A 35 year-old actress is shot to death in the bathroom of her plush apartment in upmarket Tehran. The killer is her husband, a 67 year-old politician and potential presidential candidate.
He alleges that the woman, his second wife, was in communication with intelligence agents. After killing his wife, he drives 300km to his father’s grave, before surrendering himself to the police and admitting his guilt — triggering a nationwide scandal and political uproar.
Over the past several days in Iran, the story of Mohammad-Ali Najafi, the former mayor of Tehran and one-time minister of education, has dominated television news broadcasts, newspaper front pages, social media and everyday conversation. Videos of Mr Najafi’s confession have been viewed millions of times online.
The scandal, the first of its kind in the Islamic Republic for decades, is a crack in the façade of a deeply conservative regime, which actively promotes traditional family values. Shocking for the brutality of the murder, it has also prompted a wave of conspiracy theories in a country where distrust of officialdom is high. Many ordinary people and reformist politicians question if it is part of a plot to neutralise a potentially popular presidential candidate.
Reformist politicians have expressed regret over Mitra Ostad’s murder but voiced questions about the role played by the intelligence services. “The responsibility of those [involved] . . . cannot be ignored,” said Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a senior reformist politician.
Mr Najafi’s appearance on state television on Wednesday, highly unusual in such a case and on the day after the killing, has also added to speculation of a hardline conspiracy to keep him from contesting the presidency.
“Najafi fell apart after he realised that he was a victim of conspiracies by those who felt threatened by his high intelligence and public respect which could make him a potentially great candidate to be Iran’s next president,” said a reform-minded analyst. While Mr Najafi has admitted his guilt, he has yet to be charged. His lawyers say the attack was not planned.
With a reputation as one of Iran’s most able technocrats, and a top mathematician who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr Najafi enjoyed a reputation that few other Iranian politicians did. As education minister, Mr Najafi was seen on Iranian television with his first wife and daughter, their marriage seen as emblematic of how Islam, tradition and modernity could work together.
Then Mr Najafi fell in love with Ostad, a little-known actress, after she approached him two years ago to help her run for municipal elections. She failed to win office. They married last year, a decision that shocked many Iranians. While polygamy is legal in Iran, it is a choice that remains socially unacceptable and it is an option few middle class Iranians pursue. Their relationship has long been subject to speculation.
As mayor of Tehran, Mr Najafi blocked development projects carried out by companies affiliated to hardliners. His resignation prior to his marriage to Ostad prompted rumours in reformist circles that his second marriage formed part of a trap to push him out of Tehran politics and render him ineligible to run for the presidency as a reformist candidate in 2021.
Ostad denied any ill intentions on her part in interviews with the media. The day before she was murdered, she had got in touch with local media again to talk about the reasons for her marriage.
Mr Najafi, in light blue pyjamas with his hands bound, claimed to reporters on Wednesday that Ostad was in touch with intelligence services and that he had seen the evidence on her WhatsApp. Iran’s intelligence ministry denied any contacts with Ostad.
When Ostad went to the bathroom, Mr Najafi said he followed her with a pistol that he said he carried for self defence to “scare her”, which made her “panic” and jump on him. He admitted it was a “mistake” to take the weapon.
But even this confession has failed to convince Iranians suspicious of regime conspiracy against a reformist politician. “I think he didn’t kill his wife. Someone else did and forced Najafi to admit it was him,” said Akram, a 28 year-old woman. “The same people who laid the trap for him are the ones who killed the woman. He simply could not look so relaxed and calm after killing another human being.”
Devastated and grieving, Ostad’s mother has called for capital punishment. Mr Najafi may yet escape the gallows if her parents and 13-year-old son accept so-called “blood money” — a form of restitution common in Iran.
Yet the brutality of the killing has disturbed many Iranians. “I have become sleepless out of the shock that even Najafi can go as far as killing a woman,” said Negar, a 38 year-old woman. “What kind of society do we live in?”