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Imprisoned in Iran

GlobalPost contributer Iason Athanasiadis talks about being arrested and held in Tehran's Evin prison after covering Iran's June election.

(photo by STR New / Reuters)

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Editor's note: the following is a transcript of the correspondent call with Iason Athanasiadis.

Passport: Good afternoon and welcome. I’m David Case, editor of GlobalPost Passport in our newsroom in Boston. Today we will be discussing Iran. As we all know, Iran’s elections last month were marred by allegations of wide-spread fraud. Protesters took to the streets; violence ensued, as did teargas and gunshots. On youtube, the world watched clips of women in chador shouting angry slogans and of limp bodies of bloodied victims being lifted and run through the streets. Iran’s powerful Guardian Council conducted a recount of ballots and, in the end, stood by the results, dashing the hopes of the powerful reformist movement. Still, the uprising exposed enormous rifts in the Iranian government elite, some of which seemed to grow by the day.


Iason Athanasiadis was among the correspondents covering these developments for GlobalPost. Iason knows Iran well. A Greek and British citizen, in 2004 he moved to Tehran where he lived for three years and earned a masters degree from the School of International Relations. As a journalist, he has published widely and has been the recipient of the Harvard Neiman Fellowship, one of journalism’s most coveted fellowships.


On his way out of the country after the elections, Iason was arrested and accused of being a spy and held for 18 days in the dreaded section 209 of Tehran’s Evin prison, a wing controlled by the intelligence ministry. Iason joins us today from Istanbul. Good evening Iason.


Athanasiadis: Hi, how are you doing?


Passport: Good. I have a couple of brief announcements before we begin. First, the call is being recorded. The audio and a transcript will be posted on Passport’s website. Regarding the format, I will lead a twenty minute Q and A after which we will let you un-mute your lines to ask questions. The call will end after about thirty minutes.


Before we get into your ordeal Iason, there’s been a lot of action in Tehran today. Can you briefly update us on what’s going on?


Athanasiadis: Yeah, today was the fortieth day anniversary of the killing of Neda Agha Soltan, that’s the girl who was shot dead by an unknown person during the aftermath of the elections in Iran. And we’ve seen thousands of people going down to the sprawling Behesht Tehran, a cemetery in southern Tehran, trying to take part in this commemoration, but being turned away by the security forces. There was the head of the opposition, Mir Hossein Musavi, also trying to pray by her gravesite, but being forced back into his car by the police, according to reports we’re hearing. And right now, which is approximately 7 pm, local time in Tehran, its about the evening, or actually, its about 8 o’clock, I’m sorry, there are reports of street battles going on in Tehran, several people getting arrested, and just columns of cars jamming every avenue, engaging in passive resistance, honking their horns and having their windscreens smashed, in some cases, by the security forces standing on the sidewalks.


Passport: Well, that sounds like a tense situation.


Athanasiadis: Well, yeah, it definitely shows that almost a month and a half after the elections, there’s a lot of life left in this protest movement. And part of this reason is that the Islamic Republic backers of the movement have not stood down. They haven’t conceded defeat, there’s this very open cleavage in the Islamic Republic right now and what we’re seeing on the streets is just the less important side of the huge political confrontation that’s taking place right now between different factions of the Islamic Republic, what we might call the pragmatists versus the ideological hardliners.


Passport: Let’s talk about some of the still unresolved issues surrounding the elections. What can you tell us that we haven’t already read about in the elections? These events tend to look quite different when you’re actually there.


