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British journalist detained in Iran — but allowed to roam the town — tells his story

British journalist detained in Iran — but allowed to roam the town — tells his story
Sarah Dadouch
Jan. 29, 2020 at 10:08 p.m. GMT+1
BEIRUT — British journalist Nicolas Pelham was settling his hotel bill in Tehran on July 14 when Iranian intelligence agents showed up and took him to be interrogated.
He missed his flight, spending 12 hours in solitary confinement followed by three days in a safe house with guards and was ultimately barred from leaving Iran for seven weeks. But for most of the time, he was allowed to stay in a hotel and was afforded an opportunity to experience more of the country than most visiting journalists get to see.
Nearly four months after he was allowed to depart, the Economist’s Middle East correspondent published a story in 1843 Magazine, revealing his detention and detailing his time in Iran — much of which was spent exploring Tehran’s cultural scene.
Pelham acknowledged in a telephone interview Wednesday that the nature of his detention was unusual. Other journalists who have been detained have had far less pleasant experiences. But Pelham spoke of his time in Tehran kindly.
“I could go back tomorrow because it’s such a fascinating, mesmerizing place,” he said.
The reasons for Pelham’s detention remain unclear. He had previously lived in Israel, Iran’s enemy. He had not been granted a visa to Iran in a while. And five days after Pelham was meant to leave the country, Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker, causing fresh tension in the region.
His Iranian gym instructor joked about the strain in British-Iranian relations. “Where’s my ship? Give me back my ship!” the instructor would say in jest.
Asked whether he knew why he was detained, Pelham took several deep breaths, thinking. “Nobody ever explained it,” he said. “It’s a real mystery. Journalists are soft targets, and they probably think that we’re kind of leverage.”
Pelham’s time in Iran allowed him to peek behind the curtains usually held firmly by the government. He made friends easily in what he found was an “uninhibited place.” He learned some Farsi. He listened to people criticize the government. “I was the one doing the censoring,” he said, worried about jeopardizing his release.
“There’s enough flexibility I think in the system that if [Iranians] don’t organize against it, [the government] is willing to tolerate that. There’s too much for them to control. They can’t be everywhere at once,” he said.
Iran has much to show the world, Pelham said. “It’s almost as if the people in charge don’t want to show the full face of the country.”
It seemed to him that people in power feel that contact with the outside world is threatening.
Pelham said he was in touch with the British Embassy within days of being barred from leaving, and although his phone and laptop were confiscated, he was told the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would pick up the tab for any international calls he made. The IRGC did not.
Nor did it pay for his extended hotel stay.