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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

“The think tanks and foundations were run by former high administration officials who often returned to government service through a constantly revolving door. It was hardly far-fetched to conclude that these men – part of a governing elite – pursued the same policy goals in think tanks as they did in the government, and that the Iranian scholars – many of them unqualified – whom they identified and selected for fellowships and conference participation were selected not at random but as part of a larger scheme.”

Of course, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. The Bush Administration hardly hid its distaste for the Islamic Republic through its eight years in power. It voted through a democracy-promotion budget attacked by critics as regime change in disguise. Covert operations and overflies by military aircraft continued inside and over Iran.

And Western and Israeli intelligence continues to run operations aiming to destabilize Iran’s nuclear program and target its scientists either for defection or assassination. But where, in her interrogators’ eyes, did Esfandiari fit into all this? In her job, she organized international conferences that brought together decision-makers and academics. If some of these became forums where intelligence organizations could recruit from both sides, can that really be considered culpability? Was the suspicion of facilitating an academic forum in which such contacts might occur worth putting a woman in her sixties through a year of anguish?

The relentlessly gloomy narrative is illuminated by flashes of humor. During a televised confession, Esfandiari’s interrogator sharply gestures for her to adjust her headscarf. Even after she’s pulled it well over her hair in Islamically-appropriate fashion, his hand signals don’t stop until she realizes that he is asking her to pull it back, exposing her hair, rather than forward.

“Here I was, accused of endangering state security, yet my interrogator wanted to make sure that I looked ‘modern’ and, like the young women in Tehran, casual in the way I wore my Islamic dress,” Esfandiari reflects.

In what she describes as a “theater of the absurd,” Esfandiari is anointed the “doctor” by her interrogators who can heal her country of imperialist influences. Back in the cell, her female guards consult her on what color clothes to wear outside prison and how to get rid of persistent acne.

One of her guards walks around the prison corridors wearing a vibrating belt in an effort to develop a flat tummy but, upon viewing an exhibition of a museum of crimes perpetrated by the Shah’s torturers, sobers up and comments that “someday they will put our pictures in this museum.”

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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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