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Trapped in Iran

In July 2019 Nicolas Pelham, The Economist’s Middle East correspondent, received a rare journalist’s visa to Iran. On the day he was due to fly home, he was detained.

I was paying my bill at the hotel when they came. There were seven of them, stiff and formal in plain-clothes. “Mr Pelham?” asked the shortest one and presented me with a hand-written document in Farsi. “It’s been signed by a judge,” he said. “It entitles us to detain you for 48 hours.” He paused to allow the information to register on my face. “It might be less,” he added. “We just need you to answer a few questions.”

He gave me a choice. Either I could be questioned in the hotel or in their car on the way to the airport. “You might even make the plane,” he said. Almost automatically, I asked to see a lawyer or a diplomatic representative. He flicked his wrist, indicating that this was unnecessary. “All we want to know is a little bit more about your trip. There’s no need to delay or complicate things.”

It was 7.30pm. My plane left in four hours and the airport was over an hour’s drive from Tehran. The officials ushered me into a small office in the hotel and crowded around my chair.

“Your mobile phone and laptop, please.”

I pointed to the bag lying against the opposite wall.

“Are there more?”

I took a second phone out of my pocket.

The shortest man was in charge. He wore a dark, oversized jacket and trousers. His wavy hair was greasy and his face was lined. He bobbed up and down on a chair and patted my knee, though it was unclear whether he meant to reassure or threaten me.

The guards rifled through my books and notes. They held up a piece of paper with jottings on it from a previous trip and asked me to explain what I had written. I tried to hide my alarm when I saw that my eight-year-old son had stencilled large Hebrew letters on the back. How could I have brought that with me? I asked myself. But if they noticed the Hebrew, they said nothing.

I asked to go to the toilet. Like a child, I wanted to escape the tension in the room. I needed to calm myself by breathing deeply. That day, in a taxi back to my hotel, I had flicked through my emails and read that a number of travellers, including a French-Iranian academic from Sciences Po in Paris, had recently been detained in Iran on the pretext of violating state security. And now here I was.

The largest of the men walked closely behind me as we descended to the basement toilet. He gesticulated for me to leave the door open.

After I returned upstairs, I was led to the reception desk to finish paying my bill. Two black saloons were waiting outside and I was directed into the rear one. Guards wedged me in on either side and we pulled off. [ … ]

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