Seven years ago, I heard the name of a prominent Iranian diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at least 118 times. That was how many days I spent imprisoned in Iran for doing my job as a journalist — and how many days I was beaten by an intelligence officer in the hard-line Revolutionary Guards. He demanded that I falsely confess to being a C.I.A. agent and invent false stories that Mr. Zarif had connections to Western intelligence agencies. Rather than cooperate, I somehow withstood the daily torture.
This month Mr. Zarif, now Iran’s foreign minister, has been in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, alongside other Iranian diplomats and President Hassan Rouhani. Together, they have tried to give Iran’s government a humane face as champions of Middle East stability, while denying its human rights abuses.
Theirs is a thankless task: They must know they are lying. Iranian diplomats are caught between their desire to join the modern world and the reality of the government they represent. They also know their own rights are at risk if they don’t follow the wishes of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
In 2006, when the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, one diplomat told me he had one of the world’s most unenviable jobs. I won’t endanger him by naming him, so I’ll call him Amir. He told me: “If you’re a conscientious man who tries to help his country by changing the system from within, you can’t stop feeling suicidal. When you work for this government you can see how corrupt the system is and how erratically the Guards and the judiciary system can behave. And all this happens on the supreme leader’s watch.”
Amir was jailed not long after that. His arrest was unrelated to our talk. He was falsely accused of passing sensitive information to an enemy nation. But the real reason, he said, was that he had refused to take orders from a diplomat who had been a Revolutionary Guards commander. The Guards jailed him for a few weeks to teach him a lesson, and he then left the government. He showed me a bruise on his arm from repeated beatings with a belt buckle. “This is what I get for serving this government for more than two decades,” he said.
Over the years, Amir and other Iranian officials have told me of their frustration with real and perceived “red lines” set by Ayatollah Khamenei, and how dangerous it is to cross those lines. “The leader is mainly interested in remaining in power,” Amir complained. “Anyone who endangers that is either thrown in jail or gets shot.”
Iran’s Constitution empowers the supreme leader to appoint the heads of the army, the Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary. His security agents spy on disobedient officials, his judges sentence “seditious elements” to years in jail, and the Guards torture people like Amir in prisons across Iran.
In this New York visit, Mr. Zarif and his colleagues have had to be particularly cautious about what they say and whom they meet. Seven years ago, dozens of officials who had advocated reform were paraded on state television to make forced confessions of participation in sedition.
That was when I, too, was in jail, being reminded of the leader’s supremeness every waking hour and in my nightmares.
“Agha joon (my dear master), please accept this from me,” my beefy torturer would repeat as he kept punching my head, knowing I suffered from migraines. “These people are traitors. They are your enemies. They deserve to suffer. They deserve to die. Please accept this from me.”
It was 2009. That June, millions of Iranians had protested peacefully against the disputed vote count that had awarded re-election to Mr. Ahmadinejad. Many thought Ayatollah Khamenei would hear them and call for a new election. Instead, he sent the Revolutionary Guards to crush the demonstrations. Riot squads filled the streets. The Guards took over Iran’s security and intelligence apparatus. Thousands of activists, politicians and journalists were arrested.
In Evin prison, my torturer told me the enemies who “deserved to die” were the diplomats, reformist politicians and officials who dared to try to change the Islamic Republic — people like the imprisoned former statesmen who had visited New York regularly before that spring.
I had been the accredited reporter for Newsweek magazine for 11 years, and had made documentary films about Iran for British television. Soon after my first interrogation, I realized that the sole purpose of my incarceration and torture was to force me into a false narrative, concocted by the Guards, of espionage and betrayal of Iran by myself and its reformist politicians. I refused.
I did sign a forced confession of sorts — that I was a bad person in general, and that the Western media were part of the Western capitalist machine. But I didn’t name names, and for that I was slapped, hit with a belt again and repeatedly insulted. “One day we’ll have all these traitors in the same prison as you,” my torturer loved to repeat. “And hopefully, we’ll hang you all at the same time to rid our holy system of this seditious cancer.” He would finish his praise of his leader by kicking me off the chair or laughing sadistically into my ears.
The Revolutionary Guards were particularly interested in Mr. Zarif, who was then a semiretired foreign policy professor in Tehran. I had interviewed him several times between 2002 and 2007, while he was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. But by 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad had forced him and many other pro-reform diplomats out of office.
The last time I met Mr. Zarif was June 16, 2009, five days before my arrest. He was in his barren office at a research center linked to Iran’s Foreign Ministry. He said the center was like exile. Over tea, which he sweetened with Equal that he’d brought from New York, he spoke of his worries about Iran’s future and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disastrous foreign policy, including the president’s denial of the Holocaust and call for Israel to be wiped off the map. When I told him that the supreme leader seemed to support Mr. Ahmadinejad, he shrugged. And when I asked him about rumors that many diplomats who had negotiated with the West might be arrested soon, he smiled one of his gracious smiles and said, “Who knows?” He couldn’t conceal being a bit nervous as he finished his tea.
Mr. Zarif was never arrested. But he stayed in his “exile” throughout Mr. Ahmadinejad’s second term. Since our last meeting, I’ve seen him do his best to influence how the outside world sees Iran — in hopes, I assume, of changing Iran for the better.
But Mr. Zarif laughs off questions about human rights abuses. Last year he told Charlie Rose: “We do not jail people for their opinions.” Certainly, he knows he is lying. He knows that many people, like Amir, have been imprisoned for their ideas.
Still, I wish Mr. Zarif well. I hope he can protect Iran’s interests as much as possible. But every time I see an Equal sweetener in a cafe I’m reminded of that last quick gulp of tea, just before the Revolutionary Guards took over Iran on Ayatollah Khamenei’s orders. Mr. Zarif must also think about those days. I wonder if he misses the relative honesty of his exile.
Maziar Bahari is an Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker and the founder of the Not a Crime campaign to end official educational discrimination against Iran’s Baha’i religious minority.