Athanasiadis: Well, I think the biggest illusion that I think people watching the news in the West tended to be held under was that this was a black and white, goodies versus baddies kind of face-off. These very sort-of good-looking, picturesque protesters on the street, most of them young, dressed in green, strikingly good-looking in some cases, fighting against the admittedly quite ugly security forces of the Islamic Republic. These bearded, overweight, burly men holding metal clubs and smashing up the cars. And in fact this was a reality. We definitely lived this on the ground as we ran through these demonstrations. But, as I said before, what we’re seeing on the streets is not really what’s going on. And when you get into the internal contradictions of this struggle, you see that the main confrontants are… it’s a little but more difficult to decide who among them are the goodies or the baddies. So you have on one side what we in the West call the reformists, which is Mir Hossein Musavi, the presidential contender, and his behind-the-curtain backer, Hashemi Rafsanjani the former two-time President of Iran in the nineties and these people really can’t be called reformers. Musavi was a Prime Minister during the 1980’s, one of the harshest times and most ideological of the fledgling, then, Islamic Republic. And Hashemi Rafsanjani sort of picked up the baton of running the country, from Musavi, in the 90’s and presided over the sort of international rehabilitation of the country. But at the time it was very tough, in a security sense, for Iran, and showed the oppression and the human rights abuses on a huge scale. So these are the attractive side of the media narrative. Now, the unattractive side of the media narrative are personalities that we know very well. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And I don’t think we need to talk too much about them because I think we’re all aware of how bad their reputations have been in the past, in the past ten years. So really, it’s a little bit more subtle than goodies versus baddies, pro-democracy versus pro-dictatorship.


Passport: And perhaps with the populists kind of in the middle, protesting against the status quo, but not exactly in camp with Musavi. Would you characterize it that way?


Athanasiadis: Yeah, absolutely. After the first week of really fervent pro-Musavi demonstrations, you decreasingly had the slogans that contained information on Musavi or contained sort of, you know, for Musavi, they started disappearing from the canon of the slogans. And you started getting slogans that were more pro-reform. Or slogans that were just more negative, such as “Death to the Dictator,” either referring to the president, Ahmadinejad, or even to the Supreme Leader. And this is a huge taboo. At the same time, I don’t think that anyone who we can say is in the majority is demanding the cancellation or the abolition of the Islamic Republic. They’re all pretty much asking for its reform. The real anger that was generated by this election wasn’t that the Islamic Republic convinced through its media machine, unprecedented numbers of Iranian voters to go to the polls and elect the President. And of course this is an exercise that gives the Islamic Republic huge legitimacy when you have something like eighty-five percent of the electorate going and participating in elections that you have held. And then when that happened, results came through that, a great number of the population felt, has been rigged. And this is what created the huge anger. It was the fact that they had been manipulated, not so much the fact that they lived in the Islamic Republic.


Passport: Can you describe for us your typical day of reporting during the demonstrations?


Athanasiadis: Well, I slept very little, which is something I pointed out to my guards, that I had an average of about three articles to write and about twelve hours of reporting on the ground. I had very little time to run around doing espionage. The day would start at about mid-day because I’d be writing up until about 5 am, so I’d be sleeping from between 5 am and mid-day. I’d get up and I’d check round with friends to see what was going on that day, what were the focus, the foci, of protests, and of course, we’re talking about the days after the election, which pretty much had a consistency between them. And then we’d get together into a friend’s car and we’d drive down and basically cruise around these protests and see what was going on. And park the car at some point, get off, start mixing with the protesters, whether they were reformers or conservatives. There were several protests those days that were for the President, for Mr. Ahmadinejad. And in fact, on the Sunday after the election, he gave a victory speech in which he was supposed to basically say the last word and finish this sort of electoral confrontation. Of course, as we know, things didn’t end up like that. After having covered the protests, and really, it was very difficult to say how long they would go on for, sometimes there would be violence, sometimes we would just go home early to rest or I would get on the phone to my editor in Washington, I would sit and write. And quite often we would go out again at night, when you had not so much peaceful protests, but violent riots. And these were really very dangerous because at least during the protests, you were in the heart of thousands of people and really, the security forces would melt away. They wouldn’t penetrate. They weren’t trying to get into these crowds. Or if they did, there was certainly no danger of anyone getting arrested. But at night, especially the more the protest continued and the rioting continued, the more people would stay in their houses and leave public spaces to the security forces and the rioters. Those were pretty difficult times, and pretty dangerous times, to be out. And then at some point we would return, if we had gone out at night, at about 2 am, and I would write some more articles and then I would head off and sleep. And of course, the seven, eight-hour difference between Iran and the US really worked in my favor because I could still be in contact with my editors at 3 am, 4 am Tehran time.


Passport: Ok, I want to step back just for a moment, its pretty rare for us to have an opportunity to talk to a Westerner who’s lived in Iran for as long as you have. You earned your Masters degree in International Relations from an Iranian university. What was it like? Tell us about that experience and tell us what daily life was like in Tehran.


