Was the imprisonment of Iranian-American journalist Marzieh Hashemi spun into expanded US sanctions?

The relationship between former Air Force analyst-turned-Iranian spy Monica Witt and Hashemi – who was jailed by US authorities this January – is at the center of one of the Trump administration’s most bizarre sanctions designations.

By Max Blumenthal

This is part two of a two part series on the impact of expanded US sanctions on Iran. Read part one here.

Disgusted by the atrocities she claimed to have witnessed in the US Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan, a counter-intelligence analyst named Monica Witt defected to Iran in 2013. She allegedly provided its intelligence services with classified information she had gathered over her career, and helped a team of hackers spearphish the social media accounts.

According to the US government, Witt’s defection was assisted by a US-born journalist, Marzieh Hashemi, who had also moved to Iran.

This January, Hashemi was arrested by US authorities while on her way to visit her son. The unexplained detention of a journalist and reports of mistreatment by her jailers sparked protest rallies outside the federal courthouse in Washington DC where her hearing took place.

Close observers of US-Iran relations were mystified by Hashemi’s arrest, speculating that she was being held to pressure Iran to release an unknown US citizen.

But soon after Hashemi returned to Iran, and as the media torpor over her jailing died down, the US Department of Justice publicized the previously secret indictment. The DOJ subsequently revealed that Hashemi was the “Individual A” who allegedly assisted Witt’s defection, acting as a “spotter and assessor” for Iran’s intelligence services.

The indictment further asserted that Witt “traveled to Iran for the purpose of attending the New Horizon Organization’s ‘Hollywoodism’ conference, an IRGC-sponsored event aimed at condemning American moral standards and promoting anti-U.S. propaganda.” (The IRGC is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the combined military and intelligence apparatus of Iran).

As The Grayzone detailed in part one of this series, New Horizon is a public media event held annually in Iran that has hosted anti-establishment Western intellectuals and anti-war activists seeking to bridge fractured US-Iranian relations, along with an array of more dubious conspiracy cranks.

Two weeks after Hashemi’s release from US custody, the co-founders of New Horizon, Zeina Mehanna and Nader Talebzadeh, were sanctioned by the US Treasury Department.

“I see no connection with my arrest and its organizers, thus I see no connection with my arrest and [New Horizon’s] sanctioning, except as a psychological game or psy-op by the US government,” Hashemi told The Grayzone.

She added, “The US always tries to play people against each other. This is nothing new.”

But Mehanna of New Horizon offered a strikingly different account. She described Hashemi as a close friend who had betrayed her and her husband, possibly while under duress, in order to secure her release from a possible long term jail sentence in the US.

“A few days after [Hashemi’s] arrival to Iran, we were sanctioned!” Mehanna exclaimed. “Go figure. A deal! Just connect the dots!”

Breaking into the Iranian scene as a “Wall Street Activist”

Whether or not the 2012 “Hollywoodism” conference had anything to do with Witt’s recruitment, it was there that Witt made her first public appearance in Iran.

Mehanna insisted that Witt had not been formally invited to participate in the “Hollywoodism” conference, and maintained that New Horizon did not sponsor the event. “It was Marzieh [Hashemi] who brought her,” Mehanna said.

For her part, Hashemi stated, “I am not sure if this individual was invited or not,” referring to Witt. “I saw her at the conference, but later I was told that she had already been here in Iran and just came to the conference.”

Invited or not, Witt was able to speak at the event, and was billed in conference literature published after the event as a “Wall Street Activist,” referring to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Witt’s entry from 2012 “Hollywoodism” conference literature

The former Air Force officer converted to Islam in a publicly broadcast ceremony, and gave an interview to Press TV, Iran’s state media company, during which she identified as a US military veteran.

New Horizon’s Mehanna fervently denied any connection between her conference and Witt’s espionage activities.

“Why should we be accused and sanctioned for something that we did not commit?” she exclaimed. “Ask any of our guests if they were approached by any IRGC member or asked to share any information related to security. The answer would be no!”

Michael Maloof, a former US Pentagon official who attended the conference in the name of fostering better relations with Iran, told The Grayzone that he was unable to detect any presence of IRGC recruiters at the event.

Maloof was nevertheless visited at his home this May by FBI agents asking questions about New Horizon.

Traumatized by “drone strikes, extrajudicial killings and atrocities against children”

The FBI wanted poster for Monica Witt

Following her first trip to Iran, Witt returned to the US in May 2012 to complete a graduate program at George Washington University. In DC, she was approached by FBI agents who warned her that she was a target for recruitment by a foreign intelligence agency.

She promised she would not discuss her work with the US Air Force if she ever traveled to Iran again.

A former classmate of Witt’s at George Washington told the New York Times that Air Force veteran was traumatized by US war crimes she had witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “She would talk about how she couldn’t sleep at night, the stuff she saw and was a part of,” the classmate said of Witt.

According to the Times, Witt “would mention drone strikes, extrajudicial killings and atrocities against children, all of which she claimed her colleagues in the military would brag about. She seemed distressed by what she called ‘gross incompetence’ by her superiors.”

