“Iran must be treated like Russia”: Daughter of abducted dissident sentenced to death in Iran urges change of strategy

German national Jamshid Sharmhad was hijacked by Iranian agents in Dubai in 2020. His daughter Gazelle is campaigning for his release and urges Europe to take a tougher line with the Islamic Republic.
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Ms. Sharmahd, your father Jamshid Sharmahd was kidnapped in Dubai in 2020. Why did the Iranian government go to such great lengths to hijack him?

My dad was a dissident and critic of the Islamic regime for 16 years, and during those 16 years, they’ve tried to assassinate him here, on US soil. And he would not have travelled anywhere near these countries because people have been abducted and assassinated there by agents of the regime.

My dad is a software engineer, he was on a business trip to India, so he booked a flight from Frankfurt to Mumbai in India via Dubai. As his onward flight in Dubai was cancelled, which was very common during the COVID-pandemic where flights would be cancelled or rerouted at any moment, he found himself stranded in Dubai for a couple of days. When my family found out that he was there, we all freaked out, and my dad opened up his Google tracker for us to see where he is and to give us some assurance that he’s going to be okay. But he was not okay.

68-year-old German citizen Jamshid Sharmahd has been sentenced to death in Iran. Photo: Private gallery

That was the last time we were able to talk to him for a long time. We could see on Google Maps that he was being moved, not towards India, but towards the coast of Oman. And that’s where the tracker stopped. The next day, the Islamic regime released a video of him where we see him blindfolded with a swollen face and forced to confess things that he had not done.

We weren’t even sure if he’d survive this kidnapping. It took us two months until we got a sign of life. The minister of intelligence in Iran announced that they had taken my dad in a “complex operation”. That’s what they called it – in other words, openly announcing to the world that they had kidnapped him.

Were you able to speak with him since his abduction?

During the first year following his abduction, he was allowed to have a few phone calls with the family, but all of these calls were completely supervised. Guards were sitting right next to him, checking every word he said. They were ready to break off the phone call at any time if anything problematic was asked or if he tried to pass us information. So, we had to read between the lines. These phone calls did not happen because the regime is so humane. The intention was to threaten us, to get us to cooperate with the Islamic regime. They were looking for ways to incriminate my dad.

For example, they dictated me a letter that I was supposed to write on my dad’s computer in which he would say that he was the leader of an opposition group. They wanted to install software on my dad’s computer. We refused to do that, but we didn’t know what they would do to him. When we stalled, they punished us by breaking off the contact with him for nine months during which we had no contact with my dad at all. We did not even know if he was still alive. And in the past year, only my mother was allowed to talk to him – twice only. This year, he has been allowed one phone call with my mother so far. And that was before he was sentenced to death in a show trial in February.

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Do you even know where he is being held?

Nobody knows where in Iran he has been over those two and a half years. Nobody from our side has had access to him. What we know is that he has been held in complete solitary confinement for more than 980 days. He does not have a single person around him, besides the people who want to kill or torture him. So, his condition is very, very bad. Through these phone calls we know that he’s been tortured. We know that he lost almost all his teeth. We know that he does not get access to daylight, he does not know if it’s day or night. He does not know how much time has passed since his abduction. He does not have the medical attention he needs as a Parkinson’s patient. Withholding his medication alone is torture. We don’t know how much longer he will survive in these conditions.

Have you received assistance and support from European governments, especially from Germany, or from the EU and the UN?

That is a very good question. I still haven’t received an answer from the German government what concrete measures have been taken or how come one of their citizens could have been abducted in the first place. At least, I have not seen any kind of action that could have changed the fate of my dad. From day one, the German government told us that my dad was a German citizen, that they would do everything they could to help him. He was abducted, denied access to lawyers, tortured and sentenced to death, but still nothing has happened to actually get my dad out of there and save his life. Only two low-level Iranian diplomats were thrown out of Germany.

