Escape from Iran: One Man's Journey From Riches to the Torture Chamber to Freedom

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The story of how an Iranian businessman helped his country develop the world's largest natural gas field, got involved with the president's depraved son, and ended up fighting for his life.

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A guard stands watch in Tehran's Evin Prison / Reuters

Older Iranian homes usually have traditional squat toilets, porcelain holes in the ground with overhead flush tanks. So do the torture chambers in Tehran's Evin prison, as Houshang Bouzari discovered on a sweltering summer night in 1993. His interrogator pulled Bouzari out of his six-by-four-foot cell and forced him to crawl down the bloodstained stairs that lead to the basement of Section 209 -- the cell block reserved for political detainees. When they reached the basement, the interrogator lifted Bouzari up from the ground and pushed him into a tiny bathroom stall. The squat toilet was clogged.

Bouzari was forced onto his chest and the officer's boot pressed against the back of his neck, plunging his head into the porcelain hole. Bouzari immediately decided that if only he could stop breathing, he might actually withstand this. Sealing his mouth shut, he held out for what he believes was a full, excruciating minute. Then, instinct took over, and he breathed in gulps and gulps of excrement-ridden water. His choking and muffled screams gave way to a newfound peace; he was on the verge of passing out. The moment before relief, he felt his body being lifted. A sharp blow cracked against his back and Bouzari's mouth emptied onto his chest. He was pushed against a wall, facing his tormentor. "Look what you've done, you sonofabitch," the officer howled. "You've shat all over yourself. How are you going to pray in this filthy state?"

Ablutions and daily prayers were the last things on Bouzari's mind as he passed out. When he finally came to, the stench was so overpowering that he no longer sensed it. The officer was still hurling verbal abuse. A powerful notion flashed across his mind. "If this is torture, I can take it," he told himself. If this is torture, you can take it. But Evin's practiced torturers would soon prove him wrong. This was just the beginning of an eight-month ordeal in the nightmare-lands of the Iranian security system. By the time his interrogators were through with him, he would confess to having spied for five separate foreign intelligence agencies and much more.

Bouzari's plight was all the more remarkable because he was a chosen son of the ayatollahs, Iran's spiritual and political leaders. Had he played his cards right, he may well have wound up a minister or ambassador of the Islamic Republic. The story of Bouzari's rise and fall bears the hallmarks of classical tragedy: ambition and greed, friendship and betrayal, and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable cruelty. But it also contains many of the same elements that dominate headlines about Iran today: from the fissures at the very top of the regime to the unscrupulous Western businesses that still invest in a regime that is brutal, isolated, and heavily sanctioned. It is a story whose chief villains are well-known in Iran: then-President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his son and political heir, Mehdi.

•       •       •       •       •

Houshang Bouzari was born in 1952 to a respected clerical family. Both of his grandfathers were jurists, interpreters of Iran's Shi'a Islam. Bouzari's father was a civil servant in the shah's secularist regime, but a pious man who passed that belief on to his children. As a student, Bouzari straddled the secular and clerical realms, earning a journalism degree in 1971 and a physics degree in 1974, all while also undertaking seminary studies. Like many youth from Iran's emerging middle class, Bouzari studied abroad. In 1978, he earned a physics doctorate from Turin University in Italy, where he flirted with some of the same leftist ideas that were just then boiling over in Iran. The next year, a popular revolution ousted the shah and established the Islamic Republic.

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Houshang Bouzari

Bouzari rose meteorically on his return to post-revolutionary Iran, fueled by strong credentials: academic brilliance, clerical pedigree, and anti-shah militancy. In 1981, he started work at the Majlis, Iran's parliament, as an international affairs advisor to then-parliamentary speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Bouzari, still in his late-twenties, wrote two or three speeches per month for Rafsanjani and accompanied the pistachio mogul-cum-mullah on his trips abroad. "The travel opportunities were amazing," Bouzari told me in one of our many interviews about his life. "I went on about 50 trips abroad during this period. Vienna became a second home for me." He got close enough with Rafsanjani to learn his boss's real last name: Bahremani.

He was soon recruited to advise the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), one of Iran's wealthiest and most powerful bodies. By 1988, he had dozens of friends inside the government. But as the war that had broken out with Iraq in 1980 drew down, Bouzari soured on power. "I was privy to information others didn't have," he told me. "I saw these guys torturing and killing people. Summary trials and summary executions. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror." He took a yearlong leave of absence. He told colleagues he was seeking medical care abroad for his wife, but the real purpose was to extricate himself from the Iranian regime and build a new life as a private businessman.

I interviewed Bouzari, who now lives in exile in Canada with his wife, for about 15 hours over the course of several weeks. Revisiting his experiences in Tehran's torture chambers was extremely difficult for Bouzari, who, after recounting particularly harrowing episodes, would sometimes request that we stop the interview and pick up the next day. He agreed to speak with me in part to show how Iran has changed over the last 30 years, how much more corrupt and cruel its government has become. Several documents and records, produced as part of an ongoing civil proceeding in the Canadian justice system, corroborate what he told and help tell his story. Some of these documents are already in the public record; others were made available to me on condition that I not reproduce them. Still, even with these files, it's impossible to independently verify all of Bouzari's claims.

