The Tehran Initiative

Page 18 of 43


“Please, have a seat,” said the man, who, from his receding hairline and slight paunch, David guessed was in his midfifties. “May I have your passport?”

David handed it to him.

“You are twenty-five?”


“You are a German citizen?”


“But this says your city of birth was Edmonton, Canada.”

“My parents were both Iranians, born in Tehran. They immigrated to Germany, where they became citizens. My father worked for an oil company. He was assigned to work in the oil sands industry in Canada. That’s where I was born.”

“In Edmonton?”


“So you grew up there?”

“Mostly, yes. But just before I graduated from high school, my parents were killed in a plane crash. After that, I moved back to Germany to go to college.”

They were simple questions, but David wondered why they were being asked and where they were leading.

“And whom do you work for now?”

“Munich Digital Systems.”

“What is that?”

“We develop and install software for mobile phone and satellite phone companies.”

“And what do you do for them?”

“A little bit of everything. I’m a technical advisor, but right now I’m the project manager on a new deal signed recently with Iran Telecom. I have a letter in my briefcase, if you need it, describing—”

The security official cut him off. “That won’t be necessary. Just tell me what you do.”

“That’s actually a long story, but basically we’re helping your country dramatically expand its telecommunications capacity.”

“Meaning what?”

David did not detect any hostility or suspicion in the man’s voice. Not yet, anyway. He reminded himself that spot checks like these happened all the time, not just coming into Iran but into many countries he had traveled to over the years. It was hard to believe that he, of all people, had been chosen randomly out of more than 250 people on that plane. But it was possible, he told himself and tried to stay calm.

“Well, you see, the telecom sector in your country is exploding. For example, in 2000, Iran only had 5,000 miles of fiber-optic cable networks. Today there are more than 48,000 miles of fiber-optic cables crisscrossing Iran. In 2000, there were fewer than four million mobile phones in Iran. Now there are fifty-four million. Your systems aren’t designed to handle that much traffic. Your government is now investing heavily in modernizing and expanding its civilian communications networks. That’s why I’m here.”

This didn’t seem the appropriate time to add that the Iranian regime was also spending aggressively on a parallel track to create a secure and far more robust military communications system. Nor did it seem wise to mention that the regime wanted to create a high-tech operations center that would allow their intelligence services to monitor calls and text messages using certain keywords. Hosseini wanted to maintain an iron grip on his people and crush any dissent with speed and lethality, and for the right price, European technology companies like MDS were apparently happy to oblige.

“How many people are working on your project?” the official asked.

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On how broadly you define my ‘project.’”

The two men just stared at each other for a moment.

“Let me put it this way,” David explained. “Iran Telecom recently awarded a huge contract to Nokia Siemens Networks, which is a joint venture between the Finnish cell phone giant and the German engineering conglomerate. The contract supports several hundred Nokia technical staff members to come here—live here, really—for the next year to eighteen months to make specific telecommunications upgrades and train their Iranian counterparts. Two months ago, my company, MDS, won a subcontract from NSN. At this point, we have forty-two technicians in Tehran whom I oversee.”

“Why, then, do you keep leaving Iran and coming back a few days later?”

“The execs at Iran Telecom keep expanding the scope of the work,” David replied. “I keep going back to talk to my superiors to see if we can meet the demands and to see how quickly we can get more technical staff here.”

Fortunately, David thought, all that he had said so far was true. It wasn’t the whole truth, of course, but it didn’t have to be. The best cover story, he knew, was one that contained the fewest lies.

Just then, however, the tone of the conversation began to change.

* * *

Jerusalem, Israel

Asher Naphtali stood alone in his office.

The CIA director had just departed. Now he needed time alone, time to think, time to process this unprecedented turn of events. He ordered his secretary to hold all his calls and not allow anyone in to see him.

With Israel facing an imminent second Holocaust, in light of a fresh terrorist attack, in light of all the instability and turmoil metastasizing throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, was the president of the United States actually threatening to cut off $3.09 billion in annual military aid to America’s only truly democratic and secure ally in the entire region? How was that possible?

Naphtali’s first instinct was to call the Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. Surely Congress would stand with Israel in a war with Iran. Surely the American people would as well. The latest poll the prime minister had seen, just two months before, showed that 58 percent of Americans would approve an Israeli military strike against Iran if sanctions and diplomacy failed. Only 27 percent disapproved.

What’s more, the poll found that a stunning eight out of ten American voters said they did not believe President Jackson’s policies of economic sanctions and repeated attempts to engage the mullahs diplomatically would stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. They’d been right. The exact same number of American voters said they believed that once Iran got nuclear weapons, Tehran would launch annihilating nuclear missile attacks against the State of Israel. Fully 85 percent of American voters said they were also concerned that Iran would give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups once they got the Bomb.

