A man is burning right in front of me. He has set himself on fire in the middle of a busy Tehran street. He is screaming about corruption and poverty. My assigned government handler translates some of his ranting. People gather, trying to help him, and I am quickly pulled into a waiting car.
“It looks much worse than it is,” says my handler. “He probably planned it so he wouldn’t burn that badly. Crazy people do this sometimes for attention, but it isn’t that serious at all.”
Despite his reassurances, my handler is visibly uncomfortable. I turn around and watch the growing crowd disappear in the distance, not sure what to do with what I just saw.
It’s my second day in Iran. I came here to cover the 2016 elections and see this enigmatic country with my own eyes, hoping to understand it in a way you can’t by reading books. When I told my friends I had applied for a journalist visa to Iran, they all urged me not to go, warning that the risks were much greater than any possible rewards. I brushed off their warnings, thinking my chances of being approved were too slim to warrant any concerns. After all, I am a Swedish Jew with strong ties to Israel; I have written for plenty of Israeli publications; and my name is associated with Zionism and political conservatism. It was a long shot to begin with; but for reasons I still do not fully understand, I was granted a visa.
And then things got real.
It’s 4:00 AM and I am standing in the arrival hall of Imam Khomeini International Airport with my two large suitcases, a meticulously tied hijab, and my heart beating frantically in my chest. The government media agency has sent a driver, and from the moment he picks me up and ushers me off with a homemade sign and wordless gestures I am no longer alone. My only time for solitude will be the few hours spent in the relative confinement of my Tehran hotel room.
Working on my own was never an option. This was made clear before I even boarded the flight to Iran. Once your visa is approved, you are assigned a government-approved agent to handle your schedule, accompany you to your meetings, and drive you from door to door. There are no real private conversations and no real privacy. As a result, what I take from my interviews are not merely the words, but the silences—what is left unsaid or implied. The agent comes at a considerable cost, of course, as do the plethora of written and stamped authorizations needed to accommodate appointments and plans. Every day, I am asked to spend at least an hour in the office of a government agency to report my movements, and my translator is taken aside to give his independent report. They are then checked against each other, carefully scrutinized for discrepancies. Sitting there waiting for final approval reminds me of worlds I have only known through books like 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial.
Iran is governed with what might be described as “freedom with severe limitations,” and this is particularly obvious when trying to contact the outside world. Although current president Hassan Rouhani campaigned on unblocking social media platforms and opening up Internet access, few of these changes have been enacted, something I experienced on election day. The Internet was either blocked—even when using the necessary and illegal VPN app—or its speed was dramatically diminished. These are the same methods of control used during the 2009 election. Naser Makarem Shirazi, one of Iran’s grand ayatollahs, has declared Internet access via mobile phones “un-Islamic.” In July 2014, eight youths were sentenced to a combined 127 years in prison for anti-government posts on Facebook. A year after that, the Cyber Intelligence Unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reported that it had arrested 12 individuals and fined 24 others for having “insulted Islam and published immoral and corrupt material” and “encouraged individuals to commit immoral acts” through their Internet activity. The arrests came after a major surveillance operation by the IRGC in which they are said to have monitored eight million Facebook “likes” in order to crack down on Internet activity that promoted “moral corruption” or featured Western lifestyles. According to Freedom House, the IRGC is known to pressure social media users into deleting content of which the regime disapproves. The IRGC itself announced in 2015 that it had pressured 36 Facebook users to delete 130 pages after it amped up surveillance of the Internet.
Everything seems to be monitored in Iran, from Internet access to clothing to movement from place to place.
The people of Iran do find ways to get around these limitations. They use VPN and other web-browsing tools that temporarily evade censorship. The most commonly used messaging app is the encrypted service Telegram, notorious for its use by ISIS. Although it is possible to connect to Facebook and Twitter in illegal ways, Iranians often choose not to send messages through these platforms, as they are much more easily surveilled. Whenever I meet people and we exchange information, they ask me to communicate via Telegram. When I ask them to add me on Facebook or Instagram, I am told that they have accounts but never use them, because the sites are so difficult to access. When they do access them, they have to watch what they post, like, and say. This type of self-censorship is prevalent in Iranian society, and is very hard to quantify. As a result, it is difficult to determine its influence on freedom, speech, and human rights. The regime’s methods of control are well known, and the threat of repercussions is enough to make the people manage themselves.
