The February/March 2020 issue of 1843 magazine tells Nicolas Pelham’s extraordinary story of being trapped in Iran. The Economist’s Middle East correspondent had received a rare journalist’s visa to Iran to report for one week in July 2019. On the day he was due to fly back to London he was detained by intelligence officials from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, one of the country’s most powerful institutions. He was held for three days by members of the Guards. He was then allowed to stay in a hotel in Tehran but questioned repeatedly by his captors and prevented from leaving the country for seven weeks.
Here, he speaks to Anne McElvoy, head of Economist Radio, about his experience. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Did you think about the risks given that there was heightened tension at the time of your reporting trip?
I had taken a few precautions before leaving. I’d double checked with the embassy about whether this was a wise thing to do. Other people whom I knew were close to the regime in London had assured me that they had assurances that nothing would happen. But I think that’s how a lot of us do this job. We step into the unknown, and we hope that we’re going to come back with something which nobody else is going to have. If you didn’t take any risks in this job, particularly in the Middle East, I don’t think you could do it properly.
How had your visit gone until that day?
Initially they were quite helpful. They gave me press accreditation. Iran is pretty much unique in countries that I cover in that it not only provides a minder who is supposed to be with you 24 hours a day and follow every movement, but you have to pay for the privilege. The minder acts as a translator and it’s quite a hefty bill – $250 a day – that they charge you for the privilege. And this is a minder who isn’t just there to make sure that you don’t slip up, but anybody you talk to doesn’t slip up – either they carry a microphone with them or they record conversations on their mobile phone and they clearly identify themselves and make it known to any interlocutor that they’re vetting conversations.
And when did you first sense that something was wrong? Talk us through the initial moment of your arrest.
They said that a judge had given them authority to question me for up to 48 hours. They then suggested that they could do this in the hotel or it might just be a formality and they could get it all over and done with in time for me to catch my flight which was three hours away, provided that I accompany them in their car. They went through all my belongings, asked for my phones, my laptop, went through my notebooks. And at that point I was separated from my belongings.
What was going through your mind at that moment?
It’s a very strange process. Each individual move itself is not hugely alarming. The sum of the experiences is more intense than each individual change in your condition. Even at the bleakest moments you think, “this is ok”. You rationalise why this is not only bearable, but the experience itself is valuable.
Were you panicking?
I don’t think I panicked. There’s an element of curiosity. Where is this leading? What are they doing? One of the requests that I made before going out was to interview senior security figures. This was a chance to meet some of them. At every step there’s a warning that if you don’t cooperate you end up in Evin prison. It is Iran’s largest prison, a place which is completely cut off from the outside world. You don’t get consular visits. You’re held in solitary confinement.
And Evin prison is where Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen, is being held. Her fate must surely have been on your mind?
Her fate was in my mind, the fate of many other foreigners – some dual nationals, some not – was also on my mind. It is not that uncommon for Iran to detain foreigners when they end up in the country. It is one of the tools that they use to exercise pressure against the West. One of the reasons for telling this story is to remember those who are still being held, including Nazanin. I was incredibly lucky. I was treated, on the whole, with velvet gloves. Many are being held in much worse conditions.
Did you know, really, what they were looking for, trying to find out from you?
I had my suspicions. I had been a correspondent in Jerusalem. I was Jewish. I thought that this may have rung alarm bells within the system. But I was also surprised at how little the questioning seemed to focus on that. And The Economist is a bit of an enigma to them. We don’t get bylines, they don’t know who writes what. I’m convinced that being British in Tehran is more of a liability than being Jewish.
Since I’ve come out I’ve tried to talk to people who’ve been held against their will. I can’t remotely call myself a political prisoner. But that moment of captivity is a really intense moment and you build up very strong social bonds with people. It is a highlight of their lives and people like talking about it. It’s not called Stockholm Syndrome for nothing.
Do you recognise that description?
Yes, I don’t think it’s inaccurate and I don’t think it’s surprising because of the intensity of the relationships that you create when you’re being held in close confinement with other people.
You write about a guard called Ali. I got the impression that you really came to feel a sort of affinity with him.
Ali played a very strong role in my stay in Tehran. He was there right from the outset. In fact, at one point, he said, “You should recognise me, don’t you?” And I said, “no”. And it turned out that he’d been following me on my previous visits and I just hadn’t realised it. And he was delighted that I didn’t recognise him because he thought that we’d had previous encounters.
And so by this stage how long had you been held for?
By now I’d been held for four or five days. The first night I was interrogated in the airport. The second day I was in a detention centre. After that point, I was taken for three days to a safe house, which I think was in an apartment hotel, and then I was moved to another hotel. The Doctor [the nickname for Pelham’s chief interrogator] set the rules for the rest of my stay in Tehran. Mornings would be taken up with interrogation and questioning by Ali; for the rest of the time, I was free to move around the city. I was given a phone, I was able to contact my family, my colleagues at work. It was their phone, they could listen to every word, I was under continual surveillance. But essentially it was a kind of a quantum leap in the conditions in which I had been held, and actually the conditions I’d ever been in Tehran before, because when Ali wasn’t around there was no minder. That felt like a unique experience in Tehran, one that I should try to make the most of.
This strikes me as an almost dreamlike situation. You are held there, you can’t leave, but you’re given relatively, the freedom of the city that you’re going to report on.
In many ways this was a reporter’s dream. They’d taken my notebooks away from me and I never got them back. What they did give me was a phone. That phone had a camera, it had a recorder, and I took it with me everywhere, obsessively recording the sights and sounds of Tehran. I wanted to take it all with me. It was compensation for the notebooks that I’d lost. If there’s one city where you’d want to be held, it would be Tehran. It’s an absolutely fascinating place. It’s so vibrant, buzzing with fascinating conversation. It’s a very uninhibited culture, people readily strike up conversations.
And what sense did you get of people’s attitude towards the regime?
Initially I was the one who was doing the censoring. I was terrified of what people might be listening to on my phone. I would leave it at one end of the cafe and go and talk to people at the other end. It just seemed that every conversation I had would end up in an anti-regime rant. It was astonishing. There was a fascination but there was also a fear that this could be incriminating.
And the balance of animosity towards the West and animosity towards the regime in Iran – what was coming out of these conversations?
There are two worlds in Iran. There’s a virtual reality that you see on TV, which is a society controlled by clerics, deeply religious, very conservative, respectful of the authorities, and which deeply dislikes the West. And then there’s the real world of Tehran, which is diametrically opposed to all these things. It feels very cosmopolitan, very engaged with the West, very nostalgic for the past.
What was it like saying goodbye to your captors after all those weeks?
Ali was waiting for me in the departure lounge. All the time I’d been asking for my laptop back and my notebooks and my phones and he promised he would bring them back. He almost kept his word, he was waiting there with my laptop although it had been completely wiped. He was waiting there with my phones, but they’d been wiped as well.
I think freedom is a really difficult term to define. I’m free in London. But you have obligations, you have chores, you have bonds, family ties, work ties, deadlines. In many ways your life is quite constrained. And there’s a part of me which will always look back on Tehran and captivity in Tehran as being a remarkable moment of liberation. I was in an uninhibited world, discovering a side of life which was very exciting, meeting people who were incredible, going out every night
While I was in Tehran, I didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring. I didn’t know whether I really was going to end up in Evin prison or whether I was going to get out. And I wanted to live life to the full, try and make the most of it. It was that sort of Alice-in-Wonderland world which I’m going to look back on and think that I had a taste of it, and will always want to go back.
Would you try to go back?
I’m not sure the decision is going to be mine. If it was I’d go back tomorrow.