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Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

The first in a series of new books by former detainees lifts the veil on the secretive and often bizarre world of the Iranian Intelligence Services.

February 21, 2010 4:53 by

It was not quite my second day in Tehran’s Evin Prison when a jailer hauled me into an office before a tall thin man with sparkling black eyes, white socks, and the Iranian bureaucrat’s obligatory trimmed beard and collarless white shirt.

Introducing himself as the prosecutor of my case and assuming a dramatic air, he announced against me the most popular charge leveled against foreigners in Iran: espionage.

“But don’t worry,” he advised smoothly and with a twinkle in his eyes. “Like Roxana, you’ll get out soon and then write a book that has a million-copy print run.”

Iran’s judicial fraternity is clearly more media-savvy than the West gives them credit for. Roxana Saberi is the journalist who spent four months in an Iranian prison, was found guilty in an Iranian court of possessing classified documents but was released from her eight-year sentence after a global outcry over her plight.

She is now writing a memoir of her time in Iran, part of a crop of prison literature that the security crackdown of the past four years of the Ahmadinejad presidency has generated.

‘My Prison, My Home,’ another memoir of Iranian prisons, precedes Saberi’s offering which is set for publication early next year. Its author is Haleh Esfandiari, a soft-spoken but tenacious former journalist who currently directs the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program in Washington D.C.

Esfandiari was detained in Iran on one of her frequent visits to see her mother. She was questioned for several weeks by a disconcerting duo of men. One was a permanent interrogator called Ja’fari and another man referred to as Hajj Agha, a religious honorific, she never saw. Hajj Agha would be phoned and was “invariably courteous, although an undertone of threat was implicit in everything he said.”

Esfandiari was accused of orchestrating a velvet revolution in Iran on behalf of her employer, the Woodrow Wilson Center. In their minds, the think tank was acting as a deniable front for the American government.

“You’re talking about the surface things, the superficialities,” they insisted when she protests innocence. “We want to know about the core, the kernel, the hidden layers. Tell us about the hidden layers. With alarm, I began to see the shape of Ja’fari’s fantasies and the case he was trying to build against me,” Esfandiari writes.

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1 Comment

  1. Dave Kimble on February 22, 2010 2:53 am

    On page 150 of her book Esfandiari describes the way the Iranian security service saw her. “There was a simple, even compelling, but ultimately mad logic to Hajj Agha’s theory … a “logical” conclusion that, examined dispassionately, was simply wrong, divorced from reality.”

    I have researched the facts available on the internet in much the same way as the Iranian security service must have done, and I agree the facts are compelling that she is a CIA agent. See the facts laid out at, including a link to the confession video.

    But where is the “logical” refutation to go with the statement that they were “simply wrong” ? She doesn’t give one ! Out of a 230-page book, there is no logical refutation of the compelling argument that she is a CIA agent, someone who uses the cover of being an academic to go back and forth to Iran, while working for a US Government financed think tank, quite possibly handing out passwords to secure internet connections, so that Iranian dissidents can feed subversive information back to Washington.

    For all her protestations of innocence, there is nothing to prove it. For all her assertions of Iranian paranoia, and “mad logic”, she makes no logical argument at all as to why they are wrong. I can only assume, then, that she is what the Iranians say she is. Having been exposed, she is no longer of any use as an agent, (no one in Iran would dare be found plotting with her) so they let her go.


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