A Facebook employee and experienced programmer who was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards during a trip to visit his family in Iran has described how he was pressured to spy for the country in exchange for his freedom.
Behdad Esfahbod went public with his ordeal on August 17. Writing in English, he described the misery he went through during his time in detention. On the same day, a summons was sent to Esfahbod’s sister's house giving him five days to report to Evin court for interrogation.
“What happened to me keeps flashing through my mind, “ he wrote, adding that since he returned he is so anxious he has not been able to work.
Born in 1982, Esfahbod showed a talent for computer programming and innovative technology at an early age, winning a gold and silver medal at two consecutive World Computer Olympiad events before even finishing high school. He went on to get a Bachelor's degree in computer science from Sharif University and a Master's degree from the University of Toronto. He worked as a programmer for Redhat, an open-source software provider, and then for Google. In February 2019, he began working for Facebook.
Behdad Esfahbod arrived in Iran on January 7, intending to spend two weeks visiting his family. "The next day, the Revolutionary Guards attacked the American airbase in Iraq and shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane," he told IranWire. The series of incidents, which shocked the world, resulted in the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Guards’ Quds Force, in Iraq, and the death of all 176 passengers on Ukrainian Passenger Airlines flight PS752.
After arriving in Iran, Esfahbod traveled to Sari to see his family and attend the 40th anniversary of his grandfather's death, which he posted about on Instagram. As he later found out during interrogations, it was this post that alerted Iranian authorities to his presence in the country. He was arrested on January 15. ”I was walking when suddenly I heard them calling out to me using a family name I didn’t use. They called me Mr. Mir Hosseinzadeh. When I turned around, I saw four plainclothes officers. They showed me an arrest warrant. When I saw the logo of the judiciary and the label of the Guards’ intelligence unit, I saw my future flash before me. I thought: I will never leave wherever they are taking me."
Esfahbod was transferred to Evin Prison and spent the next seven days in solitary confinement. "I was blindfolded, even when I was outdoors. I think I was in Ward 1-A, which is operated by the Guards."
Targeted for Activism and His Tech Expertise
He says he realized that his links to the 2009 post-election Green Movement had made him a target. "I met many people who had worked in the media outside Iran after the Green Movement, and I had photos of many of them, which I had published on social media," he said. "I worked in another field and had nothing to do with media, but I was friends with these people. I was a friend, we would go out, we would have dinner, if they had a problem with their computer, they would ask me for help."
But it wasn’t just his involvement in the protests of 2009 that cast him as an enemy of Iran, and as someone who could help them. Behdad Esfahbod also said the Guards paid particular attention to software experts, and to people who know about content filtering. Over the years, Esfahbod has built up his expertise and had helped write key programs for Firefox and Google Chrome. ”I think after the internet was cut off during the protests last autumn, they focused on this issue. They thought I could cooperate with them."
His interrogators promised that if it could be proven that he had done nothing to work against the Islamic Republic and had not collaborated with dissidents, they would release him. But they also threatened that if he did not cooperate with them, he would see what Esfahbod describes as “the other side of the coin.” He handed his email password and passwords to his social media accounts over to the agents. ”What I knew about the Guards told me that non-cooperation was not an option,” he said. “So I voluntarily provided them with all the passwords."
Agents went through everything."All my emails and accounts for the last 15 years were checked over, and so were direct messages. If I was friends with an activist or a journalist, they would say, ‘Who is that? How did he know you? Where does he work?’"
His interrogators presented themselves as compassionate people who wanted to help bring about a quick release for Behdad Esfahbod: "They said, we have 300 gigs of data from you and it took two days to download it. But it will take two months to work on it. We want to do it quickly so you do not miss your flight.”
Offer of Spying Job
Esfahbod says Iranian authorities did not want information about the arrest of a Canadian citizen to be made public in the wake of the news of the downing of the passenger plane, in which 63 Canadians lost their lives. His family was told to be silent. "They could not read every single email and direct message, so they searched the names of various people and media outlets on my accounts to see if they could find anything." He was interrogated in a room with a desk facing the wall, where the interrogator sat with a computer and a printer: "There were usually three interrogators, two of whom were searching through my information. One of them asked questions, and gave me sheets of paper to write out the answers.” But there was no sign of anything sinister; Esfahbod had just been friends with these people."They did not find anything and so went on to Google. They printed out a page showing Radio Zamaneh thanking 10 people, my name among them, and put it down in front of me. They said if I had not been cooperating with the media, what is my name doing here? I explained that I basically work on Persian language script and editing programs, and that Radio Zamaneh used my Persian editor program and thanked me for it. Or they showed me a letter that I had signed in 2005, with a thousand other people, for the release of Akbar Ganji. They asked, 'What is this?’"