Naphtali hadn’t seen new polling numbers since Iran had tested its first nuclear warhead. However, he suspected American support for an Israeli first strike in light of all that was happening would go up, not down. Still, even if Congress continued voting for substantive military aid packages for Israel, if the president chose to veto such aid, the question was whether congressional leaders had the muscle to override the veto—and continue to do it year after year. Would they do so if the Middle East went up in flames and a new wave of terrorism broke out around the world? Would they do so if oil prices hit one record high after another and the American economy was further damaged by spiking gasoline and home heating oil prices?

* * *

Tehran, Iran

“Who are the satellite phones for?”

“The executives at Iran Telecom,” David replied.

“Why so many?” the security official asked.

“There are only twenty.”

“But you brought in twenty last time and five before that.”

“You have all the paperwork. It’s all legitimate.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Then I don’t understand the question.”

“Why are you bringing in so many?”

“I’m bringing what is being ordered,” David said. “I have no idea what the phones are for, nor do I care.”

“Did you know that Abdol Esfahani has been arrested?”

David was genuinely stunned. He had heard no such thing. “No,” he replied. “What for?”

“He was arrested while you were gone, Mr. Tabrizi, on espionage charges.”

“Espionage? That’s impossible. He’s not a spy.”

“Actually, he is. We have proof that he has been working with the Central Intelligence Agency. And now we suspect you are too.”

David felt a wave of fear flash through his system. How could they know? How had he slipped up? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Why was Esfahani trying to buy more than three hundred satellite phones?” the official asked. “What use could he possibly have for so many?”

David’s mind scrambled for an answer. He had been sworn to secrecy by Esfahani not to mention the connection to the Twelfth Imam or the Group of 313. “I have no idea. You’ll have to ask him.”

“We did. He said it was your idea.”


“He said you also worked for the CIA, that you were paying him a quarter of a million dollars to get these satellite phones into the hands of all the top officials in Tehran. Under torture, severe torture, he showed us how the phones have bugs in them that allow them to be listened to by the NSA’s Echelon signals intelligence system.”

“That’s crazy!” David shot back, jumping to his feet and putting his finger in the man’s chest. “I’m not paying him for these phones. He’s paying me. And none of these satphones are bugged. I’ve checked each one of them myself. And I’m a German, you moron, not an American. I wouldn’t work for the thugs and imbeciles who run the CIA for all the money in the world!”

“Sit down, Mr. Tabrizi.”

“I will not sit down.”

“I said, sit down, Mr. Tabrizi.”

“Look, you fool, I’m not one of your stooges. I’m not going to be accused of spying or bribery or anything else. Now, I was hired to do a job for your government, and I expect to be treated with respect. So let me go, or I demand to see someone from the German Embassy immediately.”


Two large men rushed into the room.

Before David realized what was happening, they moved quickly around the wooden table in the center of the room, punched him in the stomach, dragged him to the floor, gagged him, and tied him up. He struggled as best he could, but they kicked him repeatedly, and eventually one of them pressed his boot down on David’s face to keep him from thrashing around any further.

Next they kicked the chairs aside and dragged in a large wooden board that looked almost like a stretcher, roughly seven or eight feet long and several feet wide. They propped one end on the desk so that the board was inclined like a child’s slide. Then they grabbed David and strapped him to the board with thick ropes, his feet at the elevated end, his head toward the floor, and his arms stretched over his head.

That’s when David knew exactly where they were headed. He was about to be waterboarded. He struggled all the more to get free, but it was impossible. Everything was happening too f
ast. They knew he was CIA. He had no idea how. But they were going to brutalize him until he told them everything. Fear gripped him. Sweat poured down his face and up his back. He gritted his teeth and willed himself not to break. He would rather die than betray his family or his country.

They placed a dirty towel over his face. It had been soaked in something, alcohol or possibly gasoline. Either way, his eyes began to sting and water. He began to gag as well. He knew what was coming. He sucked in a lungful of air and shut his eyes and mouth. Without warning, they hoisted a large can over his head and began to pour water over his face in a steady, controlled fashion. The water soaked the towel, making it heavy and limp. As more and more water poured over it, the towel settled around the contours of David’s face and sealed up his nose and mouth. Now, even if he wanted to breathe, he wouldn’t be able to. His arms tried to thrash but couldn’t move. His legs struggled to break free but could not. David knew he shouldn’t be expending the extra energy. He needed to save every ounce of strength, every bit of oxygen, to stay alive. But he couldn’t help himself. His movements were involuntary.

