Leaving Iran While Looking Over Your Shoulder: A Reporter’s Diary

Leaving Iran While Looking Over Your Shoulder: A Reporters Diary

Two days before leaving Tehran and three weeks after Iranian Intelligence had come around looking for me, I was taking no chances. The notes, essays and photos on the protests I had been regularly sending back for publication would have to be sent to the States separately…with my grandma. She had a flight to the U.S. one month after mine and although the training manuals at Langley likely do not recommend it, I spent the better part of my final days in the Islamic Republic debating whether or not to convince my own grandmother to discretely include a pair of flash drives with her luggage.

I was not a spy of course, but circumstances compelled me for a brief time to play some kind of spook. Directed by fear, I started to write the script myself, a story more 80s screwball comedy than James Bond. I gave the regime the best and most powerful lines. I would have to settle for the part of the trickster, a rogue Br’er Rabbit racing through the streets of Tehran. For several weeks I went underground. I continued to send dispatches back to various publications and websites in the U.S. using a rotating set of email accounts registered under outrageous pseudonyms. On Facebook I took on an alias worthy of an old-school rapper. Certain that every word was being monitored, I embarked on a crash-course in Internet and PC security, schooling myself on the possibilities of deep-package inspection, VPNs, and onion routing. It was not long before I began to wonder at the online company that I was keeping. What was this world that I had entered Who exactly, other than pedophiles, committed civil libertarians, and the occasional serial killer, bothers with deep encryption…

Driven by its own set of fears, the Iranian state also played out its role. Unlike the old Soviet Union or contemporary North Korea, Iran is not entirely sealed off from the United States or the rest of the world. Iranian-Americans have for years traveled with relative ease between their two countries, the beneficiaries of an informal policy of don’t-ask-don’t-tell set up between these two old adversaries. The status of Iranian-Americans in Iran itself is a tenuous one, the state’s attitude toward us equivocal at best. Like the Internet and satellite dishes, we are tolerated but kept under official watch, seen as a source of good and potential bad.

Our situation as dual-nationals had become more precarious in the aftermath of the presidential election. State media had already placed the source of the trouble outside of the country. The news for days ran footage of “voluntary” confessions by local citizens led astray by foreign elements, the latter typically Iranians operating out of the U.K. . As a kharaji, or foreigner, who had arrived on a flight from London shortly before the vote, I fit the profile of the state’s narrative too well. The machinery had little choice but to check up on me, its logic dictating the visits by paired government men curious to know what an “Iranian-American with a foreign accent” was up to. Don’t worry, a friend assured me, they’re professional. These guys won’t waste their time if there’s nothing there. It’s how they’ve stayed in power for 30 years.

Perhaps. The truth is that I could not be certain why agents had come after me or where it would lead to. This was the problem, of course, the uncertainty. Regimes like the Islamic Republic excel in sowing doubt. Without transparency and allowed unfettered access to my own imagination I started to question everyone, including my own friends. Had one of them sold me out Who could I trust It was a path of suspicion that led unexpectedly to myself. I began to understand Rubashov in his cell, in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a man driven by his own logic to accept and even defend the judgment of his tormentors. Maybe I deserved it, maybe I had it coming. Not yet accused, I was already guilty. I had convicted myself.

Paranoia is above all the death of exaggeration. Many of us became great storytellers in our fear, ascribing near-unlimited powers to the state. Life became cramped as we turned inwards on ourselves, picking up the censor’s pen to scrupulously measure every word and deed. Ordinary phone calls became exercises in awkward misdirection and elision, and everyday conversations came with a healthy dose of looking over our shoulders. These were habits that I would later find difficult to shake. The movie, it seemed, would not end in Tehran, would have no final scene.

It wasn’t like this before. In normal times, Iranians speak quite openly and publicly about politics and their government. Visitors to Tehran are regularly surprised by the level of candor and outright griping on the part of the citizenry. Taxi cabs in particular are hotbeds of sedition, roving confessional booths for those with grievances against the regime. With the crackdown ratcheting up by the day such conversations became less common, taxi rides turned more subdued. Citizens fell back on the old Persian habits of evasion and mistrust. For all of the bravery witnessed in the gathering crowds, many us felt compelled to run scared when we were by ourselves. It just wasn’t worth it, not yet, to defy this government standing alone…

All of the backtracking and subterfuge ultimately led to one place: the airport. If they were going to get me, this is where it would go down. In the end the files and flash drives came with me. I stepped through the stage one final time, the set design of my own making. Nothing happened. I made it through immigration in Tehran and carried myself through without incident all the way to Montreal. There, during my final layover en route to the United States, I was finally patted down. I watched the agent spread books and magazines pulled from my backpack out before me, a judicious collection of Islamic Revolutionary materials packed in consideration of the authorities at Imam Khomeini Airport. I could only feel shame. After all of that worry, nothing had happened.

Citing “residual paranoia,” our reporter chooses to use the pseudonym Shane M