By the time Witt returned to Iran the following year, dropping in on another “Hollywoodism” conference, she was on the path to defecting and forking over information she had gathered as an intelligence analyst. Helping her make the move was Hashemi, the journalist and US dual citizen, according to federal prosecutors.

“I was talking to people until about 2 in the morning about your case. I have several different channels working on it, but to be honest with one of them, he said they got suspicious that on one hand, you said u have no money, and on the other hand u r going from country to country,” Hashemi allegedly texted Witt.

The IRGC appeared initially suspicious of Witt, but eventually helped her obtain a visa through Iran’s embassy in Dubai. “I’m signing off and heading out! Coming home:),” Witt texted Hashemi on August 28, 2013, the day she defected.

Mehanna of New Horizon described Hashemi as Witt’s “handler.” The DOJ indictment referred to the Iranian-American journalist as a “spotter or assessor on behalf of the Iranian intelligence services.”

Hashemi rejected these characterizations. In a statement to The Grayzone, she declared:

“I am a journalism [school] graduate with decades of experience. I have interviewed people from around the world and maintained contact with many of them, just like any other journalist. I happen to be living and working in Iran. Journalism is not a crime. It is not being a spotter, nor a fixer, nor a pawn for US foreign policy.”

In Iran, Witt adopted a new identity as Fatemah Zahra. According to her indictment, she began collaborating with hackers to spearphish information from US intelligence agents she identified.

It was not until July 2018, almost five years since Witt slipped into Iran, that the US government issued a secret indictment against the former Air Force analyst.

In January of the following year, Hashemi took a trip to the US to visit members of her family. Unaware of the indictment of Witt, she headed straight into a US dragnet.

The arrest and interrogation of Hashemi

Marzieh Hashemi was born in Louisiana as Melanie Franklin in 1959. After meeting revolutionary Iranian students at age 22 and converting to Islam, she changed her name and moved to Iran during the early 1980’s.

In January 2019, Hashemi traveled to New Orleans to visit her family. Next, she headed to St. Louis to film a documentary about the Black Lives Matter movement. While she boarded a flight at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, on her way to meet her son, Hossein, in Denver, she was arrested by federal agents and immediately transported to Washington DC.

Initial reports on Hashemi’s arrest stated that she was a “material witness,” but offered no further information. Her son told the Associated Press, “we don’t have any information along those lines” when asked if she was being investigated in connection to any crime.

While in prison, Hashemi was unable to communicate with her family for four days. “While being held without charge, I was forced to remove my hijab and denied adequate clothing or food,” Hashemi told The Grayzone. “Similar treatment of other Americans has been found to be unlawful.”

It took ten days before Hashemi appeared in a courtroom, and by then, protests against her detention had erupted from Washington to Tehran.

“The FBI hates us”

On January 30, a week after her federal grand jury appearance and subsequent release from custody, Hashemi returned to a hero’s welcome in Tehran. Received on the tarmac by throngs of chanting supporters, the Press TV anchor held a press conference where she denounced “a campaign of disrespect and intimidation” in the US.

Among those waiting to welcome Hashemi back to Iran was Mehanna, the New Horizon co-founder.

“As I greeted [Hashemi] with warmth, since we were best friends, she whispers in my ear as we hugged, ‘The FBI hates us,” Mehanna recounted. “She added that eighty percent of the questions they [the FBI] asked her were about New Horizon! The rest were about Monica Witt and her connection to her.”

“When they asked her about Witt,” the New Horizon co-founder added, “she tried to deny everything. But they had evidence from her emails, WhatsApp messages, and phone calls that she had been in continuous contact with her.”

Hashemi confirmed that she had been grilled by the FBI about New Horizon: “I was asked about many subjects regarding Iran, and that conference was one of the subjects.”

According to Mehanna, her husband, New Horizon co-founder Talebzadeh, demanded Hashemi go public with the information about her interrogation. “She refused on the premise that it was part of the ‘sealed portion’ of Witt’s indictment,” Mehanna said.

On February 8, Witt’s indictment was unsealed. Department of Justice officials subsequently told members of the media that Hashemi was the “Individual A” referred to in the indictment as Witt’s “spotter.”

Five days later, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions on Mehanna and Talebzadeh, claiming that they “organize[d] international conferences that supported the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force’s (IRGC-QF’s) efforts to recruit and collect intelligence from foreign attendees, including US persons.”

The sanctions designation of the two New Horizon founders, a filmmaker and a writer, was accompanied by acronym, SDGT, or Specially Designated Global Terrorist. This meant that they would be tainted with a label traditionally reserved for members of violent extremist organizations like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Mehanna’s personal savings account was subsequently frozen in her home country of Lebanon as a result of the sanctions.

She now looks back on the episode – and Hashemi’s role in it – with anger.

“The irony is that Nader [Talebzadeh] and I get an SGDT status when we had nothing to do with Monica Witt, while the actual person who was Witt’s handler is free and undesignated,” Mehanna reflected. “Isn’t that a total farce?”