• September 21, 2023

What I Learned in an Iranian Prison

US and Israeli flags were set on fire during a government-approved protest in Tehran on December 11, 2017.


Attack Kenare / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Iran, Europe and many American progressives are putting pressure on the Biden administration to revive the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The official Groupthink has come together on a uniquely misguided belief: The US has mistreated Iran so badly in the past that it must now engage and appease the Islamic Republic. I understand this view because I was once taught to believe it. This attitude convinced me in 2016 that I can safely do research for my dissertation in Iran. My optimism was out of place. Shortly after my arrival, I was arrested by the brutal Iranian regime and held hostage for more than three years.

When I went to Iran, I shared the prevailing academic view of the Middle East. I had taken up the oft-repeated doctrine that political Islam emerged as a reaction to Western colonialism and imperialism and that the West – especially the behavior of the Middle East in America – was primarily responsible for the chaos in the region. My professors taught that the United States had treated Iran with a mixture of orientalist condescension and imperialist aggression since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. I believed that America’s role in the 1953 coup, which removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, explained everything that had gone wrong in Iran. Believing that the mullahs’ hostility towards the US was excessive, I often dismissed allegations of the regime’s malicious behavior as American propaganda.

Since it was evident that American foreign policy itself was the problem and that the regime would like to normalize relations once the US turned away from disrespect, I assumed that if I remained apolitical and myself, I would be left alone in Iran would focus on historical research. Imagine my shock when the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence arrested me on false espionage allegations shortly after the implementation of the JCPOA in August 2016 – during a period of rapprochement between the US and Iran. I was put in solitary confinement, forced to confess things my interrogator knew I hadn’t, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

My interrogator made it clear that my only “crime” was being American. He told me to serve as a farmer in exchange for Iranian prisoners held in the US and the release of frozen Iranian assets. (I was released on a prisoner swap in 2019.)

My horrific 40 months in prison was a period of intense re-education about Iran-US relations. The Islamic Republic is an ambitious but not a constructive power. It is a spoiler that projects influence by exporting revolution and terrorism through its proxies in the Middle East. Domestically, the mullahs have failed to keep their political and economic promises to the Iranian people whom they are holding through repression.

Nothing I had learned during my years in the ivory towers of science had prepared me for the reality I faced in an Iranian prison. I learned what many Iranians already know: The regime’s hostility towards the US is not reactive, but proactive, and is rooted in a violent anti-Americanism entangled in its anti-imperialist ideology. As I’ve seen firsthand, Tehran is not interested in normalizing relations with Washington. It survives and lives on its self-determined hostility towards the West; an attitude that was an integral part of the regime’s identity.

The regime saw President Obama’s engagement not as a gesture of goodwill but as an “iron fist under a velvet glove”. The revolutionary regime of Iran maintains power through conspiracy and intrigue and looks at everything through that lens. The notion that it will be difficult for the US to regain confidence in Iran after leaving the JCPOA is wrong. The Iranian regime never trusted the US and never will.

When I was interrogated in Evin Prison in the summer of 2016, my interrogator boasted that he and his stubborn colleagues were dying to vote for Donald Trump, not because the regime saw him as the pragmatic leader they could deal with, but because it would Justify a more confrontational attitude towards the Great Satan.

The threat to the Islamic Republic cannot be appeased. It has to be countered and held back. Only the US has the ability to carry out such an endeavor. For 42 years, Iran has shown that it only changes its behavior in response to strength in the form of American-led international pressure. If the Biden government returns to the JCPOA without making any concessions from Tehran beyond the nuclear threat, it will give up all US influence over the regime.

Diplomacy cannot be successful without leverage. Only through willpower can President Biden hope for real progress in containing the Iranian peace threat.

Mr. Wang is a PhD student in history at Princeton and a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Paul Gigot interviews former Trump security officer Matthew Pottinger. Photo: ZUMA Press

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