Iran’s ‘Khashoggi’: Where’s the outrage over the death of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani?


An exiled dissident in Istanbul from an oil-rich Islamic theocracy was summoned to contact his home country’s embassy. Not long after, agents carrying diplomatic passports from said country directed his assassination. No, this is not the case of the late Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, but that of the Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani. Though the details of the cases are similar, the fallouts could not be more different. Much of the Western commentariat has given the Islamic Republic a pass, a double standard underscoring how politicized the human-rights cause has become. Many of President Trump’s detractors have subscribed to the old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” at the peril of U.S. interests and values.

For years, Khashoggi worked for the Saudi royal family through its media group and for Saudi intelligence. In 2005, he moved to Washington for a few years to be an adviser to the kingdom’s ambassador and then returned to Saudi Arabia. When King Salman rose to power, Khashoggi, accused of supporting the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, had a falling out with the royal family and in 2017 left for the United States. He began writing Washington Post columns often critical of the Saudi government. They were sometimes shaped by the Qatar Foundation International — Doha has been in an intense cold war with Riyadh for years. Turkish investigators say that in October 2018, Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents inside the Istanbul consulate.

Jamal Khashoggi’s murder ignited the world’s ire. From Istanbul to Berlin, London to New York, rallies formed outside Saudi offices demanding “Justice for Jamal.” In Washington, a section of New Hampshire Avenue where the Saudi embassy sits was renamed “Jamal Khashoggi Way.” Western governments, nongovernmental organizations, and pundits demanded punishment for the killing. United Nations chief Antonio Guterres called for a “prompt, thorough and transparent investigation” and “full accountability for those responsible.” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s ambitious initiative to overhaul the kingdom’s economy faltered as foreign investors fled and Western executives backed out of his “Davos in the desert.” Saudi Arabia’s reputation remains tarnished to this day.                                                          

The most strident response came from U.S. lawmakers. Congress passed several resolutions to halt military sales to the kingdom and cut American support for the Saudi-led war against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. While President Trump vetoed all such measures, the administration did impose sanctions on some Saudi officials in connection with Khashoggi’s killing.

Like Khashoggi, Vardanjani once worked for his government. He reportedly was a cybersecurity official in the Iranian Defense Ministry before moving to Turkey in 2018. From Istanbul, he became a vocal critic of the regime, running a channel on the Telegram messaging app where he hurled corruption charges against Tehran’s military and political leaders: “I will root out the corrupt mafia commanders. Pray that they don’t kill me before I do this,” the Iranian activist posted three months before his death.

On Nov. 14, 2019, Vardanjani was shot to death while walking with a friend in Istanbul’s affluent Sisli district. Unbeknownst to the dissident, his “friend” actually was an undercover Iranian agent and the leader of a killing squad, according to the Turkish police report

The international community largely has remained silent about Vardanjani’s killing. Where are the human-rights champions who protested so loudly on Khashoggi’s behalf? Although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out, there have been no condemnations from global leaders, international organizations or columnists. The Wall Street Journal did write an editorial when his death was reported, but few other Western publications followed suit. Since Reuters published a report in late March confirming Iran’s involvement and further details from the Turkish investigation, mainstream media outlets have appeared uninterested in the case. 

Instead, many publications are filled with opinion pieces urging Washington to dial down the pressure on Tehran. Progressive lawmakers including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) are pushing the administration to relieve sanctions given how hard Iran has been hit by COVID 19, which is surely more the product of the regime’s own mendacity and mismanagement than it is U.S. sanctions.  

The same month the Islamic Republic apparently took Vardanjani’s life, it also took the lives of perhaps as many as 1,500 Iranians protesting against the regime. Many of these civilians appear to have died by indiscriminate fire. Even the Saudi crown prince hasn’t ordered people to be gunned down in the streets of Riyadh. There is a perverse moral imbalance at work among so many critics of the Trump administration who want to see sanctions lifted on Iran’s theocracy.  They really ought to ask themselves whether Vardanjani’s life is worth less than Khashoggi’s. 

Eliora Katz is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @eliorakatz.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Ilhan Omar Iran Iranian Defense Ministry Istanbul Jamal Khashoggi Masoud Molavi Vardanjani Mike Pompeo Reactions to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi

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