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

Rafsanjani's fourth and youngest son, Mehdi, is by all accounts the apple of the former president's eye. In memoirs published online, Rafsanjani recalls his son's development with obvious admiration:

Mehdi was always interested in industrial affairs. He understood that our position in the maritime economy was weak. He sought to enhance our capacity to build underwater pipelines, and he helped develop South Pars. Mehdi and my other children avoided confrontation. They are not into secrecy and mendacity--whoever they are, they show it. They don't intrude on matters that do not concern them. They do not enter politics but they are always in the arena.

(Rafsanjani's site has since been blocked, but copies of the memoir can still be found, and the relevant section can be downloaded here.) All parents exaggerate their children's virtues. But the gap between the paternal illusion and reality here may be especially wide. Former friends and associates have described Mehdi as erratic, cruel, and even sexually depraved -- in other words, the stereotypical son of a Mideast autocrat.

The Iranian dissident cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar, before he defected to Canada under a death threat from a hardline group, served as media advisor to Mehdi during the early 2000s. "He's smart and he's rude," Kowsar told me. "If he knows you, he shares a lot of dirty jokes." Not unusual for the power-high offspring of dictators, Mehdi is said to be a fan of psychological games. The Tehran neighborhood where Mehdi lived at the time, for example, was home to a number of clerics. "Mehdi would climb the walls of [other ayatollahs'] homes and use a big camera to take pictures of, say, a group of them smoking opium," Kowsar recalled. "It was a score for him. He loved messing with other people." Mehdi is rumored to have an insatiable appetite for women. "I learned of his taste for women because of the secretaries he used to hire," Kowsar told me. "You could tell there was something in the air. You wouldn't see any of those secretaries working for other governmental offices. So you could have a secretary wearing perfume -- that's crazy in the Islamic Republic!"

Bouzari was eager to appease the young Mehdi, aware he could scuttle the lucrative South Pars project with a snap of his finger. "The kid was sexually starved," Bouzari remembered. "I decided that the best thing to do is to entertain him. We'd send him from one industrial exhibition and five-star hotel to another just so he was out of my hair." For the next few months, Mehdi and his personal aid traveled the world at Bouzari's expense. One 1992 Hilton Genève bill ran tens of thousands of Swiss Francs. Billed to Houshang Bouzari, the receipt identifies the guest as one "M. Bahreman Yazdanpanahtazdi," an amalgam of Mehdi's real last name and that of his aid. (Bouzari also claims he bankrolled Mehdi's expensive escort habit in Iran and Europe during this period.)

Appeasement would only go so far. In winter 1992, Bouzari received a message from Mehdi's assistant: "Mehdi says you must gift him fifty million dollars or he'll scrap the project." The exorbitant bribe demanded by the president's son stunned him -- and far exceeded the $35 million he was set to make from the deal. Bouzari did not make much of the threat until he got another call, this time from Mehdi himself, announcing the formation of a new company, the Iranian Offshore Engineering and Construction Co. (IOEC), which was to take over all South Pars contracts from the oil ministry. "Doctor-jan," Mehdi addressed Bouzari lovingly. "I will lead the board of directors and you will be the chief executive. Father says this is the best path. I'm waiting for you to prep me for future meetings." Bouzari received a memo announcing the formation of IOEC and listing Mehdi as managing director, as well as six other Rafsanjani apparatchiks as board members.

He should have cut his losses and moved on, Bouzari now says. Instead, he made what he sees as the biggest mistake of his life. In May 1993, he flew to Tehran, hoping to change the Rafsanjanis' minds.

•       •       •       •       •

Bouzari started noticing suspicious signs as soon as his plane touched down in Tehran. He was not greeted with the usual VIP welcome. Mehdi was nowhere to be found, and Bouzari's attempts to reach him found nothing. Then, late one night, a member of Mehdi's inner circle -- a bodyguard who also owed Bouzari a favor -- rang his doorbell. When Bouzari opened the door to let the man in, he lunged himself inside, pushed Bouzari into a nearby bathroom, and turned on all of the faucets. Holding his right hand over Bouzari's mouth, he spoke breathlessly: "Mehdi is on pilgrimage to Mecca. Doctor, you must get out of Iran. Turn off the water after I leave." He was gone in less than a minute.