Indeed, the Iranian government is spending a lot of time and treasure on limiting Internet access. The regime’s Supreme Leader even commissioned a “Supreme Council of Virtual Space” in March 2012 to monitor the growing threat of a free Internet. It has been very successful in doing so. According to a 2015 study by Freedom House, the regime has prevented 75 percent of encrypted traffic. As of mid-2015, Reporters Without Borders stated that 26 Iranian citizens remain imprisoned for online activities and, as shown by blogger Sattar Behesti’s death in prison in 2012, a prison sentence can be a death sentence in disguise.
The city of Tehran is wrapped in a golden-brown veil of smog. It eases up for only a minute or two when rain falls and pushes the dirt to the ground. I find it hard to breathe, and get winded just walking to and from the car. But only part of that is due to pollution. Throughout the trip, I struggle with the fatigue and anxiety that comes from a sense of constant vigilance, never knowing who is watching and if my actions have compromised me. There is brilliance in this system. The regime never spells out precisely what the rules are, so you are at constant risk of breaking them, trapping you in a never-ending loop of trying to figure out the impossible.
On the third day of my visit, I have lunch with one of my handlers. We eat kebab at one of the city’s kosher restaurants. Suddenly, the mood shifts. He puts his fork down and leans across the table.
“I’ve been reading your old articles, Annika, reading them very carefully,” he says.
My mouth goes dry. I try to answer, but I only nod.
“You write a lot for Israeli papers, and you seem to spend a lot of time in Israel.”
Yes, I do, I say. I visit and write about the Middle East just as I said on my application.
“Well, I also saw you on the Temple Mount, on a YouTube video, and I saw that you place yourself in very dangerous positions.”
He’s smiling now, but it doesn’t feel like a smile. It looks oddly misplaced beneath his dark, inquisitive, and intense eyes. I can no longer feel my legs. I’m terrified he can see my heart beating in my throat. I wonder what will come next. What has he seen, read, or heard about me? He could not only take me down, but also hurt the ones I love and cherish. I try to go through everything I have written, every detail I may have missed. But the panic is creeping in, and all I can think is that I played this game and lost, and no one will ever know what happened to me.
“You have to understand, Annika, that I don’t think that you are a spy, but many others could easily think so. With your history, with the things you write.”
I know what that means. I know what “Zionist ties” and “spy” mean in the Iranian context. And I know that I am more alone here than I have ever been. Now, I can only choose whether to play defense or offense, with no second thoughts, no time to deliberate. I go for offense.
“I never lied about who I am or what I do,” I say. “I’m Swedish, not Israeli, but I do sometimes work in Israel and I stated as much on my application. If this is an issue, please contact the embassy in Stockholm so that we can quickly clear it up.”
My voice is shaking. My handler is smiling at me still. The silence is tearing me apart, little by little.
“No, that’s not necessary. Like I said, I trust you Annika.”
He leans back against the chair, shifting slowly, brushing invisible crumbs off his slacks as he watches me catch my breath.
“Don’t worry. We’re just having a friendly conversation.”
And with that, it was over. I don’t know why it started or why it ended. We went from the restaurant to parliament, and though I had work to do, the conversation stayed at the forefront of my mind. Everything had been OK until nothing was OK, and the warmth and welcome I had felt turned into something unfamiliar to me. I was struggling to make sense of it so I could prevent it from ever happening again.
When I got back to my hotel that night I shut down my Facebook account and removed the apps containing messages that I did not want strangers to see. I sent emails to my friends to explain why I was going dark, but then deleted them, suddenly frightened that a faceless middleman would catch the loaded words. Sitting on my bed, erasing everything, I felt silly for this flash of paranoia and tried laughing at myself in order to snap back into reality. But the laugh got stuck in the back of my throat. This was my reality. Though I might have been a fool for worrying, the truth is that I just did not know.
I hardly slept that night, and from that day on I maintained a higher level of vigilance. I changed my clothes in the shower every morning, because I was no longer comfortable walking around in my room undressed. I stopped calling home and I no longer used my email or social media for anything other than posting neutral descriptions of my trip, weighing every word and every sentence.
Despite Iran’s attempt to project a new, moderate image to the West, the Islamic Republic has recently hit the highest rate of executions since 1989. Under Rouhani, Iran executed twice as many people in 2015 as in 2010, when the hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in office. According to a 2015 United Nations report, there are now ten times the number of executions as in 2005. It is important to note that these are official numbers from Iran, and it is likely that the actual number is higher.
