By RFE RL
By Golnaz Esfandiari*
(RFE/RL) — Ruhollah Zam’s father, a cleric who served as the head of Iran’s state propaganda agency in the 1980s, named him after the leader of the 1979 revolution and the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But as an adult, Zam turned against the clerical establishment that was created by his infamous namesake.
Zam’s opposition activities — including his popular Amadnews Telegram channel with its more than 1 million followers — cost him his life as Iranian officials accused the channel of fomenting violence during the December 2017-January 2018 mass protests.
Zam, who chose for himself the name Nima instead of Ruhollah, was hanged on December 12 after being convicted on the vague charge of “corruption on Earth.” The criminal charge is used against dissidents, spies, and for those who attempt to overthrow the Islamic establishment.
Zam was 42 years old.
In 2019, Zam was reportedly lured — under unclear circumstances — to Iraq from Paris, where he was living in exile. He was believed to have been captured by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and taken to Iran where he was put on a trial and sentenced to death.
Zam is just one of a number of sons and daughters of the Islamic republic who have rebelled against the system that was created by their fathers.
Zam, who openly said he was working to take down the Islamic establishment that he accused of “robbing the country,” is believed to be the only one of those offspring who has been executed recently.
His father, Mohammad Ali Zam, was not successful in protecting him from authorities or preventing his execution. The cleric wrote on Instagram that his son was even unaware that his death sentence had been upheld on appeal when the father and son met one day before he was hanged.
Other prominent “rebels” include Khomeini’s oldest grandson, Hossein Khomeini, who used to be a vocal critic of what he considered the repressive system founded by his grandfather.
In media interviews, he accused Iranian leaders of oppressing the people and violating human rights.
Khomeini traveled to the U.S. in 2003 where he announced that Iranians want democracy and freedom while adding they have realized that religion should be kept separate from the state.
He returned to Iran with his family in 2005 and was put under temporary house arrest in the holy city of Qom, according to some reports, but was not prosecuted.
Media reports later suggested the restrictions had been lifted after his prominent relatives mediated on his behalf. In 2018, a Tehran University professor posted a photo with Hossein Khomeini writing the Islamic republic founder’s grandson was “busy teaching and discussing” in Qom.
No Chip Off The Old Block
The eldest son of former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai was also critical of the Iranian establishment. Ahmad Rezaei moved to the United States in 1988 where he blasted the clerical establishment in media interviews, accusing it of carrying out “terrorist attacks.”
He returned to Iran in 2005 but did not face prosecution. Six years later he was found dead in a Dubai hotel. Some reports suggested that he had died of “an overdose of medicine.”
Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of one of the founders of the Islamic republic, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has also become an outspoken critic of the establishment.
She has warned that the system her father helped create has been weakened and could face collapse. She has also said Iranian leaders have been “misusing” Islam to push their agenda forward.
In a 2018 interview, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani said that “intimidation” and “fear” were the main things propping up the Islamic regime.
She has been briefly detained a few times. In 2012, she was given a six-month jail term for “spreading propaganda against the system,” a charge often brought against critics and intellectuals.
In 2016, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani created controversy when she visited a former cellmate, a leader of the Baha’i community that has faced state persecution since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The meeting was described by powerful clerics as “despicable” and against norms amid calls for her prosecution. Her father was also critical of the meeting, describing the Baha’i faith that originated in Iran as a “deviant sect.” She later said in an interview that she didn’t regret the meeting.
The division within families began in the early years of the revolution when some of the sons and relatives of Islamic republic officials joined groups such as the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), which carried out a number of deadly attacks in the 1980s and later sided with Iraq during the bloody 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
Among them is Hossein Jannati, one of the sons of the head of the powerful Guardians Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who is also the chairman of the Assembly of Experts. That group is tasked with overseeing the work of the country’s supreme leader and choosing his successor.
According to some reports, Hossein Jannati was killed in clashes with security forces in 1981. His brother, former Culture Minister Ali Jannati, said in a 2017 interview that Ayatollah Jannati never expressed any grief over the death of his son, but adding: “he must definitely be very upset” over his fate.
Another prominent case of a son straying from the views of his father is the son of the former Friday Prayers leader of Orumyeh, Gholam Reza Hassani, a member of the leftist Fedayin Khalq organization.
In his 2005 memoirs, Hassani described how he helped authorities arrest his son, Rashid, in the 1980s. Rashid was executed shortly after his arrest.
Hassani said he wasn’t saddened when he heard the news of Rashid’s execution because he felt he had carried out his duty.
“When it comes to the Islamic Revolution, I will never balk at my duties, even if it comes to my son,” he said.
- Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL.