Mitra Ostad, the second wife of former politician Mohammad Ali Najafi, was found dead in her northwest Tehran flat around noon May 28. According to a police report, the 35-year-old victim had been shot in the chest and an arm. As the story flooded news outlets and social media, perhaps few Iranians would have pointed the finger of blame toward a veteran Reformist known for his tranquil demeanor. But Najafi would shock everyone. Only hours after the killing, he was interviewed on state TV publicly confessing to the crime.
Najafi is a senior Reformist figure with a significant portfolio of top executive posts including nine years of service as minister of education. In 2013, he was nominated by President Hassan Rouhani to lead the ministry again, but he failed to secure a parliamentary confidence vote. The parliament, controlled by conservatives, rejected his nomination on the grounds that Najafi had been involved in the 2009 "sedition," a term Iran's hard-liners apply to the deadly post-election protests that gripped Iran following the disputed presidential elections that year that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win a second term in office.
Yet, adamant about keeping Najafi within his circle, Rouhani appointed him one of his deputies as head of the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, a post he resigned from only six months later in January 2014.
Following months of heated debate in 2017, he was elected as Tehran's mayor by a like-minded Reformist city council. But long before he took the helm of the municipality, unprecedented pressure from hard-liners had already began to affect Najafi. The smear campaign around his political background and personal life forced his resignation over health concerns. But it was by no means an end to controversies surrounding the 67-year-old mathematics PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rumors backed by pictures had it that he was involved in an affair with Ostad while still married to his first wife. In fact, many attributed his resignation as Tehran's mayor to embarrassment caused by the alleged relationship. Ostad denied that the resignation had any connection to their "legally registered marriage."
There were also claims that the emergence of the Ostad scandal was orchestrated by powerful hard-line intelligence organizations, which reportedly kept Najafi, who was widely known for his anti-corruption agenda, under constant surveillance as part of a campaign to end his career. During his short stint as Tehran's mayor, Najafi unearthed massive fraud cases involving his conservative predecessors. At one point, the unyielding pressure even reportedly pushed him to attempting suicide at a central Tehran hotel.
A few hours after his reported surrender to the police, Iran's state TV aired a few short videos showing Najafi drinking tea and chatting with the Tehran police chief. A TV reporter was also seen counting bullets from the magazine of the handgun allegedly used by the assailant. In yet another apparently edited video, Najafi briefly explained that a "dispute" with his wife had shaped his motive.
The videos sparked reactions of anger and surprise. "The gun used in a murder is now held by a reporter, while the killer is sitting in the background drinking tea? Is this a circus or what?" tweeted one user.
Adding to the mystery, conservative outlet Ensaf News claimed that the victim had scheduled an interview about her marriage on the very day of the murder. The website released screenshots of the victim's mobile phone chats with a reporter in which she is shown deciding to postpone the interview.
Amid the torrent of unfolding details, a judicial source revealed that Najafi had left a note in his daughter's home, alleging that his wife had committed adultery and repeatedly declined his divorce requests.
The complicated nature of the incident and the multiple controversies surrounding it have produced wildly diverse reactions. "Najafi was a psycho who married a second wife while he was in another marriage, repeatedly beating up his wife and stepson. … He gently proved his love by emptying five bullets into his wife's body," one tweet read, referencing a claim by the victim's 13-year-old son, who accused Najafi of domestic violence.
A debate has also raged over why Najafi and a host of other Iranian officials enjoy the right to possess firearms. In response, Tehran's police chief noted that Najafi's permit had expired in 2015, meaning he was in illegal possession of the gun used in the killing.
While Reformist media outlets expressed shock at the "tragic end" of the veteran politician, others highlighted his political leanings. "Reform movement shot in the heart," announced hard-line Vatan Emrooz, drawing outrage from Reformists. Many argued that the case should not be dragged into political partisanship. "It is hard to digest the collapse of a man well known for his honesty. … Those who jump to hasty judgements are void of compassion," wrote London-based journalist Masoud Behnoud.
Given his highly regarded political and professional background, Najafi's story was compared with tragic Shakespearean heroes whose errors in judgment led to their downfall. In the weeks to come, speculation will continue as to what exactly pushed the respected mathematician to the edge.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly