Iranian intelligence is using new interrogation tactics on journalists reports Maziar Bahari who received an invitation to tea at an upmarket hotel
I’m not supposed to tell you this but I met Mr Mohammadi. In fact I met three Mr Mohammadis in four days.
Mohammadi is the nickname of choice for the agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence — Iran’s equivalent of the CIA. They have other nicknames as well, most of which are variations of the names of Shia imams such as Alavi, Hassani and Hosseini. I guess the names don’t indicate a rank or anything (I have to guess because Mr Mohammadi doesn’t tell you much. He asks the questions).
Mr Mohammadi is responsible for the security of Iran. That includes protecting the values of its government. It’s a tough job. It’s like being in charge of Britney Spears’s public image. Well, not exactly, but you get my point. The values change so often that the officials who put former colleagues on trial today are careful not to be incarcerated by the same people tomorrow (who may very well have jailed them in the past). Mr Mohammadi’s job description is to keep the integrity of the regime intact and to stop those who plan to undermine the holy system of the Islamic Republic. But what does undermining mean? And what if it is actually the government of Iran that is doing the under- mining (as it does constantly)? These questions seem to puzzle Mr Mohammadi. So he is more than a little bit paranoid and edgy these days. When he calls you for questioning, you don’t know if he’s going to charge you with something or if he’s seeking advice.
These days, Mr Mohammadi’s main concern is that the American fifth column, disguised as civil rights activists, as well as scholars and journalists, is destabilising the Islamic Republic. The American government has, after all, allocated US$75m to promote ‘democracy’ in Iran. To put it in layman’s terms, it means undermining the Islamic government through the media and civil society groups. The American government is also giving US$63 billion in military aid to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel to ‘counter Iran’. The US would love to have agents in the country to take the money and spend it wisely. There are so many social and economic problems in Iran, that if someone wanted to exploit them to create dissent it wouldn’t be difficult to do so. But most activists I know inside Iran wouldn’t touch the money with a bargepole and resent the American government much more than their own. In the meantime, the Iranian government tries to find foreign perpetrators and domestic accomplices instead of solving the root causes of dissent, such as mismanagement of the country’s economy, poverty, internal migration and drug addiction.
In the 1980s and 1990s, intelligence agents were rough and scary. You were guilty until proven otherwise. But nowadays, they politely call you for tea at some fancy hotel or other to question you. I never understood their fascination with hotels. Why can’t you just meet them in their offices? Or why don’t they come to your office? Why not a restaurant, a park or a cinema? Anyway, when you enter the hotel room you are offered a range of non-alcoholic drinks. Mr Mohammadi is very generous with his beverages. As soon as you finish your tea you are offered Nescafe , then some kind of juice, then Fanta, Pepsi etc. But he never offers anything solid. Why can you drink tea while being asked about plots against the government but not have a biscuit? Does an interrogation over a kebab lunch make it less trustworthy?
These questions of course pop into your head while you’re enjoying the comfort of not being in Mr Mohammadi’s presence. He has killed many people in the past. And you know that he is well capable of violence again if he thinks it necessary Mr Mohammadi’s counterparts in numerous parallel security apparatuses (intelligence units of the judiciary, Revolutionary Guards and the police) still have not caught up with his methods. Recently a number of students and labour activists were arrested and instead of being offered tea or Nescafe in an upscale hotel they spent days in solitary confinement and were beaten up with electric cables and batons. I met the three different Mr Mohammadis while on assignment for Newsweek magazine. I was writing an article about the suppression of civil society and civil rights activists in Iran.
Day one: I’ve set up an appointment with a teachers’ union leader at a cafe . I am supposed to meet him after an exam at the high school where he teaches. The teacher doesn’t show up on time. I wait for an hour. Even by Iranian standards he is late. I call him on his mobile but it is off. Strange. He was so keen to talk the day before, so what has happened? I then get a call from his mobile.
‘Who is that?’ the caller asks. It is not the teacher. ‘I’m Bahari from Newsweek.’ ‘News what?’ ‘Week.’
‘So you’re a journalist. Will call later.’ I learn that the teacher was arrested during the exam and sent to prison. An hour later I get a call from a ‘private number’. It is a new voice. He is much more pleasant. There are several intelligence apparatuses in Iran. The judiciary, Revolutionary Guards and the police – each has its own intelligence arm. But Mr Mohammadi’s Ministry of Intelligence is supposed to be the main one.
It certainly is the most professional, and polite, one. ‘Could you come to … Hotel at three this afternoon’ asks Mr Mohammadi. It’s been a while since I’ve been summoned. Naturally I oblige.
Mr Mohammadi has become more polite, cordial and strangely reassuring. He sneaks a smile when I ask him, ‘Why am I summoned here?’ He used to give me an angry look that would mean he is the one in charge, not me. He begins by asking really simple questions about me and my work: who am I? How long have I worked for Newsweek? Why did I want to meet the teacher? Have I ever met him before? What is the angle of my story? Easy questions to answer. Mr Mohammadi is quite relaxed. He scribbles in his notebook while I talk and every now and then exchanges a smile with me. There’s nothing remotely amusing about what I’m saying, but Mr Mohammadi keeps on smiling. That makes me think: what is so interesting about the banality I’m spewing here? Is he really taking notes or is he doodling a fish? Is it a dead fish? Maybe it’s a fish in the belly of another one. When is he going to let me out of here? Is he going to let me out of here?
I get tired of talking after a while. Then, like Mohammad Ali in the seventh round of his fight with George Foreman, Mr Mohammadi snaps and starts to challenge me. He keeps on smiling. I wish he wouldn’t. Why do I think an American publication is interested in talking to Iranian dissidents? Was I given a list of questions by American paymasters to ask the dissidents? Have I ever been to any conferences in the US or in Europe? Have I ever met any dissidents in Europe or the US? How did I come to be chosen as Newsweek’s correspondent in Iran and not someone else? Mr Mohammadi is now targeting my integrity as a journalist, explicitly trying to make a connection between me and a dissident, suggesting that we both work as agents of the Great Satan and that we are part of a bigger plot to topple the Islamic government.
If this session had been with previous Mr Mohammadis a few years ago, I would be scared of a pending trial and imprisonment for something I had never done – a destiny that befell many of my friends and colleagues. But what makes this Mr Mohammadi tolerable, is his half-hearted approach to the whole thing. His expression is not a grin or a smirk. You can see that he’s been down this road before and really doesn’t think that it works. He almost feels sorry for himself and asks for your sympathy. He looks genuinely confused and somehow out of his depth. His bosses have come up with a conspiracy theory and asked Mr Mohammadi to validate it. He is a smart man and has been down this road many times since the 1979 Islamic revolution. It’s never worked in the past and it doesn’t work now. Mr Mohammadi knows that he’s wasting his time and mine. He knows that his government should reform itself if it wants to survive. As former Minister of Intelligence Ali Yunessi (who was removed from office
Mr Mohammadi says that he is sorry for the trouble. He then gives me a modified farewell spiel in the style of the other Mr Mohammadi and the others before him. The conclusion remains the same: we know where you live.
Day four: I’ve been meeting feminist activists to find out why 15 of them were sent to jail and how they were treated in Tehran’s Evin prison. Apparently, their Mr Mohammadi was not that different from mine. He smiled and tried to find a connection between them and the government of the United States. Less than an hour after I leave the house of my last interviewee, I’m invited to have tea at a hotel. This time it’s a different, more upscale one.
I decide that if Mr Mohammadi’s job is to scare people like me into censoring ourselves or leaving Iran then my job is to tell him and his bosses to wake up and change. You can’t lead a country by scaring people all the time. The Islamic Republic of Iran is at the height of its power. The US has gotten rid of your two great enemies, Saddam in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. For you, there is no viable opposition to your government and you’re selling oil at 70 dollars a barrel. But with power comes responsibility. Isn’t it time to grow up and feel confident? Why does the government spend its time and money on people like me while the country is being gnawed at from the inside by pollution, unemployment, drug addiction and prostitution? Doesn’t Mr Mohammadi see all the drug addicts in the parks and on the street corners all over Iran? Doesn’t he find it strange that in a country that calls itself the motherland of all Muslims of the world, the average age of the prostitutes is 16?
Finally, Mr Mohammadi’s smile is gone. ‘There is one thing that you forget in your mature government theory.’ I feel that he is finally coming out of his bureaucratic intelligence shell. ‘I’ve heard that you’ve studied in Canada.’
‘Good. Now imagine if Iran has 250,000 soldiers in Canada and Mexico [about the same number of American soldiers in Iran’s neighbours Iraq and Afghanistan] and then allocates a budget to help civil rights movements in the United States, let’s say to the Black Panthers or a native Indian movement, wouldn’t Americans be paranoid? We know our internal problems much better than anyone and we definitely do our best to tell those who are responsible about the social maladies you just talked about. But this is Iran. It takes ages for anything to happen. In the meantime we have a vicious enemy to deal with: the United States. It’s determined to topple our government by any means necessary. As Tom Clancy says, the United States is [Mr Mohammadi’s exact words]: A Clear and Present Danger.’
I don’t know how Mr Mohammadi will react to my writing about these encounters. Not too happily, I guess. He strongly advised me not to talk about these meetings with anyone. But it’s important to know that Mr Mohammadi has changed. And if he can change, the Islamic regime can change. I’m still not too convinced about his point about the American threat. Throughout its history, the Islamic Republic has looked for foreign enemies and has usually found them around the world in abundance. Yet on many occasions it has undermined its own legitimacy by linking the genuine domestic opposition to its foreign ene- mies. It’s time for the international community, especially the United States, to accept that the Islamic Republic is a force to be reckoned with and deserves respect as much any other sovereign nation. But it is equally important for the Islamic Republic to realise its own maturity and act responsibly. Maybe instead of a conference on the myth of the Holocaust, our president could organise a conference entitled ‘Islamic Republic of Iran: 28 Years of Trials and Tribulations’.
On a more personal note, the change can start with the government treating its citizens with respect. I know Mr Mohammadi knows where I live. He doesn’t have to brag about it.
Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, he was imprisoned in Tehran from June to October 2009.
This article first appeared in Index on Censorship magazine, Volume 36 Number 3. Click here to subscribe.