The man who said no: how Iran coerces expats to inform on friends

Behdad Esfahbod was forced by the Revolutionary Guard to enlist as a foreign agent. But when they tried to activate him, he went public instead

On 14 June, Behdad Esfahbod, a Facebook software engineer, received a text from a strange Instagram account, supposedly from “a friend of your aunt’s son”. But he knew exactly who it was. Esfahbod had been bracing himself for weeks, knowing it was inevitable.

The “aunt’s son’s friend” was the intelligence division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the message was a prearranged code.

“You were our guest in Tehran and we ate kebab – do you remember??? We chatted about Portugal and your work and your going to Portugal. I have a few questions about residency in Portugal??”, the message said.

What it meant was that it was time to go to work, as an IRGC agent in North America, sending back information about friends and acquaintances in the Iranian diaspora.

Esfahbod had already decided how he would respond. He did nothing. The next day there was a follow-up: “Hello, Mr Engineer, do you recognise me?” He ignored that too, and then the messages kept coming: through his WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal accounts. Esfahbod had already decided he was not going to play his assigned role, but instead tell his own story.

“They had a way to put pressure on me through my family without me having a way to put pressure on them,” he reasoned. “So going public gives me a way to pressure them to back off.”

On 7 January, Esfahbod flew to Iran on a two-week holiday to see his family and friends. It was a tense time, four days after the US assassination of the IRGC general Qassem Suleimani. The night he arrived in Tehran, Iran had retaliated with a missile attack on a US base in Iraq. The next morning the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian airliner over Tehran by mistake, killing 176 passengers and crew.

Esfahbod’s Portugese partner had urged him not to go, but he thought he had done nothing wrong and so had nothing to fear – a hopelessly naive assumption, he later realised.

They came for him on 15 January, minutes after he had met his father in Tehran, and would have found him sooner, had he not been using WhatsApp to chat with his friends. But he called his dad the old-fashioned way and the IRGC intelligence service was listening in.

“I was going to my next meeting with friends, and they called me by my last name which I don’t use, so I turned and there were these four plainclothes people,” he recalled. “They show me a warrant for my arrest and I saw it said IRGC intelligence on it and those are the most deadly forces in Iran. You don’t want to have to deal with them in your life … To be honest, for a moment I thought I’d never see the free world again.”

He was bundled into a car and was immediately asked for the pin to unlock his phone, then taken to the IRGC’s own wing of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where he was held for the next week.

Every day he was questioned for hours about the texts, emails and pictures on his phone. He was repeatedly told that nothing untoward had been found and he would be released the next day and he could fly away. But it did not happen.

On the seventh day the prospect of freedom was snatched away. Another interrogator appeared and told him his fate was in the hands of the courts. He would be held until his trial, and might be sentenced to two weeks or two years. Who knew? Unless he was prepared to work for the IRGC, sending information about Iranian activists he came across in the west. In that case his trial could be made to go away.

He was told: “You just live your life and hang out with these people, and keep giving us information about what they do. And then we just keep this judiciary case on hold indefinitely and you come back to Iran and everything will be fine.”

Esfahbod was briefed on how Iran’s spies would contact him and took a night flight out to Doha and then to Portugal to reunite with his partner. But getting back to work in the US was a problem. Following his arrest, his accounts had been erased and replacing them was complicated. Meanwhile he felt he could not pass through immigration where they often ask to see foreigners’ social media accounts.

When he finally returned through Newark airport he was pulled aside and questioned for a couple of hours on his stay in Iran.

“Then I told them everything and they brought like a couple extra officers who seem to know the IRGC very well,” he said. “So they listened to my story and we had a good conversation. They were very friendly. In the end they welcomed me home and told me that another agency might contact me to follow up later, but they never did.”

Once Esfahbod returned to Seattle the coronavirus pandemic had hit and he found himself stuck in the US, unable to see relatives in Canada or return to his partner in Portugal. As he waited, the repercussions of his experience crept upon him. He had been diagnosed with moderate bipolar disorder last year, and his imprisonment and interrogation threw him further off balance.

“All of February I was very paranoid and couldn’t talk, couldn’t go outside and I was on medical leave all of March,” he said.

As summer arrived Esfahbod braced himself for the inevitable contact from his would-be handlers and considered what he should do.

“The Black Lives Matter uprisings really affected me and I started looking at all the abuses I had seen around me,” he said. “I was sure I couldn’t get back to any sense of normalcy in my life without exposing my captors.”

Then the Instagram messages started arriving, followed by an official letter delivered to his sister in Tehran summoning him to court for trial. His case was no longer on hold.

Esfahbod sat down and wrote an account of his experience on Medium. He knew his father and sister in Tehran could suffer reprisals, but reasoned they would be targeted anyway when he failed to provide incriminating information about his friends and acquaintances.

“It was clear to me that they wouldn’t let me have anything like a normal life until I do this,” he said. “And what were my options? As soon as I reply to any of these messages, I become a spy, even if I wasn’t giving them real information.”

He also said he was trying to speak out for the many dual-national Iranians who had been through similar experiences.

“It is shedding more light on what’s already happening because we know many, many, many more people goes through the same thing,” Esfahbod said.

“The problem is we don’t know the extent. We don’t know if it’s ten people or a thousand people a year. We just know that most people can’t come out because they can afford to psychologically. People have very legitimate reasons to not come forward.”

Mehdi Yahyanejad, a friend of Esfahbod’s, a tech entrepreneur and an activist who co-founded Net Freedom Pioneers, an advocacy group for social change, said: “Considering the way he has timed this, this is something he has thought through well. It is not a rash decision.”

Esfahbod eventually quit his job. His relationship with his Portugese partner, a photographer and artist, fell apart, and he moved to Canada to stay with relatives, and start life anew.

“I like to quote this line from Janis Joplin,” he said. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

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