Athanasiadis: Well, again, like my rest, it wasn’t very representative slice of life. It was a Masters that had been arranged exclusively for foreigners, all of us who were taking part there, if we had contact with Iran, that was because they would be half-Iranian, or they would be married to an Iranian. But it was quite a high-caliber group. A lot of people had studied at US universities, there were a couple of Oxford graduates, and our professors, quite interestingly, were either former diplomats or current diplomats in the Foreign Ministry. And while the majority were Islamic Republic diplomats, there were a couple who had survived the transition from the Shah. And one of them, quite memorably even wore a tie, a cravat, its very frowned upon in Iran today because the tie is considered to look like a cross and to be the symbol of a Westerner – or a person who is Westoxified. In fact, just having us there, a group of fundamentally Western people, was very interesting in itself. And we had fascinating discussions with our professors, many of whom would have been very devout, very fervent revolutionaries a few years ago, but had gone through a process of re-thinking, much like many of the hostage-takers during the American Embassy crisis, have also gone through such a journey, and were much more ready now to engage with us. And so some of these people who had been sort of in the vanguard of the revolution when they were trying to get the Shah kicked out, were now saying to us that they were going to vote for, at the time, Rafsanjani. That was the 2005 elections. And Rafsanjani, at the time, had managed to reinvent himself as a moderate, and once again, just like in the 2009 elections last month, he was firmly bankrolling the reformist camp. So it was a very interesting time to be there and I certainly learned a lot about how the Islamic Republic had very little to do with the almost cartoon-like images that we have of it in the West.


Passport: Ok, that leads me to the next question – do you see Iran as being deeply misunderstood by the outside world?


Athanasiadis: Deeply misunderstood, no. I mean, I think that unless you have a pretty strong agenda, you will probably not delude yourself, just through the wealth of information that is available, into thinking sort of a radically different idea or Iran than what it is. It’s a very complicated country, it is extremely complex. There are 70 million people in a country the size of Western Europe. There are something like fifteen separate ethnicities. This cliché that it’s a patchwork of ethnicities, or a mosaic, is absolutely spot-on. You know, it’s one of the few countries that didn’t have a direct imperial experience, a colonial experience, and like Iraq, like Saudi Arabia, like all these Arab countries that were drawn essentially as just lines on a map, Iran is much more an organic entity. It’s a country that was created by the plain between two mighty mountain ranges. So it really has maintained both its diversity, and this thing that really ties it together as a nation-state (a nation-state that has really been around for about five or six centuries), and of course, binded together by a language which has been around for three thousand years. But no, I think contrary to what many people say, I think the Western media does a pretty good job covering Iran. There are excellent journalists, such as Christopher De Bellaigue, formerly of The Economist and of the New York Review of Books, who speaks fluent Persian, has been married to an Iranian, he’s written a fantastic book, which I always recommend to people who want to read just one book about Iran, its called “In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs.” There’s Thomas Erdbrink, who writes for the Washington Post, he’d Dutch, also married to an Iranian, photographer for Polaris Images. There are a lot of good Western journalists. Or at least there were, until they started getting kicked out in 2006 and 2007. But more often I worry about the people that have a geopolitical agenda and who put out this information about Iran and focus on the great negativities that also exist in Iran’s story.


Passport: Now moving on to politics, ever since President Obama took office, promising to extend an open hand to the regime in Tehran, the regime has remained defiant. Why is that? Do you think Obama’s approach is the right one?


