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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!"