I’m not asking for a fair trial, that is laughable, first because my dad has not done anything wrong or unlawful, that is only propaganda of the regime. Second, there are no fair trials under this Iranian regime. To see my government, the German government, asking for consular access, or a fair trial, is just maddening. Instead, they should be escalating things to rescue my father, to save his life, to get him out of there. But that has not happened.

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German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock has been criticised over inaction on Iran. Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.

Considering that you have all lived in the United States for many years, have you received help from the US government?

We’ve lived and worked here for 20 years. My father would be a US citizen by now if it wasn’t for his kidnapping, just as I am a US citizen now. But they’re all passing the bucket, they argue that on paper he’s not their responsibility. As for the German side, it’s like, oh, well, this girl who is advocating on her father’s behalf lives somewhere in the US…!

And presumably Iran considers your father an Iranian citizen?

My dad has only got one passport, of the country where he lived for most of his life, for 40 years. That country is Germany. He lived a further 20 years in the US, but he is not a national of the Islamic terrorist regime. He actually fled from them, chose a life in exile. And yet, they’re calling him a citizen of a country run by a terrorist regime that kidnapped him and brought him there against his will.

I went to Berlin recently to talk to the people in government and show them that this is their responsibility. Even for people who are not foreign citizens, i.e. the people of Iran, one should do something, one should try to help, especially when one is involved with this regime. You must give a response, and that response cannot be to pass the bucket.

Gazelle Sharmahd with her father Jamshid. Photo: Private gallery.
In Germany, you met with high-level officials, activists and organisations. What was the message you received? Is the mood among German decision-makers shifting?

I cannot say that yet, but I think we stirred up something. As hostage families, as citizens of Europe, we made it clear that the case of my dad is a perfect one to show that our national security is at risk. The fact that I could not travel to my home country Germany without having security 24 hours per day around me made that point very clear. Our governments have supported a terrorist regime that can grab the people they want to grab in any country, a regime that can bring them to Iran, put them through show trials, execute them – and nothing will happen. I hope that they have received the message by now that this case is not a just case of providing consular support. My dad does not need toothpaste, he needs a rescue team, and we made that clear.

This is a worldwide problem. We have hostages from the US, from Canada, from all over Europe who are held in Iranian jails. So, the West needs to work together to solve this problem. For 44 years, we have been on the wrong path, our countries have been cooperating with a terrorist regime. We allow them to become this strong, evil force that they are today. I think people slowly understand that this was the wrong way to go and are taking the first steps to change course.

Some people argue that the change of attitude in Europe is not because of what is going on inside Iran, but because Tehran is delivering weapons to Russia for their war against Ukraine, and that this has put Iran in the spotlight. Have your hopes gone up that your dad might be released soon?

When my dad was kidnapped, I gave him a 0.1% survival chance. Even though the chance was so slim, my hope was that we could do something for him. Then, last year, the revolution in Iran started. This is what we were waiting for, something that my dad worked for for 16 years. So, our hopes are very, very high. We know that the Islamic regime is not the only terror regime in the world. Russia is another. We have China, Venezuela, Cuba, and all of them are working together. However, on the other side, our democratic and free countries are not doing the same.

The moment Russia invaded Ukraine, it was encouraging to see how the international community stood up for the people of Ukraine. They did it because Ukraine was in the heart of Europe and not far away in the Middle East. But I think now they can connect the dots. They can see that this Islamic regime is not staying still but expanding its terror all over the world. They will not stop. They’re taking people hostage from everywhere. They’re meddling in our politics, in our lobby groups, in our governments. They’re everywhere.

The threat we see in Russia should also be seen in Iran. The regime needs to be treated in the same way. This is not just an Iranian revolution, this is a revolution of the free people against tyranny, all over the world, so this is so much bigger than just protests in Iran. This is a freedom movement we have not seen in decades.

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Thousands protest in London after the death of Mahsa Amini, October 2022. Koca Vehbi/Shutterstock.
What would you like the European Union to do?