Bouzari was shaken, but he did not heed this or other warnings. "I had friends everywhere in the security system," he told me. "Nothing will happen to me, I thought." And then there was the matter of his hefty consulting commission. "When you're going for a big job, you have to take big risks."

Still, the warnings rattled Bouzari enough that he booked a flight back to Rome, scheduled for the day after the next. In the meantime, he went real-estate hunting with his closest Tehran confidant, a man named Said Yazdani-Sabouni who at the time imported heavy equipment for the Revolutionary Guards. After the day's business was over, they stopped by a bookstore, where Bouzari picked up something to read on his upcoming flight. When Yazdani-Sabouni saw the book's cover, he burst into laughter. It was the autobiography of Ehsan Naraghi, an adviser to the shah's wife who, after the revolution, suffered a long prison sentence in the ayatollahs' jails.

"That is so funny, brother," Yazdani-Sabouni told Bouzari several times in between chuckles during dinner. "That is hilarious." The book was titled From the Shah's Palace to Evin Prison.

•       •       •       •       •

The irony of that title was lost on Bouzari -- but not on Yazdani-Sabouni, who had been bought off by Rafsanjani's allies weeks before his friend's arrival in Tehran. Entrusted with keys to Bouzari's apartment, Yazdani-Sabouni had helped intelligence officers bug its rooms and tap all three of his phone lines. Three intelligence officers used the information to track Bouzari's every move for many days. They moved to capture him the day before he was to fly out of Iran. That morning, the agents arrived at Bouzari's front door and unceremoniously arrested him. Bouzari drove himself to Evin prison, accompanied by the senior-most of the officers, where he was blindfolded and thrown into a cell that he says crawled with "hundreds" of cockroaches.

During his first two weeks in Evin, Bouzari's interrogators assaulted him constantly, part of a process of psychological breakdown that torturers have used for centuries, but for which Evin is especially infamous. They would slap his face with heavy rubber slippers -- 10, 20, sometimes 30 strikes in one sitting. Each strike would leave his head ringing for several seconds; he could often feel his ear canals bleeding. "Why are you beating me, my good man?" Bouzari would plead with Siadati, the agent who arrested him. "Ask me anything, and I'll tell you." But his begging was only answered with more intense violence. Bouzari's head was twice plunged into a clogged toilet. This is when he first developed the mantra, if this is torture, you can take it. But then Siadati stopped showing up. Bouzari was mostly left alone for another two weeks.

One day in early July 1993, guards took him out of his cell and moved him to the Towhid detention center in downtown Tehran. There, a particularly cruel interrogator took charge of his case. It was this officer, who went by the name Akbari Rad in Towhid, who introduced Bouzari to cable number three.

To flog detainees, Iranian interrogators use cables of varying diameters: cable number one is the widest, number two a bit thinner, and cable number three is the thinnest, about a quarter of an inch in diameter. By concentrating the impact over a small surface area, it inflicts a massive dose of pain with each blow.

"What's your shoe size?" Akbari Rad asked Bouzari early on. "Forty-four," he responded sheepishly. "That's okay," Akbari Rad said calmly. "I'll turn that into a comfy 48 for you." To this day, both of Bouzari's feet are abnormally large, and he walks with some difficulty. Typically, Bouzari would be stretched out on his back between two steel bars while his torturers worked his thighs and feet. After about a dozen sessions, Akbari Rad and others had beaten his feet into unrecognizable bags of purple flesh; all ten of his toenails eventually fell off. He lost 50 pounds and consistently urinated blood.

After a few more weeks in Towhid, Akbari Rad informed Bouzari that his wife had wired the intelligence ministry three million U.S. dollars.

•       •       •       •       •

Shortly after Bouzari's arrest, President Rafsanjani had unilaterally terminated the South Pars contract. The government drew up a new contract with the IOEC -- the quasi-public outfit founded by Rafsanjani's son Mehdi -- as the consortium's major Iranian counterparty. Bouzari was cut out of the development of the world's largest gas field. Now, to complete his excision, the state appeared to be preparing Bouzari for a speedy trial in a revolutionary court, probably on espionage charges carrying the death sentence, the usual tool against high-level regime opponents.

This is most likely why Bouzari's torture sessions took such an interrogatory character, and why they became so much more brutal. His torturers started applying electric prods to his kneecaps, he says, his throat, and his genitals. Bouzari readily confessed to having worked for the CIA, MI6, the Mossad, Shin Bet, and the Italian intelligence service.

Presented by

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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