Iranian officials like to say that most of the executions are related to the country’s strict narcotics laws, but a March 2016 report from the UN Human Rights Council shows that drug-related executions make up only 65 percent of the 1,000 people executed in 2015. According to Amnesty International, Iran is a world leader in the execution of minors, with 160 juvenile offenders currently on death row. Other groups targeted for execution are journalists, artists, and human rights activists who have spoken up against the regime. The most recent and notable example was Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in August of 2015 for allegedly insulting government officials and spreading propaganda.
Watching totalitarian societies from the outside, I have often wondered why people do not rise up against this kind of oppression. I naively assumed that this type of regime can never sustain itself over time. After just 20 days in Iran, I began to understand how wrong I was.
I have never been as tired as I was during my time in Iran. I have never suffered such constant low-grade anxiety. It was different from fear of an imminent threat and, in my opinion, much more corrosive. There is a beginning and an end to an imminent threat. What I felt was painfully vague and ongoing. I knew I would leave, that my stay in Iran was not permanent; yet with every new day I realized more and more what it would be like to feel there was no imminent departure, no escape. Iranians are suffering from fatigue, a permanent exhaustion that comes with everyday life under a totalitarian regime. This involves not only worrying about your own safety, but also the safety of those in your community who will feel the repercussions of your actions as if they were their own. It means going from normalcy to public execution in the blink of an eye. It means second-guessing everything and everyone that comes your way.
It would be so much easier if Iran were the hellscape I thought it was before I arrived; if the oppression were ugly and clear as day. But what I saw was something wrapped in layers upon layers of gorgeous complexity. Iran is beautiful and warm and blood-chillingly frightening. Its people greet you like family yet both informants and victims are the same. I have rarely felt more at home and never felt so lonely. As I left, there was a part of me startled by the fact that I wanted to stay. This is what Iranians live with. This is the reality they face.
The people love their country. They stand by it like a mother and her child, both ruled by a violent and despotic father. They been stripped of the practical and psychological tools they need to escape. So they tell themselves that things will get better; and it does get better, and worse, and they learn to move with those waves of painful insecurity. And that, the constant insecurity, is how the Iranian regime controls its people. It is much smarter and much more insidious than that of other oppressive entities. Much like the Soviet Union, everyone is subject to the whims of their rulers, and everyone is doing what they have to in order to live their lives.
President Rouhani campaigned as a moderate, and he may be in some ways, but it is ultimately of little consequence. In the political hierarchy of the Islamic Republic, where all power flows from the Supreme Leader, Rouhani is thoroughly outranked. During his presidency, Iran has seen an increase in executions, a decrease in fundamental rights, and during the 2016 elections there were more candidates disqualified—a whopping 60 percent—than ever before. Those who wield real power—the Supreme Leader, the Council of Guardians, the Assembly of Experts—are showing their “constituencies” that despite having a reform-oriented president, no real reform will come to pass. They are showing this by tightening their hold at the very same time Rouhani is loosening it.
There will be no uprising any time soon, nor is there an “Iranian spring” on the horizon. The regime puts its thumb in the eye of the citizens, rather than bullets in their heads. You are promised a decent life so long as you follow the rules, and most of your time and effort will go toward figuring out exactly what those rules are.
This, along with widespread socioeconomic strife, leaves the Iranian people with very little energy to spend on politics in general and foreign policy in particular. As a result, the issues most Westerners assume are foremost on the Iranian people’s minds are actually the subject of indifference and ignorance. Those we see standing up to the regime or even leaving to seek a better life abroad are those in a social and financial position to do so. Most citizens of the Islamic Republic are not.
This became obvious to me during the elections. Issues of internal policy and the fight against corruption were heavily debated, but the infamous nuclear deal with the West was mostly approached as a way to help the ailing economy, rather than to reform or even overthrow the current system. To rise up, you have to have risen. To demand freedom, you have to know what it is. To think about revolution, you have to be allowed to speak about it. This is a heartbreaking catch-22, and it has captured a once great nation, a nation of people who at this point seek betterment under the rule of the regime, far from dreams of yet another revolution.
I still see that burning man, and I hear his voice as he screams in a language I cannot decipher. I want to believe that he is okay, that my handler did not lie, and the man did not meet his death in anguish and desperation. I want to believe that, knowing how naïve and stupid it sounds. I want him to be okay, but I just don’t know.
This article was first published in The Tower