Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was reporting Friday evening that Norway’s police intelligence agency PST was now investigating the background of Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg’s new romantic partner Bahareh Letnes, and any ties she may have to the Iranian regime. She has denied having any.
It’s the latest development in the ongoing drama around the 58-year-old veteran politician for the conservative Progress Party. He set off a storm of controversy when he went on what he called a private summer holiday trip last month to Iran with Letnes, who was born and reared in the Islamic republic. Both he and Letnes published photos during their trip on social media and he wrote in glowing terms about her homeland and its people. That surprised and irritated Norway’s exile Iranian community including one of his own party fellows, who claimed Sandberg should reevaluate his future in the party. They felt Sandberg was consciously putting a positive spin on Iran and overlooking its repressive government.
Sandberg initially said the couple traveled spontaneously and that’s why he failed to alert his ministry or the Office of the Prime Minister, as all members of the government are required to do ahead of any foreign travel. The alleged spontaneity raised questions about how he managed to also spontaneously obtain a visa to Iran, a country that Norway officially has criticized because of its poor human rights record and use of the death penalty.
On Thursday, however, Sandberg admitted he chose not to report his travel beforehand, but wouldn’t say why. Nor would he say why he took his government-issued mobile phone with him that he uses in his work. That also violated security procedures for government officials traveling to countries that don’t have security cooperation with Norway, like Iran, Russia and China.
PST’s investigation into Bahareh, who initially came to Norway as an asylum seeker from Iran, was described as “absolutely necessary,” according to the former head of Norway’s military intelligence agency, Kjell Grandhagen. He’s been highly critical of Sandberg’s travel to Iran, and took the unusual step of detailing his concerns in newspaper Aftenposten earlier this week.
Bahareh Letnes, age 28, told NRK on Friday that she thinks it’s fine that PST is now examining her background. She has earlier referred to speculation about whether she may be an agent for Iranian authorities as “ridiculous.” She declined to comment further on PST’s probe.
Letnes has earlier claimed she fled Iran and came to Norway alone at the age of 16 for fear her parents would force her into an early marriage with a much older man, in return for free rent in a house he owned. Her asylum applications were initially rejected and her case was covered by Norwegian media in the mid-2000s. She was forcibly returned to Iran but then sent back to Norway because her papers allegedly were not in order. After that, Norway granted her asylum on humanitarian grounds.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) published a lengthy profile last weekend of Letnes, who adopted the last name of her foster family in Norway. Her original name was Bahareh Heidari Nasserad and she reportedly grew up as the youngest of seven children. Her older sisters, she told newspaper Trønder-Avis in 2008, were married off at ages of 15 and 16.
After obtaining residence permission in Norway she eventually obtained Norwegian citizenship while being allowed to retain her Iranian passport, since Iranians are rarely able to renounce citizenship. Letnes thus wound up with the dual citizenship coveted by many long-term expatriates in Norway where it’s still no longer technically allowed but may finally be approved during the next Parliamentary session.
Letnes has thus been able to vote in both Norway and Iran, and posted a photo of herself in front of the Iranian Embassy in Oslo last year just after she’d cast a ballot in her homeland’s presidential election. DN reported that she marked her photo with the words “dobare Iran, dobare Rouhani” (Iran again, Rouhani again), a campaign slogan for the presidential incumbent, Hassan Rouhani.
Active on the beauty pageant circuit
Letnes was out of the media spotlight in Norway from 2008 until 2013, when she represented Iran at the “Miss Top of the World” beauty pageant in Riga. It’s not entirely clear how she could represent a country she had fled, but she told a local newspaper at the time that she became aware of the beauty pageant online, and sent an application to its Latvian committee. She went on to represent Iran in several other international beauty pageants as well, with one fellow contestant describing her as having “a lot of self-confidence” and energy.
“I love beauty,” she told the newspaper for a local employment initiative for immigrants in Norway. “I want to look good. I exercise every single day. And I’m for women’s rights, that women can show their beauty and knowledge. My dream has always been to become a model. I’m certain that if you dream, you can achieve it!”
It’s unclear who sponsored Letnes’ participation in various international beauty pageants in places like Bangkok and Magdeburg, Germany, in 2014. “Everyone who was there had an organization that trained us and sponsored us with clothes,” a woman who represented Kurdistan told DN. “I assumed she had an Iranian sponsor.”
In 2015 Letnes helped an NRK TV host with preparations for a TV show about two good friends in Norway who travel back to a country where one of them had their roots. “I had the impression that she visited Iran at regular intervals, had lots of contacts and was, not least, very fond of her homeland,” the program’s anchor Noman Mubashir told DN. “I remember she could put me in touch with an Iranian boxing champion and a ski instructor. She had lots of advice about hotels and the traffic situation in Teheran. I never met her, all our communication was through text messages, before and during the trip. She was very helpful and polite. She never asked about payment for her work.”
Letnes was also involved in another cultural project, volunteering at the “Iran Day” segment of a Bollywood film festival in Norway. Two Iranian films were shown at a cinema in Lørenskog. Diplomats from the Iranian Embassy i Oslo, an Iranian film director and a group of Iranian actors were present at the festival. “She didn’t work officially for us, but she helped,” recalled Nasrullah Qureshi, former chief of the Bollywood Festival Norway. “She could speak the language fluently and spread information about Iran Day. She had some contacts.”
DN reported that in 2016, Letnes took courses to become a medical secretary. She was employed through a health care personnel agency until May 2018, as a “flexible part-time worker for several of our customers,” the agency’s personnel chief Christian Bratsberg told DN. “We were very satisfied with Bahareh during the period she worked for us.”
Dental secretary with export ambitions
DN reported that she currently works in a 60 percent position as a dental secretary in Oslo. Her colleagues describe her as well-liked, open and conscientious. In January she also founded a sole-proprietorship called B&H General Trading Co, which aims, according to papers filed with Norwegian state authorities, to be involved in “production, development, purchase and export of fish and seafood products, plus import, purchase and transport of natural gas from Iran. Export of equipment and technology to the oil and gas sector.”
The Norwegian fishing industry newspaper Fiskeribladet was the first to write about Letnes, the company and her relation to Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg in mid-July. He said he had first met her two-and-a-half years earlier, in November 2015, before he became a government minister and was still a Member of Parliament, at a conference entitled “Youth and women’s work against violence in close relationships and extreme control.” Sandberg took part in a panel discussion. They later met, apparently coincidentally, about a year later on the main street passing by the Parliament. Their relationship, Sandberg told TV2, began about a year after that. They were seen together at a celebration of the Persian New Year at the Iranian Embassy, went on holiday to Denmark together and then, the spontaneous tour to Iran.
As soon as Sandberg came home he faced questions from opposition politicians in Parliament about “role blending, security risks and conflicts of interest tied to the trip.” PST seized his telephone for try to determine if it had been hacked and Prime Minister Erna Solberg told reporters that she was aware of his relationship with Letnes but not their trip to Iran. Solberg said Friday evening that she didn’t want to comment further on her minister’s travels, rule-breaking or relation to Letnes and Iran, or his future in her government, until Monday.