Athanasiadis: You say moving on to politics as if before we were talking about nothing. But, yeah, politics, its just a nightmare and I’m just happy to be a journalist and an observer who does not, indeed must not, get involved, because I don’t know what I would do if I was in Obama’s shoes. You have this paradox right now where his will to engage with Iran is making him stand accused, in the eyes of some, of having a less pro-human rights agenda than Bush did. Bush, memorably, instituted the 30 million dollar Pro-Democracy Budget. Some people called it a Regime Change Budget, in 2005 and 2006, which created a lot of criticism of him. Obama has steered very well clear of that and during the recent protests has been very careful about not coming down on the side of either of the two candidates. So it creates this dilemma, if you want to engage at any cost. Well, we can certainly say that this is a very bad time in history for Obama to come along and want to engage the hardliners because we’re also seeing the greatest crisis in the Islamic Republic. Other people would say that this crisis has been created exactly because someone like Obama has been elected in the US and it has given inspiration to people in Iran – they also want their own Obama. They see their own Obama in the shape of Musavi. In Farsi, funnily, O-ba-ma means “he is with us” and this is something that has seen a lot of traction in weblogs and jokes around the kitchen table. But I have no idea what Obama should do. I think his policy of keeping an ambiguous, almost oblique, holding pattern is probably quite intelligent. Its definitely an internal issue, what’s going on in Iran, and these high-minded ideas that we should step in and save them from themselves are absolutely unpractical. This is a society that is going through extremely hard birthing pains. And it will be stronger and more compact and more resilient for having gone through it, but it needs to go through it on its own.


Passport: On the other hand, one wonders if the Bush administration’s 30 million dollar, as you call it, Regime Change Fund, actually helped to fuel the paranoia of the regime and led to the arrests of people like yourself. Let’s talk about your arrest. First, you were picked up in Qom, the religious capital, and then you were released. And as you were leaving Tehran to return home, you were arrested in the airport. In the London Telegraph, you wrote, “just past passport control came the moment that every reporter dreads.” Describe what happened at that point.


Athanasiadis: Well, I was actually just past the control, I went and sat in a faux Italian bistro, which is really the moment that every journalist hates – having to sit in a faux Italian bistro in the Islamic Republic. And I bounced out a last article on my impressions of leaving Iran, just in the middle when the story was really half told. But after having done that for about an hour, I headed towards the gates, where my plane was waiting, and that’s when this man approached me. Again, un-uniformed and he asked me my passport name and I was surprised because I write under my maternal name which is Athanasiadis. So I knew that he was someone official, someone who had access to my passport, and I said, “Yeah, that’s me.” And he said, “Please follow me, you’re not going to be flying tonight.” So then he took me down to an abandoned part of the airport, a part that wasn’t pressed into use, and he said, “The gentlemen who are coming out from Tehran to collect you have got stuck in traffic because of all the rioting.” So we just sat there and he offered me tea and even allowed me to smoke a cigarette in the airport, which is non-smoking. And then, after about an hour, these people came and they took me off to the prison.


Passport: At some point you called attention to yourself to make it known to others that you were being arrested.


Athanasiadis: Yeah. I mean, the Islamic Republic’s modus operandi when they arrest, I can’t say foreign journalists, because I think I was the first one, and that was also a sign of the paranoia and a sign of how pressured they felt, but the standard modus operandi is that they just deny that they have you for a good couple of weeks, up to a month, until you have signed a confession saying that you have done all sorts of naughty things. And that gives them an excuse to keep you for even longer and possibly send you out on trumped up charges for a court date. And all the while, they are stopping you from seeing a lawyer and the interrogations continue. So I knew that if I wanted to avoid this and I wanted to avoid my parents, my mother and my father, a lot of emotional pain and anguish, the best thing I could do was call attention to myself, start shouting, just get the message out that I had been arrested at Tehran airport and that’s where I disappeared. So that’s what I did. I got a little beaten up in the process by my guards, but luckily I managed to find someone to warn the Greek embassy and my newspaper, the Washington Times. And so within hours, literally, the Greek ambassador in Tehran headed off to the airport to look for me, he knew that I’d disappeared there. And within days, the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs could summon the Iranian ambassador and say, “We have documentary evidence that you have him, so just admit it.”


Passport: You were brought to Evin Prison, this is where the regime holds many people it regards as a threat. It’s where Roxana Saberi was held and now its where many journalists arrested since the elections are being held. When people write about Evin Prison, they almost universally preface it with the word “notorious,” the “notorious Evin Prison”. Describe what the prison was like for us.


