Iran recently publicized its capture of an exiled (in France) critic, Rouhollah Zam, and accused him of spying for Israel. Zam was the founder of AMAD (Awareness, Struggle, And Democracy in Farsi) news. What upset the Iranian government was that AMAD specialized in reporting details of corruption inside Iran. AMAD was particularly effective at identifying senior government officials, and their families, and describing how these families were living luxurious lives because of specific corrupt practices. AMAD provided details and it was obvious that Zam had inside information. AMAD did have a network of informants inside Iran. To safeguard his informants Zam used encrypted Internet communications to get the information out of Iran.
The government has devoted many of its Internet hacking personnel to find ways to get past the encryption and has had some success. But as long as Zam was a free man, AMAD was still an active threat to the government. In October Zam was captured when he was lured to Iraq to get information from informants who were reluctant to use the Internet. Zam was warned that this was probably a trap and it was. He “disappeared” in Iraq and shortly thereafter showed up on Iranian TV as a “captured spy.” AMAD’s role in exposing corruption was not mentioned, rather ZAM was accused of spying for Israel and AMAD was described as a creation of France, the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies.
Iranians who knew of AMAD did not believe this, but that was not the point. The government boasted of having identified and arrested Iranians providing information to AMAD. Few names were mentioned, indicating that few imagined foreign spies were unmasked. In the past the government has accused rival politicians, especially those active in criticizing corruption, of working for AMAD. The point of all this was to discourage Iranians from passing on evidence of corruption to foreign news organizations, who would publicize it and that would get back to many Iranians who regularly use the Internet to find what is really happening in the world, and inside Iran.
Catching Zam and disrupting AMAD is nothing new. The Iranian religious dictatorship has, since it took power in the 1980s, been infamously eager to take extreme measures to silence Iranian critics who live outside the country. This often included assassinations carried out by agents of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Quds Force. Quds is similar to the American Special Forces except that Quds helps establish pro-Iran militias and agents in foreign countries. Sometimes these foreign agents are used for assassinations or kidnappings. In Iraq, Quds can operate rather freely and probably handled the entrapment as well as kidnapping Zam in Iraq and getting him back across the border to Iran. Lately, Iran has backed off on the use of death squads after some of those agents were caught and European nations threatened retaliation. But less fatal operations continue and do not reflect well on the clerical rulers of Iran.
Inside Iran, popular protests against the government have been going on since late 2017 and even some elected officials, who are screened first by the senior clerics, are criticizing their government for trying to ignore or suppress some very real grievances. Most of the protestors are Iranians suffering economically. Most protestors blame the increasingly obvious government corruption. The government response has been to set up a special anti-corruption court and trying obvious cases of corruption, but only non-government corruption.
The most flagrant and hated corruption is found among the families of the senior clergy. These are the people who run the country and the IRGC, which protects the ruling clerics from the wrath of the Iranian people. Despite that, the anti-corruption court is finding and prosecuting some major offenders. Over forty have been sentenced to long prison terms and several have been executed. None of the prosecuted or executed were among the inner circle of corrupt clerics or their family members. Those punished tend to be critics of the government who forgot which side they were on.
The government has been particularly eager to shut down those who provide damaging evidence of corruption by kin of the senior clerics. For example, in December 2018 someone put a recent photo on the Internet that showed Ahmad Khomeini, the great-grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini (the founder of the Iranian religious dictatorship) wearing expensive Western clothes and in the company of a female polo player. Ahmad Khomeini insisted the photo was stolen from a friend and uploaded to embarrass his father, Hassan Khomeini, one of the fifteen grandsons of the Ayatollah who had become too reformist for the ruling Guardians Council and was barred from running for election to the Assembly of Experts. This Assembly elects new Guardians Council members to replace those who have died. Hassan Khomeini is like his grandfather and lives simply but his children, like many of the descendants of the Ayatollah, exploit their family connection to get rich via corrupt practices. Ahmad Khomeini is now being called a luxury agazadeh, a derisive term for members of senior cleric families. This corruption is no secret but wealthy clerical families make an effort to not flaunt it, especially when the economy is doing poorly and most Iranians are suffering.
This problem became more acute by the late 1990s. By then Iran's economy had become similar to that of medieval Europe. Back then, the Roman Catholic Church owned about a third of the real estate in Europe, the result of centuries of donations to various church institutions. Thousands of churches shrines and monasteries had endowments, usually land, and serfs obliged to work it. This wealth could not be taxed, and eventually, greedy kings, or needy parliaments, seized the church lands, so that today the Roman Catholic Church is a very minor factor in the European economy. Not so in Iran, where pious Iranians were urged to donate property to Islamic institutions. As a result, by 2008 over 70,000 mosques, shrines and religious schools owned more than a third of the economy, paid no taxes, and even had their own army (the IRGC). Not all this property was donated, some was simply taken.
There's one big difference between medieval Europe and contemporary Iran. About a thousand years ago, to prevent clergy from passing church property on to their children, the Roman Catholic clergy were forbidden, henceforth, to marry. This was never imposed on Moslem clergy and in Iran, the families of clergy have a monopoly on jobs, and business decisions, within the religious portion of the economy. All those assets are there to serve, first and foremost, the clergy and their families. This has not gone unnoticed. Before the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the religious assets were much smaller and were supervised by government officials. The clergy did not like this at all, and that supervision was quick to disappear once the monarchy was gone. Another post-Shah change was that, rather than wait for pious Iranians to donate property to religious institutions, the clergy seized the assets of wealthy "enemies of the state" and turned the goodies over to religious institutions. The clergy try to portray themselves as pious stewards of these assets.
The truth is less savory, and is not invisible. All that PR and propaganda just enrage the population more. A growing number of people from these wealthy clerical families are trying to reform the system before there is yet another civil war, something Iranians have been noted for since antiquity. Such an uprising now would rip the country apart and probably leave Iranians worse off than they are now. These reformers believe that the violence could be triggered by something like photos of a luxury agazadeh enjoying the company of immodest women and polo ponies.
It should be no surprise that many of the current protestors are calling for a return of the monarchy. In part that is because nothing irritates the religious dictatorship irritates the clerics more than calling for a return of the monarchy. The Shia clerics led a revolution that enabled them to oust the monarchy in 1979 and then take over the government in the 1980s. The current generation of Iranians has no actual experience living under the monarchy but it is clear from photos, videos and whispered confirmation from their elders that life was better under the monarchy even though there was still corruption, favoritism and secret police. In short, the Shah (emperor) was never as crazy as the current religious dictatorship. It is telling that the overseas Iranians, whose numbers have grown enormously since the 1980s, are organizing to support another revolution and many of the exiled aristocracy are involved, including the children of the last shah.