wall Street friend" meant The Wall Street Journal, it said.
"These same media outlets have also suggested that The Wall Street Journal is part of a conspiracy against Iran," the statement said. "These are transparently false allegations."
A spokesman for Schumer, Matt House, said, “The account in the Forbes opinion piece that is the basis for these accusations simply never happened.”
The author of the Forbes piece, conservative scholar Michael Ledeen, said that Fassihi wasn’t the go-between, whom he had described in the article as a man, and that the Journal wasn’t involved.
“There was no Wall Street Journal connection of any sort, of any kind,” said Ledeen, who is an occasional contributor to the Journal’s editorial page.
It was the second time in the last year that Iran has impugned a foreign correspondent of an American newspaper.
The Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian, has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a year on espionage charges. The newspaper, the U.S. government, and major press freedom organizations around the world have denounced the case and called for Rezaian's release.
Iran’s leadership has been particularly distrustful of outside journalists who, like Rezaian and Fassihi, are of Iranian descent. In particular, Iranian officials worry that dual nationals can talk to regular Iranians and explain the differences between the people and the regime, said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.
“The threat for dual nationals is very enormous” when it comes to covering Iran, said Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist who has written for American publications, including Politico and the Daily Beast.
The Kayhan article said that because of her dual nationality, Fassihi “could come and go covertly and as an ordinary citizen.”
Several conservative Iranian outlets followed the Kayhan article with stories the next day, including a website linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps. The guard site's article said Fassihi “has a long history of anti-Iranian activities and has written over one hundred articles against Iran and our national security in The Wall Street Journal.”
It added: “We conclude that The Wall Street Journal has been turned into the headquarters of a soft revolution against our country.”
Tehran’s prosecutor’s office also carried a story about the allegations on its website, and said the Journal was the liaison between the opposition and Washington.
Fassihi categorically denied the allegations, which she called outrageous.
“I have watched with horror and dismay as these false allegations against me have circulated in Iranian media. I am a journalist. My independence and reputation are sacred to me,” she said.
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, where Fassihi spent the last academic year as a 2015 Nieman Fellow, condemned the attacks on Fassihi, which it said were "false and completely without merit."
With reporting by AP and Wall Street Journal