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In the Tehran jail, I was the ‘Great British Spy’

Iason Athanasiadis was arrested after writing a piece for The Spectator on the Iranian demonstrations. He learned from his interrogators how deep is the historic hatred of the British

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

‘We have told the Greek ambassador that the reason we are holding you has nothing to do with Greece, which we respect as an old civilisation,’ my interrogator announced. ‘Even if it is now in the EU,’ he added, unable to resist a little dig.

‘No, the reason you are here is because of the role you have played as a spy for England.’ Jasoos-e Inglis. English spy. By this time I had heard those words repeated over and over again. At the sound of the word ‘jasoos’ my body stiffened involuntarily inside my prison uniform into a defensive position: crossed hands and legs. I knew better now than to laugh.

During my first day in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison the words ‘English spy’ had seemed comic. I was arrested trying to leave the country, soon after filing a piece for the Spectator, a description of the troubled streets of Tehran. I was just past passport control, almost within sight of the plane, when I was stopped by two men and dragged, kicking, to a car. But though the arrest had shaken me, I was sure, initially, that my innocence would soon be established.

Even when the prosecuting judge had announced that my charge was espionage, I had grinned. ‘Why are you smiling?’ he asked me, surprised. ‘Because you Iranians call every foreigner you arrest a spy,’ I said. ‘But what does it say about your country and your civilisation if you treat anyone who cares enough to travel here or even learn your language as a criminal?’

‘Once bitten, twice shy,’ was my interrogator’s retort. It is true that Britain’s foreign policy has not been kind to Iran. But I’m half Greek and no great fan of British foreign policy. I still expected that my interrogators would read some of my articles written over five years of living in or visiting Iran and realise that I have often addressed this point. But the trouble with paranoiacs is that they process reality not through available information but through the gaps in available knowledge, the Rumsfeldian ‘known unknowables’ lurking out of sight behind the curtain.

I told my interrogators repeatedly that to arrest me for espionage was beyond ridiculous. I’ve lived in this country on my British passport for three years, I said. Surely, if I were an English spy, I would have tried to hide that little detail. I’ve also been quite open about my background with the BBC and al-Jazeera (both deeply suspicious broadcasters from an Iranian perspective). A spy would have kept those things secret.

But there is little place for truth amid hysteria. Both the prosecutor and Iranian intelligence wanted me to be a spy, so for the next 18 days I was treated as one, stuck in Section 209, the part of the prison wholly controlled by the Intelligence Ministry.

I was slapped around the face, shouted at by gold-toothed, bearded men, kept in a cell which remained brightly lit 24 hours a day. I was allowed no reading material, no radio and no other kind of distraction — except a well-thumbed copy of the Koran.

As I sat in my windowless cell, between interrogations, I thought back to my three-year residence in Iran and realised that my local friends had understood the risk of being British better than I did. One of the British embassy staff (also arrested) would greet me at every social occasion with a mock-surprised look and the same ‘hilarious’ question: ‘Haven’t they rounded you up yet?’ I didn’t know then just how close to the bone this joke was. I also had no idea just how deep the Iranian antipathy to Britain runs. It’s not just rhetoric, it turns out, an easy excuse to explain away popular unhappiness with the regime. They genuinely believe Britain is meddling throughout the region.

In line with my reputation as Jasoos-e bozorg-e Inglis (the Great British Spy), my first interrogators approached me as if I were an alien creature with potentially supernatural powers. When I told them I had heard the crowds shouting ‘Death to Britain’ in last week’s Friday prayers there was a nonplussed silence as if they suspected me of being able to hear through walls. They had momentarily forgotten that prison tannoys broadcast prayers through the network of prison corridors. That was the last time the sermon was broadcast over the prison loudspeakers, cutting me off from even that tiny source of information.

Like every Iranian, I had read Dear Uncle Napoleon, the definitive literary work on the Iranian obsession with the English. And I had listened to its author Iraj Pezeshkzad explaining in an MIT auditorium that his novel was a satire on the Iranian tendency to blame everyday occurrences on supernatural elements or outside forces: a fruitless effort, he added, judging from his conversation with a fellow Iranian reading his book on a transatlantic trip. ‘What do you make of that book?’ Pezeshkzad asked him without revealing himself as its author. ‘British propaganda,’ his neighbour instantly replied. ‘Those wily English foxes have tricked us once again with this ingenious “novel” to make us laugh at their perfidious role in our country.’

So where does this almost transcendental fear of the English come from? I had time to think in prison, and I decided that it has much to do with Iran’s geographical position in the hinterland of the British Empire. Unlike the Indians, the Iranians never dealt with British administrators, never lived in British-designed cities, never came to know the English up close. Their only encounters with the vaunted empire crouching just over the common buffer zone of Baluchestan were with shadowy spies engaged in the Great Game and fluent Persian-speaking diplomats at the courts of the Safavids, Qajars and Pahlavis.

Back in Evin, my interrogator was about to reveal to me ‘definitive proof’ that I was a spy. He handed me a printout of a colour image as if he were dispensing a death sentence. The colour picture showed a younger me in a crowded conference hall chatting with a tall man I recognised as the press attaché at the British embassy.

There was a pregnant silence. Although facing the wall, I felt several pairs of eyes scrutinising me for a reaction. ‘You want to know why a journalist in Iran on a British passport would be chatting at a conference with the press attaché of the British embassy?’ I asked.

Later, another interrogator would ask me in a voice full of innuendo whether I had read Death Plus Ten Years, the memoirs of an Englishman called Roger Cooper convicted of spying in post-revolutionary Iran. Apparently its Persian language translation was a favourite in the Intelligence Ministry coffee room.

‘Just from reading it you can sense that he had a negah-e etelaati (intelligence viewpoint),’ my interrogator said. I promised to read it upon my release.

Later, when we had departed the land of baseless accusation for the land of convivial chat, I asked my interrogator whether he thought England’s role in his country had changed over the past 200 years. ‘I don’t see fundamental change,’ said my interrogator. ‘Before they used to send in their spies directly. Now they achieve their agendas through “civil society”.’

I was released a few days later. The spying charges had not stuck. Yet I was certain that my interrogators had convinced themselves that even my release was part of some dastardly British plot.

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