Athanasiadis: Calling Evin “notorious” is highly misleading. It used to be notorious. Now it’s notorious for its good food. Universally, the people that have come out, especially the sort of hyphenated Iranian – something else; Canadians, Americans, what have you, the ones that claim the media attention, have talked about how good the food is, even when they’re doing hunger strikes. Evin went through a face lift a couple years back and its still nowhere even close to a first-world prison, to even a run-down first-world prison, but certainly better than these black sites or the detention centers that the Islamic Republic maintains in other parts around Tehran province. I’m talking about places like Tawhid, which was a secret intelligence prison behind the Foreign Ministry that has now been turned into a museum. I’m thinking of Kahrizak, which was a detention center that someone, an Iranian parliamentarian, a couple of days ago compared more to a human holding center, a human store room, than a prison, with no water, no access to sanitary goods. I’m thinking of these black sites that we’re not even aware of right now, some of which are under the full control of the Revolutionary Guard and where even the Iranian judiciary has no access.


I’ve been speaking to people since I came out of Evin, suddenly I’ve developed this fascination with Iranian prisons. I read anything I can in English or in Farsi, and I’ve been speaking to people who describe having their heads pressed up against soiled toilet bowls and being made to lick them, one person was beaten up for 72 hours straight, with only short breaks for sleep. When he was put back in his cell, it was a cell that could maybe fit five people comfortably and it squeezed twenty people in there. They have to take it in turns to lie down. I’m talking about peoples’ testimonies where they were told, “You haven’t been registered, you don’t exist officially in the system, therefore we can just kill you right now. We can take you out for execution.” And the really sinister thing when you hear these testimonies, is that these words that crop up again and again are very bureaucratic words. They’re the words of bureaucracy. They say incarceration instead of imprisonment, they say execution instead of killing, so they have the ring of authenticity for them.


And when I was in the prison, you know, Evin during the days when I was there was sort of more over populated than its been since the days of the Revolution, probably, it was absolutely stuffed to the rafters with people. Many of the prisoners were being lined up in rows in the middle of corridors, cross-legged, with blindfolds over their faces. Of course, we all had to wear blindfolds because the part we were in was controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence, so all the officials who came around there was people whose identities we weren’t supposed to ever see. But it was definitely a very busy place, you could occasionally hear the shouts or screams from the interrogation rooms, pretty heated up interrogations going on. And then at the same time, you just kind of had the minutiae of an office. You know I could see through my blindfold as I was being led around by my jailers a photocopy machine right next to a stack of books, the topmost of which’s title was “A Reputation of Wahhabism” –probably what the jailers were reading during their coffee break. You passed interrogation rooms that had inside them people who they described as terrorists, who had set up bombs, who had allegedly set up bombs, so it was really just a very big mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary.


Passport: Can you describe your own interrogations for us? How long did they last? What did they want to know from you? Can you describe the room a little bit?


Athanasiadis: They really varied very much. They lasted from anything like three hours to one particularly long one went on for twelve. They were polite and civil, there weren’t these interrogations where… they hardly ever struck me. After the violent encounter we’d had at the airport the first night, I think the word had come down on high that I wasn’t to be hurt. At one point, a guard even sort of joked at me and said, “What do you expect us to do here? Pull out your fingernails?” And the rooms were a bit strange. They were a kind of uneven walls colored green and they had sort of a white hair coming out of them. And I assumed it had something to do with keeping the sound in. I was almost certain that they couldn’t be two-way mirrors, just because they were sort of green and hairy. And a couple of them had cameras, and presumably mics, in there too. So there was a series of interrogations where they wanted to prove to me that I was a spy. Of course, I knew I wasn’t. I kept on saying to them, “I’m very interested in seeing what your evidence is, what you have against me, because I know I’m not a spy, I know I’ve done nothing wrong.” And in the end, I was proved right and thankfully, they released me.


Passport: In your GlobalPost articles, it sounds as if in some points they’re debating with you. You wrote that they recommended several books for you, they encouraged you to read Hossein Fardoust’s memoirs as the definitive guide to the Shah-era Iran… were they trying to get you to see Iran the way they do?


