"The FBI people came and visited me. I'm not going to say anything more. They told me not to tell anyone," my friend said during dinner a few weeks ago.
I didn't say a word. I pretended I didn't hear anything.
This is the fifth or sixth person I know personally who has been contacted by the FBI. This is what usually happens: two agents show up unannounced at your residence. They ask if they could come in and have a chat. They are polite and friendly. They want information, anything that would be of interest to the security of the United States. They ask if you would be willing to become an informant. In all cases, as far as I know (I can't be absolutely sure), direct cooperation was refused, although all said they would of course report any potential dangerous activity.
"How's Mehdi doing? What's he up to these days? Is he in Iran or U.S.?" I asked a friend a few months ago. The FBI had also paid him and his wife a visit, so he had some experience.
"I'm not sure. Never know what he's up to. He called me the other day and said the FBI wanted to talk to him. He wanted me to give him advice. I told him it's entirely up to him. He had to decide. I think he met with agents three or four times. He called me again and asked what he should do. I told him, baba, just say you will or you won't cooperate. Make up your mind!"
We laughed thinking how the FBI were being given the runaround. We know "Mehdi" (that's not his real name) well. It's hard to get a straight answer from him.
Every time I hear about a new case, a part of me gets jealous. Maybe jealous is not the right word. I feel left out and ignored. Why won't the FBI talk to ME? Don't I know a lot of stuff about Iran and Iranians? If I was the FBI, I would definitely put my name on the contact list. But no... nothing so far. No visit, no phone call. Losers!
Don't get me wrong. I would never become an agent or informant. But they could at least ask! :>)
I know what it is. They must have figured out that I have a big mouth. If the FBI came to my door I would blog about it the next day. Guaran'fn'teed.
When I was about 15 and living with one of my sisters and her husband in southern California, I went on a road trip with them and a few of their friends. They were mostly political activists and very much against the shah. This was around 1977. One of them asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had no real idea but I loved James Bond movies. I said I wanted to become a spy. Well, you would have thought I said I wanted to become the devil himself. I got such a stern lecture about SAVAK and the terrible things it did. I hardly knew what SAVAK was.
The first time I heard about SAVAK was a couple of years earlier in Abadan. Some friends and I were in the parking lot of Segoosh swimming pool. There was a guy sitting on a big motorcycle. "He's a SAVAKI," one of my friends said. Damn! A spy? Really?
When students occupied the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, they published a lot of the secret documents they found, including stuff that had been through the shredder and painstakingly put together. I found them fascinating. After all, what officials say in public is often very different from what they actually think. I was curious to know what the Americans were up to and really thought about Iran under the shah, and the first months after the revolution. I read every volume. This was REAL James Bond stuff. I loved it.
One of the last volumes was published in the late 1980s. I was in London and had brought a copy from Tehran. I thought the American press would be interested in the latest secrets to come out of the embassy. I made an appointment with the New York Times correspondent in London, the late Raymond Apple, whom I had met in Iran. I offered to sell the book to him. He said he wasn't interested. I was so embarrassed. Felt like an ass. I should have just given it to him.
I have never met a spy in my life. Let me rephrase that. I have never met anyone I KNEW for sure was a spy. But I have met and worked with some, let's say, interesting characters.
When I worked for IRNA in the early 1980s, I took a part-time job at Kayhan International. At the time Kayhan publishing house was under the management of Mohammad Khatami. The editor of the English newspaper was Masoumeh Ebtekar, who later became the head of the Environmental Protection Organization when Khatami became president (she was also the English spokesperson for students who had taken over the American embassy).
There I met three African Americans who worked as copy editors. Hassan Abdulrahman, another guy named Luqman and his wife Shakura (don't remember their last names). I never asked how they ended up in Iran. I just assumed they were Muslims who believed in whatever the Islamic Republic stood for.
Luqman did not get along with Iranians too well. First of all, the type of people he was working with were not strict Muslims. They had been hired primarily for their English skills, not their political or religious views. He didn't feel much in common with them. Plus, the Iranians had never seen a black person in their life and I could sense there was some racist tension.
I don't know what happened exactly, but I heard Luqman had a nervous breakdown and he left Iran with his wife after a couple of years. Hassan, on the other hand, is still in Iran.
Hassan was always cool and collected. Intelligent with a sense of humor. I enjoyed our conversations. He was honest. He said what was on his mind, even if it wasn't in line with the policies of the Islamic Republic.
The last time we spoke was during my last visit to Iran in 1995. By then he spoke good Persian, had taken an Iranian wife, I believe, and settled pretty well. I was not the same person he knew when we first met at Kayhan International. I was very much done with religion and the Islamic Republic and had moved to the U.S.
I asked him why he had stayed in Iran for so long, because I knew he too had changed, politically at least. He was not as fond of the Islamic Republic as he once was. He said he wanted to leave Iran, but there were not many places he could go. Maybe Afghanistan. He didn't go into details, but he said it was impossible to go back to America. He felt trapped.
Not long after I went back to the U.S., Hassan gave an interview to ABC, or CBS, television news. It was then I first found out why he went to Iran and never left. His real name is David Theodore Belfield. In 1980, posing as a postman, he shot and killed a former diplomat, an alleged SAVAKI, based in the Iranian embassy in Washington before the revolution.
Hassan is on the FBI wanted list.