From the moment the water started, he was counting.

Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen . . .

The water kept coming.

Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one . . .

He wasn’t going to make it. His lungs were going to explode. He didn’t want to die. He had no idea where he would go, and it scared him more than anything else he had ever faced. Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven . . .

Suddenly the water stopped. The towel came off. David exhaled. The overhead lights were so bright he couldn’t see his captors. He knew he had only a moment. He breathed in and out and in and out and in one more time.

Then they smashed the towel back down on his face and began pouring buckets of water over him again.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight . . .

His lungs burned. His hands and feet were shaking. Was he about to go to hell? Was hell real? Was he going to spend eternity burning and writhing with no way of escape?

Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six . . .

The more he writhed, the more he could feel the burning of the ropes as they cut into his wrists and ankles. And because his body was strapped to the board at a downward angle, water finally began seeping into his nasal passages. This instantly triggered a gag reflex to keep him from drowning.

Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five . . .

“Okay, he’s ready,” one of them said.

The water stopped. The towel came off.

“How long have you worked for the CIA?”

David shook his head. “I don’t.”

“Stop lying! We know you do. We’ve been tapping your calls. We’ve been following you. We just want to know how long you’ve been with them.”

“I’m a businessman. I work for MDS. You have my papers.”

“Forget it,” the leader said. “Do it again.”

Again they covered his face. Again they poured gallons of water over his mouth and nose. David couldn’t take any more. He was suffocating. He was drowning. He’d never experienced such terror. He knew he was going to die any moment, and if not now, then by hanging or firing squad later that day or the next day.

He tried to fix his mind on an image of his mother or father but couldn’t do it. He tried to picture Marseille, tried to achieve one last moment of sweetness before he crossed into eternity. But he couldn’t do it. Everything was black.

And then he saw a tunnel. He was heading down this tunnel, and all he could hear was screaming, shrieking unlike anything he had ever heard before. He could no longer feel the water pouring over his face. All he felt was heat, rising up through the tunnel as he descended. Intense, scalding, searing heat. It was real. It was happening. He had to make it stop, but he didn’t know how.

Then suddenly the water stopped again. The towel came off, and the blinding light was in his eyes once more.

“We have Fischer in custody. We were going to torture her. We were going to make her suffer too, but she sang, almost from the start. She’s told us everything. She admitted she was CIA. She said that you were too. She told us MDS was a front organization. She told us you were sent to penetrate the Revolutionary Guard Corps. So stop lying. Tell us what we want to know. How long have you been working for the CIA?”

Every molecule in his body screamed for him to tell them what they wanted to hear. They already knew. Why prolong the agony?

“I don’t. My parents were Iranian. I’m German. You know that. I would never betray Iran. I’m not a traitor.”

David had been through SERE training—Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape—but it had been nothing like this. He was terrified. He was ready to tell them anything to make them stop.

Dr. Birjandi’s face suddenly flashed in his mind. He could hear the man saying, “David, you need to receive Christ as your Savior. You need to be forgiven. Don’t wait. Give your life to the Lord before it’s too late. Only He can save you.”

But they were shouting at him again. They were firing question after question at him. He couldn’t think, couldn’t react. David felt a sharp blow to the stomach and then another to the kidney. The combination knocked out of him what little air he had in his lungs. Wincing in excruciating pain, he forced himself to breathe in and out, deeper and deeper, and then sucked in a final lungful as the towel came down again and the water began crashing down all over his face, all over his head and body.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . .

David forced himself to stop moving, stop thrashing. How could they have captured Eva? How could they have interrogated her? She was in New York. She was interrogating one of theirs. They couldn’t possibly have captured her. There was no way they had her. So they were lying. But how, then, did they know about the three hundred phones?

Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen . . .

The pain was intense, but using every ounce of energy, he focused on counting, not resisting.

Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two . . .

Why hadn’t they taken shots to his face? Why were they hitting him in the stomach and sides?

Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight . . .

They didn’t want his face to be bloodied or bruised. They were professionals. They were doing everything they could to break him without letting him look like he’d been tortured. Maybe they were lying. Maybe they were fishing.

Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty, forty-one . . .

His lungs were burning again. He was about to explode.

Forty-two, forty-three, forty-four, forty-five . . .

David couldn’t hold out much longer. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe they did know. Maybe they were going to kill him after all. Then once more, without warning, the water stopped. Someone pulled the towel off.

“Why are you asking so many questions about the Mahdi?” one of them asked. “Why do you care about who he is and what he’s doing?”

“I love the Mahdi,” David cried, half-choking in the process. “Everybody wants to know who the messiah is. I do too. How is that wrong? How can that be wrong?”