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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 Iason Athanasiadis
“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.”