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Spy for Us or Else: Aras Amiri

May 17, 2019
Shahed Alavi
5 min read
Aras Amiri has been handed down a 10-year sentence
Aras Amiri has been handed down a 10-year sentence
Aras Amiri and her family
Aras Amiri and her family

There’s an edict based on Islamic jurisprudence that says spying on infidels is condoned, and can even result in the spy being rewarded for his or her efforts. Over the years, this edict has been reiterated by various religious officials to justify certain judicial decisions. 

“For the Muslims, spying against the infidel is allowed and, according the assertion of some, the spy gets a share of the spoils” [Persian link], a translation of the edict reads.

The edict, based on the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence or the “Sunna,” not only allows a Muslim to spy on the enemy, it encourages him to do so by promising him a share in the plunders of war even though he has not been directly engaged in the fight. Although this and other edicts of the Sunna are not part of the Koran — they are based on the words of the Prophet Mohammad — they can hold as much authority as the Koran, though they are also open to interpretation. In relatively recent times, this view has been repeated by, among others, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the one-time designated successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In his book The Jurisprudential Foundations of the Islamic Government, he stated that it was not only a choice that is “allowed,” but a necessity [Persian link]. And this “necessity” was later confirmed by Khomeini himself who said: “Spying to protect Islam and the Muslim people is a religious duty” [Persian link]. And, he added, if a particular act is a religious duty, then dereliction of this duty is subject to punishment.

For many years now, security and intelligence agencies of the Islamic Republic have been responsible for identifying dereliction in this regard. Those found guilty of refusing to spy, including a number of Iranians with dual nationalities or Iranians who reside in foreign countries, have received heavy punishments.


Aras Amini, who has lived in the UK for a decade and is an employee of the British Council, a British organization specializing in international cultural and educational opportunities, was arrested on March 14, 2018, only five days after she returned to Iran to visit her elderly grandmother. She was released on bail after 68 days but on September 7, 2018, she was summoned, arrested again and sent to Evin Prison. On May 13, 2019, Gholamhossein Esmaili, a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary, announced on state television that a woman with links to Britain had been sentenced to 10 years in prison after confessing to espionage. Although he declined to give her name, media reports have named the woman as Aras Amiri.

“Before she was arrested, the Intelligence Ministry summoned her and asked her to give them information about the activities of the British Council,” Amiri’s cousin Mohsen Omrani told IranWire. “They told her that she would get paid for her cooperation but Aras told them that she did not have access to any information and could not work with them. Aras was summoned a few times more and pressured with threats and promises. Each time she rejected their offer and eventually they stayed true to their threats by arresting Aras and indicting her on trumped-up charges.”


Evolution of Charges

Originally Mohsen Omrani had tweeted that Aras Amiri had at first been charged with conspiracy against national security but then it was changed to membership to an illegal organization. Now the judiciary spokesman has stated that the charge against her is espionage. “Neither during the investigation, nor in the indictment and not even during the trial was there was any mention of espionage. The judiciary spokesman is making it up,” Omrani told IranWire.

Without explicitly naming Amiri, Gholamhossein Esmaili said that she had used contacts with arts and theater groups to "influence and infiltrate" Iran at a cultural level. Omrani says that these charges are baseless and the events that Aras worked on had all taken place in the UK and not in Iran. In addition, all the events had been organized with the knowledge and the permission of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. “How can you spy against Iran or infiltrate the country by organizing exhibits of Iranian artworks or artistic programs for an Iranian group in London?” said Omrani. “If any infiltration had taken place it was Iran that ‘infiltrated’ the UK and not the other way around.”

According to the judiciary spokesman, Aras Amiri had “repeatedly visited Iran under an assumed name and during investigations into the legal case against her she clearly confessed [to espionage] and the court sentenced her to 10 years in prison.” But Amiri’s cousin told IranWire that Amiri only had an Iranian passport and has no other nationality. He said she could not have traveled with any other passport or under any other name. “The second point about the name,” said Omrani, “is that, according to the regulations of the British Council, in internal exchanges she was called Aras Amiri Khatami, Khatami being the family name of her mother. But it was only used there [at the British Council] and it was not a ‘second’ name.”

According to Mohsen Omrani, during her 10 years living in Britain, she had visited Tehran numerous times, but she had never imagined that she would find herself in such a predicament. “All Aras’ activities were aboveboard and had permission from the Ministry of Culture. When Aras was out on bail she told me that she had pointed out these facts to her interrogators but the interrogators told her that the Ministry of Culture had been wrong in issuing the permits.”

As we shall see in other reports in this series, Aras Amiri is not the only person who has received a heavy prison sentence for refusing to spy for an Iranian security agency.


Read others in the series: 

Spy for Us or Else: Ahmad Reza Jalali

Spy for Us or Else: Hamid Babaei and Omid Kokabee

Spy for Us or Else: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe



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