Athanasiadis: Yeah, absolutely. Hossein Fardoust is actually the head of SAVAK which, you know is the truly terrifying and feared intelligence agency that the Shah had when he was in power. And I was very surprised that they were asking me to read these memoirs because this is one of the people, logically, who should have been the first one on the chopping block. But when I got out of prison, I researched a little bit about him, I found out that, interestingly, he was one of the few people that made pretty smoothly the transition to the Islamic Republic from the time of the Shah. Not only did he not get executed, not only did he not have to run away from Iran, but he ended up setting up the current intelligence organization and dying of a heart attack or old age in 1987 a full eighty years after the Revolution happened. So it was very interesting. They also suggested to me that I read the memoirs of a British spy, Roger something or other, I forget his name, the title of his book is “Death Plus Ten Years” because that was his sentence. Originally ten years, and then the got a death sentence, but he was actually swapped for a couple Iranian prisoners with the British government at some point, so he got to go home and write about it. And I think they wanted me to see Iran in a way that I hadn’t seen it in the three years that I lived there. And quite frankly, I was almost relishing the debate because it is difficult when you’re living in Iran as a foreigner in North Tehran, you don’t really get to access these parts of society that are more traditional and more conservative because they’re scared of you, they think you’re a spy. They live a very monocultural lives and they do not come into contact with foreigners. So when they do, they’re extremely suspicious. So this was really a unique opportunity, in a twisted way, to have long debates with people who could be completely open with me and because I was in their power, so they had nothing to be scared of from me. But the dynamic usually went as a weird, tall, Persian-speaking foreigner, I lope around and stuff, speaking to working-class people, is at first, horror and then extreme suspicion. So it was actually a very interesting experience for me, I learned a lot.


Passport: It sounds interesting. It’s too bad you need to get arrested to get such a cross-cultural experience with that part of the population. Briefly, how did you find out you were being released?


Athanasiadis: It was a Sunday, which is the second day in the week in Iran and I’d been expecting to be released since the first day, which had been the last day of my interrogation, and my interrogators had told me, “Ok, we’re convinced you’re innocent, so we’re going to recommend to the judge that he frees you.” And they just came, they opened up the door and they said, “You’re free.” Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple, I still had to be processed out of Evin Prison, they had actually never taken my fingerprints when I was going in, so we had to go through that entire process, getting photographed with my number in Persian letters, hung round a little metal tablet around my head and my fingerprints quadruplicate and getting rushed through this police station, which was full of pretty criminal-looking people and pretty uncriminal-looking people that I assumed were protesters. And then there was just this sort of bevy of prostitutes that just sort of went through the police station in a flurry of perfume and borrowed chadors that they had been told to put over their heads. And then we got into a car and drove to the airport and the Greek ambassador met me there and he gave me my ticket to fly to Athens and then I passed passport control and I got re-arrested. And that was a very strange experience because at that point, I saw how random things were. And up till then, I had thought, if only I were innocent and I could prove it, then nothing will happen to me. But at this point I saw that it was a little bit less organized than that, it’s a little bit more terrifying. There’s a little factionalism and maybe they just want to keep you as a pawn. So I spent a few hours in a cell, about ten or twelve hours, and then I got taken for pretty much a bargaining session with an Iranian colonel and the Greek ambassador. And the Iranian colonel wanted to, he drafted a letter for me to sign that confessed to all sorts of crimes and infringements and actions against national security and then he wanted me and the Greek ambassador to sign it. And I said, “No, I’m just going to go back to Evin and re-prove to my interrogators that I’m innocent because you clearly seem to not have got the message that I am innocent.” And then there was just a long debate and in the end, they watered it down heavily because I think they just wanted to get rid of me at that point, and I left.


Passport: Well, do you think that they were trying to scare you, or it was just a bureaucratic glitch at that point, or factionalism? Possibly all of the above?


Athanasiadis: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think that there’s a back story to this that I can’t really talk about yet, but I think that maybe it was a case of factionalism, but they didn’t realize how high the cost would be for them and another faction came and told them and they let me off.


Passport: Iason, I’m afraid we’re almost out of time. If anyone has a question, you can un-mute your phone at this point by pressing *6. So far, I haven’t seen any phones un-muted, that’s why I’ve kept going. I don’t think we have any questions, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground already. I’d like to thank you very much for sharing your experience with us, it was very interesting.


Athanasiadis: You’re very welcome. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.


Passport: Thanks a lot, good luck with your coverage.


Athanasiadis: Thank you, take care.


Passport: Bye.