The weirdest character I worked with, in the early 1980s, was an American guy who called himself Jalal Anderson, if my memory serves me correctly. He looked like a cross between Homer Simpson and his neighbor, Flanders. He was hired by IRNA as a copy editor in the English section. He didn't do anything to raise any suspicions but he just looked odd and out of place. Shy and untidy. We all wondered why the hell HE would want to be in the Islamic Republic. For the money? Maybe. Foreigners got paid in U.S. dollars which in real terms meant ten times more than everyone else. But still, something about him didn't feel right. He stayed in Iran for five or six years, I think.
I just did a google search for his name. Nothing, zilch.
In 1981, a few months after Iraq invaded Iran, many opposition groups were banned and forced underground. Giving war and national unity as an excuse, the authorities began to silence all critics in the most brutal fashion, much worse than what was witnessed in the past year. Mojahedin Khalgh and a few other radical groups launched an armed struggle, killing many officials as well as revolutionary guards and basijis.
One day it was announced that everybody had to go the local mosque or Komiteh to register. Appointments were made in alphabetical order. Those whose last names started with A went first, and so forth. Officials came to every residence and checked for any suspicious activity. The purpose was to weed out suspected terrorists in hiding. Meanwhile if they found any "anti-revolutionary" books, newspapers or photographs, the owners would have been arrested and potentially severely punished.
My favorite hobby was to collect everything I could get my hands on. That is everything that had to do with the revolution and the Islamic Republic. I had newspapers, books, pamphlets and posters from every group, most of which were now at war with the regime. I got very worried. I would have had to do a lot of explaining if my private library had been discovered. If you had anti-government material, you were guilty no matter what.
At the time, I did freelance photography for Soroosh magazine, which was published by the state radio and TV. I told the editor that I wanted to get rid of my library, but I didn't want the material destroyed. I felt they were part of history and had to be preserved in some way. A few days later he gave me an address and told me to take the stuff there on a certain day and time.
On the day of the appointment, I put all the "dangerous" literature in boxes and hired a taxi. I was not familiar with Tehran and not sure where the address was. All I remember was that it was in north Tehran. There was no sign outside. Only a metal gate and behind it a relatively large cube-shaped building covered with dark glass. I was escorted inside an office. I remember the man behind the desk looked a bit like Ebrahim Yazdi, the former foreign minister and Nehzat Azadi leader. The meeting did not last long. I just told him why I was there, handed over the boxes and left.
Fastforward to 1997. I got a call from a friend of mine. He said Saeed Hajjarian, a reformist member of Tehran's city council had been shot in the head and was close to death. He wanted me to ask my brother, who's a neurosurgeon in New York, to fly to Tehran. I told him my brother was on vacation. I lied. I was positive he wouldn't go to Tehran. He had not been to Iran after the revolution and did not want to get involved in anything political. To my great surprise, a couple of hours later I found out he was already en route to Tehran. He saved Hajjarian's life.
I didn't know who Hajjarian was. When I looked at his picture I couldn't believe it. He looked just like the guy I met in 1981. When I read about his background, I became pretty certain it was him. He worked for the Intelligence Ministry in the 1980s before joining the reformists. A few months ago, as a close adviser to Mir Hossein Mousavi, Hajjarian and many others were put on trial after "confessing" to... whatever.
I have a secret I would like to share. Well, I think it's a secret and a pretty important one. But you may disagree. A friend of mine laughed when I told her. She didn't think it was anything that significant. I disagree. It's something that should be recorded in the history of the 8-year war with Iraq.
During the war, Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and civilians was well-documented. Iran got a lot of sympathy for it and the Iraqis came under considerable international pressure. But what about Iran's use of chemical weapons? It was never suspected and no one reported it.
In the final year of the war, in 1987-88, I remember seeing news items at IRNA that said Iraqi forces had suffered casualties from their own chemical weapons. The wind had changed the direction of the poisonous clouds, the reports claimed. Years later, a friend of mine who worked for the War Propagation Headquarters (setaad tablighaat jang) told me that in fact the Iranian air force had dropped chemical bombs on Iraqi troops. The "wind change" stories were a cover up.
Also, a relative of mine who was a soldier in the army during the final phase of the war, told me he was aware of secret revolutionary guards' artillery units which fired chemical shells against the Iraqis.
One thing I wonder about is whether I have dated any spies. If I did I'm sure they were disappointed, professionally speaking. The closest I came to being in that situation was when I dated someone who trained Persian-speakers for the U.S. military. I made sure I never asked any questions about her job and if she spoke about it I would change the subject. I just didn't want any of us getting into trouble.
When I left Iran in 1990, I enrolled at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I was shocked to see ads in the student newspaper for CIA jobs. I thought the CIA was so secretive that it wouldn't openly advertise employment opportunities. But I guess like any organization it needs to recruit people. And ads aren't the only way.
I took a political science class. One day the professor asked me to have lunch with him. I didn't think anything of it and agreed. The lunch was pretty uneventful and we didn't talk about any unusual topics. Sometime later I was told by another student that the professor hired foreign students for the CIA. Hmm... I don't know if it was true or not, but if it was, the professor obviously didn't think I was made for it.
And he would have been right.
I find spying to be a despicable occupation, especially the kind involving political espionage that invade privacies and harm individuals and nations. I'm a firm believer in government transparency. I think spy agencies are largely unnecessary and a huge waste of money. Personally, I can never keep a secret. My life is an open book. I have revealed many things on these pages that are far from flattering. I'm a terrible liar. I can be evasive and economical with the truth, but that's about it.
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