When Bouzari decided to go on leave from his government work in 1988, he was no doubt disturbed from seeing the regime's inner workings. But as Nikahang Kowsar, a prominent Iranian-Canadian editorial cartoonist and blogger familiar with his case, told me, a guilty conscience probably wasn't Bouzari's only motive. "It's plausible that he was sick of how the regime works," Kowsar said. "But he was also really smart and realized that, after the war, there was a chance to make a lot of money."

The eight-year war had devastated Iran's oil industry. Production had shrunk from a shah-era peak of over six million barrels of crude per day to under two million barrels, almost half of which were marked for domestic consumption. The country desperately needed to repair its damaged oil infrastructure, and Western oil and gas contractors were eager to help. Armed with technical knowledge, political savvy, and powerful connections, Bouzari was the perfect middleman. "I understood the oil industry: pipelines, compressing stations, refineries," he told me. "So I thought I could create a link between the Iranian end user and the international oil companies."

Along with an Italian partner, Bouzari set up a consulting company in Rome. By 1989, his civil servant status at state-run NIOC had lapsed and he had transformed himself into an international businessman with few official ties to the regime. He was jet-setting between Rome, Geneva, and London and underwriting a lavish life for his wife and two young children. Within months, his company was getting involved in hydroelectric dam building, airport construction, and other heavy-duty industrial projects.

Business was already booming when, late one night in 1990 while rummaging through old NIOC documents stored at his house in Tehran, Bouzari came across an appraisal memorandum addressed to the pre-revolutionary shah's oil ministry. Back in 1976, engineers with the offshore drilling giant Reading & Bates (now Transocean) had explored a natural gas condensate field shared by Iran and Qatar. The field, the engineers had concluded, was one of the richest light gas reserves in the Persian Gulf. The memo referred to the project as the "Qatar North Dome." The name stung Bouzari's sense of Persian pride. During a late night brainstorming session over pizza and non-alcoholic beer, he and a close Tehran-based associate coined a new name for the project: South Pars. The name would become one of the global energy industry's most famous; South Pars is the largest gas field in the world.

•       •       •       •       •

Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Bouzari's old boss, had just been elected president of Iran. Though today's Iran is dominated by Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Rafsanjani was then by any measure the most powerful man in the country. Khamenei had only recently replaced Ruhollah Khomeini as the religious Supreme Leader and was widely viewed as lacking sufficient theological or jurisprudential training for the job.  

Akbari Rad: "What's your shoe size?"
Bouzari: "Forty-four."
Akbari Rad: "I'll turn that into a comfy 48 for you."

Bouzari believed that his former colleagues at NIOC would be unlikely to support his South Pars idea. Too many of them were focused on surviving the leadership transition and wary of risky new ventures. So he reached out to his non-Iranian clients instead. "I went after a whole bunch of foreign companies," Bouzari recalled. "I described the project and said, 'if you go forward and suggest something to Iran, I will help you win the bidding process.'" Several European and Japanese companies formed a consortium to do just that. The major players included Technip (France), TPL and Saipem (Italy), Machinoimport (Russia), and JGC and Chiyoda (Japan); Halliburton, from the U.S., was a subcontractor. (A letter from TPL executives, introducing Bouzari to the U.S. Embassy in Rome as a consultant, can be found here.)

After weeks of intensive negotiations with the Iranian government, they reached an agreement that valued the project at $1.78 billion and required the consortium to put up 90% of the initial costs. Bouzari had been so central to the deal that, when the consortium decided to accept the deal, the group's head called him directly from his private jet. "Dr. Bouzari, you got it," he said, according to Bouzari. "You got it!"

Bouzari, who was set to collect a $35 million commission, popped a champagne bottle.

Not long after both parties executed the letter of intent, Bouzari, now back in Rome, received an unexpected phone call urging him back to Tehran. President Rafsanjani had taken note of Bouzari's role in the lucrative new project, the caller said, and sought an audience with his former aid. Having successfully rebranded himself as a private entrepreneur, Bouzari was reluctant to re-enter Iranian government circles. But this was an invitation he could not decline. Three or so weeks later, he was in Tehran, seated across from Rafsanjani and his son Mehdi. "Thank you for your patriotic initiatives related to South Pars," the president began. "We are proud of you. But we have called you here to discuss our son, agha-Mehdi here, who has just graduated from college. He is very interested in maritime industries, and you must help him learn the business."

From his days at parliament, Bouzari vaguely recalled watching Mehdi as a child play soccer with Revolutionary Guard officers at the Majlis compound. Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, born in 1969, was now 21. "I will be Father's eyes and ears in South Pars," he told Bouzari during their first of many mentorship sessions.

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Sohrab Ahmari, a nonresident research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, is co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, a forthcoming anthology of essays by young Mideast dissidents.

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