On the last day, they took a different approach, he says."One of the interrogators said, ‘you are not doing anything now, but you did something before. Now you have to go to court. The judge will rule on your cases and probably sentence you to between two and 10 years in prison.’ Then he offered to cooperate. He said, ‘I talked to them, I would like to help. We can lift the ban on you traveling and keep your file as necessary; you can come and go whenever you want. Just keep the same relationship you have with these people, keep talking to these people, or go out, have dinner and drinks. Keep it up and give us information about who is where, who said what, who did what...’"
At that moment, Esfahbod believed there was no other option.
"I thought to myself that I could stay and go to court and get a sentence of 10, 15 years for phony reasons. Or I could leave the country so I can tell my story and make it public."
Esfahbod promised to cooperate, and a one-billion-tomans [$50,000] bail was set for his release. "They asked whether I had any property in Iran. I have a two-bedroom apartment in Tehran where my sister lives with her family. I said yes. They issued a one-billion-tomans bail and sent an appraiser to estimate the price of the apartment. The expert valued the property for more than two billion tomans, but the whole property is in now under the court's charge."
He left Iran on January 25, 2020: "I stayed in Lisbon for a month because I was not feeling well. I was afraid to enter the United States and be questioned at the border." However, when he arrived in the United States, when asked by an airport official where he was staying, he described the situation: "My family informed my partner and he informed my manager at Facebook and the Canadian government was aware of the matter. At the airport I also mentioned about the Revolutionary Guards. We talked for two or three hours, and then they took my contact details and said, welcome home."
When asked why he didn’t go public with his ordeal when he first left Iran, Esfahbod said, "I tried to play their game and falsely promise to cooperate. But I knew if I gave them any answers, I would be considered a spy, so I had to be sure I didn’t answer them. I was thinking and asking myself, can I remain silent, like so many who find themselves in a similar situation? Or should I go public? But I left this to decide when they called. Five months later, beginning on June 15, the calls started. I did not answer them."
Three weeks ago, however, agents called his sister. "They told her, ‘tell Behdad to call us.’ Then they called again and asked when would I would call. My sister said she had delivered the message, but told them, ‘Behadad will do what he wants to do.’ On August 17, the summons for Behdad Esfahbod to attend a last interrogation session arrived at his sister's house. "During this time, I had gathered the courage to make this issue public. When my sister announced that I had been summoned, I sat down and wrote my story.”
A Familiar Tactic
The Islamic Republic's security services routinely urge prisoners with foreign links, whether they are dual nationals or have residency abroad, to act as spies. Aras Amiri, a Kingston University art management student and British Council employee, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. In July 2019, she wrote a letter to the head of the judiciary stating that she had been interrogated at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran before her arrest and had received an offer to cooperate with the Ministry of Intelligence. Ahmad Reza Jalali, a disaster management specialist and researcher living with residency status in Sweden has been sentenced to death, but he too was urged to carry out spy operations for Iran prior to his arrest. "During my visit to Iran in 2014, two people from a military center and the Ministry of Intelligence met with me," he wrote in a letter after the video of his forced confessions was aired on Islamic Republic television. "They asked me to work with them to identify and collect information and data in European countries, including [information about] fighting chemical, biological, and terrorist operations. My answer was no. I told them I was a scientist, and not a spy."
The husband of Iranian-British prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe husband also told IranWire that his wife had also been pressured to spy. He said interrogators visited Zaghari-Ratcliffe in prison in December 2018. “More than two and half years after Nazanin was arrested, they made her this offer to put both her and her family under pressure,” he said. “But I do not think that they necessarily want her to spy for them. Their intention is more to confuse and frighten her so that she will believe spying is her only way to freedom.” Security agents and interrogators had urged her to spy before this, too. “I know that during interrogations, after she was arrested but before the trial, they had asked her to spy for them. I have no idea on what or whom they had asked her to spy. I believe this happened in the early weeks of the interrogations. After a few weeks, when they could not find anything and decided that she had done nothing, they put pressure on her to spy in London. I guess they wanted her to spy on Iranians who live in London. She rejected this offer and eventually they decided to use her as a hostage for bargaining with the British government and sentenced her to five years in prison.”
Behdad Esfahbod knew the stories of all these people, but he had never thought that his work would be relevant to any kind of information agents might want to access. "I always thought if they arrested me, they would know within a week who I knew. This was correct, but I did not think that they would ask me to be a spy. I couldn’t have predicted this.”
Esfahbod says he is not worried about himself now, and that his only concern is his family in Iran. "I do not know what their next move will be, when they will knock on my sister's door. But I know what I did was the right decision and I have no regrets about it. I have not been able to work over these last months. I felt I could not return to a normal life until I spoke out publicly about the injustice done to me."