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.

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.

"You can fuck off and rot there for all I care. The children deserve better than you."

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.

That was when his wife's wire transfer came through, and it likely saved his life. (Faxed memoranda detailing the liquidation of three million dollars of the Bouzaris' assets and the transfer of the resulting funds to the Iranian ministry of intelligence can be read here and here.) Even before he embarked on the South Pars consultancy, Bouzari was a very wealthy man. When Yazdani-Sabouni called Bouzari's wife, Fereshteh, on the ministry's behalf to ask for five million dollars to cover her husband's "hospital bills," she understood right away. It took her less than 72 hours to sell off enough assets to send the three million, not quite the sum demanded but still enough to satisfy the ministry.

Initially, Bouzari was terrified to learn his wife had paid out. "Once these guys smell money," he knew, "they will always want more." Ever the businessman, Bouzari formulated a plan: he would convince his captors that there was much more money for the taking, but that only he could liquidate and deliver the assets.

As fall turned to winter and Bouzari's case meandered its way to the courts, a new, turbaned torturer had appeared his cell. Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Eje'i is one of Iran's most prominent intelligence officers. At the time, he officially represented the revolutionary court at the ministry of intelligence. He would later head the ministry, including during the brutal crackdown after Iran's disputed 2009 election. Mohseni-Eje'i was most likely present to collect Bouzari's confessions, which would also explain why the physical torment was gradually abated.

This shift in treatment worried Bouzari; he sensed the trial, and thus a probable death sentence, looming. He requested and was granted a personal audience with Mohseni-Eje'i.

"If you send any codes or signals, I will blow your brains out right here."

"Haji, I have more to confess," Bouzari told the intelligence officer, who is also a cleric. "There are many more assets still on the other side [in Europe] and they belong to the brothers here. But I fear my wife may have found a new lover and is wasting the money away. You must let me travel to Rome to retrieve what rightly belongs to the sacred regime." By this point, news of the three million-dollar transfer had surely made its way around the intelligence ministry. Credit for that score, Bouzari realized, belonged to Rafsanjani and his allies. By offering this "confession," he hoped to play Mohseni-Eje'i against the Rafsanjani faction. "Alright, alright, we will study the matter," the cleric soothed Bouzari.

At Mohseni-Eje'i's behest, Bouzari was finally allowed to call his wife. Two intelligence officers were listening on the call. Before Bouzari dialed Fereshteh's number in Rome, one of the agents pointed a silenced pistol to his head: "If you send any codes or signals, I will blow your brains out right here." Bouzari's heart was racing. He would ask Fereshteh to send more money but, for the plan to work, she would have to refuse. This would allow Bourazi to argue that he must travel to Rome himself to sell his assets and bring the money back. If it worked, he would fly out and never return. But if she did as he asked and sent the money, then not only would Bourazi still be in jail and facing execution, but his family would be poorer for nothing.

How could he make his beloved wife -- who had not seen him for many months -- understand that she must spurn and spite him? He spoke rapidly and in an emotionless voice: "Fereshteh-­jan, I need you to do follow my instructions very closely. I need you to sell our apartment in Geneva, our property in England, my share in the consultancy -- and our yacht."

The Bouzaris lived a luxurious life but they never owned a yacht; Fereshteh was hydrophobic. Would she get the message?

The next time Bouzari called, Fereshteh unleashed a torrent of insults: "What do you want from me, you piece of shit? I never should've married you. My father always said you were nothing but trouble, and he was right! You can fuck off and rot there for all I care. The children deserve better than you."

•       •       •       •       •

Iran's intelligence officers and torturers are not fooled easily, and it would take many more months of work before Bouzari convinced them to move forward. Finally, in winter 1994, Mohseni-Eje'i had him released -- still blindfolded -- in the middle of a busy Tehran street. He got in touch with his wife, who, realizing that Bouzari was still not free and likely under surveillance, continued to perform the role of the spiteful ex-lover. Mohseni-Eje'i, after demanding a $250,000 cash advanced, returned Bouzari's passport so he might recover "the brothers' millions" abroad. The plan had worked.

"If you don't come back, we'll kill you," Mohseni-Eje'i told him during their last meeting. "If you write a book about this, we'll kill you. Maybe your children will have accidents." Then the cleric whispered the Koranic traveler's prayer in Bouzari's ears, entrusting him to the care of the Almighty.

In 1998, the Bouzaris made their way to Canada, where they currently reside. There, Bouzari co-founded the International Committee against Torture. In November 2000, he sued the Islamic Republic in a Canadian court claiming damages for his torture. When the case was dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds, his lawyers filed a new lawsuit in 2005. This time, he named now-former President Rafsanjani, his son Mehdi, Akbari Rad, Mohseni-Eje'i (who that year became head of the intelligence ministry), and other high-ranking Iranian officials. Last August, the Ontorio Superior Court of Justice endorsed the suit, concluding, "The plaintiff, Houshang Bouzari has endured unspeakably outrageous torture by [Mehdi Rafsanjani] or at his instigation." In effect, the court rendered a default judgment, ordering Mehdi to pay Bouzari $13 million in damages. (A copy of the judgment, which Mehdi now seeks to set aside with the help of the prestigious Canadian law firm Davis, LLP, can be found here.)

Mehdi Rafsanjani continued to play a leading role in developing South Pars. But the work has been slowed by tightening international sanctions. In 2004, the energy giant Statoil was fined by the Norwegian Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime after a business daily revealed that the company had wired $15 million to a foreign investment firm that served as a front for Mehdi.

He was also closely involved in his father's failed 2005 presidential bid. "He felt that [Supreme Leader] Khamenei had somehow politically raped his father," Kowsar, who declined Mehdi's offer to work on his father's campaign, told me. "He wanted to get back at Khamenei." Today, Mehdi is pursuing an Oxford doctorate in, of all subjects, constitutional law.

In 2009, the Rafsanjanis' threw their weight behind the Green Movement. Many Western supporters of the Obama administration's engagement policy embraced the family, resurrecting the idea that the "pragmatic" Rafsanjanis could be a viable alternative to the crazed hard-liners. Bouzari doesn't see it this way.

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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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