It’s a very tough question for me to answer because I’m not a politician. I’m a intensive-care nurse focusing on coronary care. If you ask me how to save somebody who has had a heart attack, I can tell you exactly what needs to be done. And it’s maddening that that we must explain to our governments what they have to do to rescue human lives. We shouldn’t be forced to stand there with hashtags, to organize demonstrations and urge them do their job. Nobody has to urge me in front of my hospital and say, please help our patients. That’s my job, that’s what I do. That’s why we have experts.

But even as a layman I can tell you that the strategy that has been pursued over these past 44 years has been absolutely wrong. This Islamic regime could not have survived for 44 years without the help of our Western governments. They have been actively involved in rescuing them all of these years and that was wrong. I need European governments, the EU and all the countries to admit, at the very least, that their strategy has been wrong.

Does Europe have any leverage over Iran?

Germany is still the biggest trade partner of the Islamic regime. If we’re looking for leverage, there we have it. The regime needs these millions of dollars. If we continue looking at them like a sovereign government that adheres to the rules, adheres to international international law, we clearly haven’t understood who we’re dealing with. These people are psychopaths. They understand pressure and money and that’s what we have to do. Let’s try another strategy. If all our countries work together, we have enough leverage to put this terrorist regime under pressure and help the people of Iran achieve what they wanted to achieve for 44 years, which is get their freedom and their country back.

If the stance against Iran gets tougher, do you fear that it will endanger your dad, or will only pressure save him?

For the first two years, hardly anybody even knew that my dad was being held there as a hostage. We have to name the hostages, we have to bring their fate to the public. We have to show that this is happening. But our countries are failing us, they are not even calling these hostage cases. France is finally stepping up and calling their hostages in Iran hostages, simply put. But where are the other countries? Where is Germany?

Of course, there is a risk that everything that I’m doing is going to endanger my dad. But what is the alternative? We have seen that alternative in action for 44 years, this appeasement has brought the regime to a position where they can reach out all over the world and take people hostage, kill them, pressure governments, This regime knows no shame.

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Charles Michel meets with Ebrahim Raisi during United Nations General Assembly 2022. Photo: European Union.

What will you tell people in Brussels who perhaps make the “right noise” but who are afraid of taking tough actions?

If you look at the results of the last 44 years, they have created this monster that we can see right now. So, the resume speaks against their credibility and their expertise. Whoever has been advising them was either wrong or on the side of the Islamic regime.

We need a task force in Europe that is dedicated to hostages. In the US, we now have the Levinson Law designed to protect people from being taking hostage. We also have a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs who works together with the FBI, human rights organisations, lawyers etc. They have experts and are specialising on exactly this – terrorists taking people hostage. So, this is what we need in Europe, too. Two Swedish citizens and one German citizen are under the death sentence in Iran. We see that after my dad was taken in 2020 more and more people were abducted- tourists such as the French couple Cécile Kohler and Jacques Paris.

What do you expect from such a taskforce?

Right now, where can family members like myself ask our government, what their strategy is? Show us transparently what you have been doing to stop this, and what you’ve been doing to rescue these people. They have to show us that they are transparent, that they have acted. There are still too many people sitting on the fence in Europe, thinking that they have invested a lot into this nuclear deal. They don’t want to let go. But it is time to let go. All of the people on the streets to protest against the Islamic regime prove this. It is time for a policy change!

The interview with Gazelle Sharmahd was conducted by Michael Thaidigsmann and Nenad Jurdana.

Do you want to hear Gazelle and other experts discuss what should the EU do vis-a-vis Iran? Then join us for an online debate by registering here.

Gazelle Sharmahd is the daughter of Jamshid Sharmahd who was kidnapped in Dubai in 2020 by Iranian agents and brought to Iran. In February 2023 he was sentenced to death in a sham process. Gazelle has been campaigning worldwide for his release and other hostages in Iran.

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