An Iranian Canadian software engineer says he was arrested in Iran and was only let go once he promised to spy on pro-democracy activists in the Iranian diaspora.
Behdad Esfahbod, 38, told VICE News that he was detained by Iranian intelligence in Tehran for a week in January while on vacation, as U.S.-Iran tensions spiked aftermath the U.S. assassination of a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful and influential branch of the Iranian military.
A day after Esfahbod landed, Iranian missiles downed Ukrainian International Airline Flight 752 near Tehran, killing all 176 passengers, including 82 Iranian and 63 Canadian citizens.
Esfahbod claims he was arrested by IRGC agents a week into what was supposed to be a 10-day stay, then interrogated and released on conditions that he would funnel information to Iranian authorities about pro-democracy activists in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and others in his personal network of friends and acquaintances who focus on Iranian issues. He said he was asked to keep an eye on them and to provide information via Instagram and/or Signal when called upon by the IRGC.
“It was tortuous,” Esfahbod told VICE News. “They were ‘nice’ as long as I was doing what they wanted, but more than once they told me my family would be screwed if I didn’t cooperate. It was psychological torture.”
Esfahbod, a former Facebook engineer with a million-plus salary, came forward with the allegations in a Medium article last week and an interview with the New York Times. In the Times article he outlined his struggles with his mental health since he was detained.
The Iranian government did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Esfahbod said he only agreed to the deal to secure his release, had never intended to become an informant, and now wants to publicize his ordeal to expose the Iranian regime’s tactics. Esfahbod was considered a tech star back in Iran. He currently lives in Edmonton.
He said he and his family risk retaliation by Iranian authorities for reneging on the spying agreement.
“I initially called my dad on January 15 to have lunch,” said Esfahbod, who has worked as a software engineer for Google and Facebook. “Someone must have eavesdropped on that conversation because right after I met my dad that day, four plainclothed men went up to me while I was walking and told me to get in their car.”
Esfahbod said the men identified themselves as Iranian intelligence officers and drove him to his apartment in the city of Sari to collect all his electronic devices. They told him he was charged with being “a threat to national security and cooperating with enemy groups against Iran.” Esfahbod also said the warrant the officers showed him had the IRGC Intelligence Service insignia on it and that a formal case was filed against him in the Iranian courts.
Esfahbod’s brother-in-law was in the apartment when he arrived briefly to pick up his devices and immediately noted family members about Esfahbod’s arrest. Esfahbod’s partner then called the Canadian government to report the incident.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada confirmed that it was “aware that a Canadian citizen was detained in Iran and provided consular assistance to the individual,” but stopped short of naming anyone due to privacy restrictions.
“They interrogated me in the IRGC’s quarter of Tehran’s Evin Prison for up to eight hours a day for almost a week,” Esfahbod said. “Typically, during interrogations, one head guy would be doing all the talking, and two were on their computer in the back, printing our photos and stuff. Basically, they told me that I was fucked unless I cooperated.”
According to Esfahbod, interrogators pointed to photos of him on social media posing with activists of Iranian descent as proof that he’d been cooperating with “enemy groups.”
One interrogator reportedly said, “It’s because of people like you that there are sanctions against Iran,” referring to the international sanctions imposed by the U.S., Canada, the European Union, and other countries in an effort to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he recalled.
“They made me sit facing a wall while they asked me questions,” Esfahbod told VICE News. “They also downloaded, like, 15 years’ worth of my emails, and huge amounts of my social media data.”
Esfahbod arrived in Canada in 2003 as a graduate student at the University of Toronto studying computer science. He said he became a Canadian citizen in 2014 and now holds dual Iranian and Canadian citizenship. Esfahbod said he became close with Iranian pro-democracy activists and groups, some of whom worked on ways to help citizens back home break through Iran’s strict Internet censorship.
“One group was called ASL19, or Article 19—which works on Internet censorship issues in Iran—and my interrogators were really interested in them,” Esfahbod said. “They printed out photos from my social media and asked me who I was with in the photos and to write down everything I know about them. I probably wrote like 50, 60 pages in total.”
In a statement emailed to VICE News, ASL19 executive director Fereidoon Bashar said, “We don’t blame Behdad or anyone acting under the threat of psychological and physical torture. Unfortunately, it’s a pattern of behaviour used by Iranian authorities to intimidate people and challenge the impact of our community’s work to promote Internet freedom and improve human rights in Iran.”
Two photos that Esfahbod said his IRGC interrogators asked him about were taken in 2016 at the annual human and digital rights summit, RightsCon, held in San Francisco.
“I feel great sadness and anger for the experience that Behdad had to go through,” a friend of Esfahbod, who was also featured in a photo the interrogators asked about, told VICE News. He does not want to be named for security reasons. “He is an asset for any country and it’s shameful that Iran treats its talented youth like this. I do hope that no other Iranian experiences what he had to experience.”
The IGRC interrogators were eventually “satisfied that I wasn’t part of any anti-Iran group, but also said that they can’t drop the charges because I was once affiliated with such groups,” Esfahbod said.
“Eventually, they proposed releasing me and allowing me to leave Iran if I kept in touch with them, gave them information about activists, and promised not to contact the media,” he said. “They said they’d put my case ‘on hold’ for like, 10, 20 years.”
Esfahbod claimed that the lead interrogator then threatened to frame him and his brother as perpetrators of the Ukrainian plane fiasco if he didn’t cooperate.
He eventually agreed to the bargain, but insisted that he never intended to act as an informant. His sister’s apartment was “locked in” as bail to secure his release.
"I shudder at the thought of the regime using tactics to frame him,” said Arash Azizi, another activist and acquaintance of Esfahbod whom the IRGC interrogators allegedly asked about. “His story is very much according to the playbook of the IRGC in the way it uses intimidation against Iranians abroad and their family members in Iran to acquire cooperation of people in positions of influence.”
Esfahbod provided VICE News with a number of documents to corroborate his story, including Iranian judiciary letters indicating his bail and release. VICE News consulted with an independent Iranian-Canadian activist and expert on Iranian politics, who asked not to be named because he fears reprisal from Iranian authorities. He said the papers look authentic and don’t resemble many of the fake documents he has analyzed in the past.
Esfahbod said he eventually flew to Seattle (where he worked and lived at the time) with his partner, who eventually left for Lisbon, Portugal, where the two planned to resettle. Esfahbod was supposed to follow her after he got his social media accounts reinstated, but the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way and the two haven’t been able to reunite.
He said he was supposed to upload a photo onto Instagram when he arrived in Lisbon to alert the IRGC that he had arrived. It would then send him a specific DM on Instagram to establish contact.
Eventually, Esfahbod said he made his way to Edmonton, Alberta, to stay with his sister’s family. Weeks passed and on June 14, Esfahbod received an Instagram DM from an account with the username arash.kabirii2000.
The message reads: “Hi Mr Behdad, how are you? I'm your aunt’s boyfriend. You were our guest in Tehran, Darakeh. We had Soltani together, do you remember??? We talked about Portugal and your immigration there. I have a couple of questions about immigrating to Portugal???”
Esfahbod said he immediately recognized the message as the IRGC intelligence trying to establish contact with him.
“I had dreaded that day, and it finally arrived,” he says. “I totally ignored it. They tried contacting me through WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal. I kept ignoring them.”
“Obviously I’m not going back,” he said. “But my father and sister are still in Iran and I worry about what might happen to them, as well as my friends. They also have over 15 years’ worth of my private data that they can use to dox me.”
Firuzeh Mahmoudi, the executive director of United for Iran, a U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes civil liberties in Iran who also appeared in one of the photos Esfahbod was asked about, said Esfahbod’s case is not unusual.
“This is the pattern that we observe in our work all the time,” she said. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is trying to intimidate Behdad into revealing information on people promoting democracy and internet freedom, which the authorities will then use to arbitrarily detain, imprison, and persecute citizens for their peaceful exercise of their rights. This is why it is sadly impossible for those involved in this work to travel back to Iran.”
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