Meet Etelaat and its "Nokias"
30 Aug 2009 10:06
By SAYA OVAISY in Tehran | 30 August 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] Comment You've heard the names of the blackest repute: Sepah (IRGC), Basij (militia), Ansar Hezbollah (plainclothes), Mesbah Yazdi. None are the source of our national phobia.
Encounters with the above were rare before the June 12 coup. Ansar shot to infamy for its murderous role in the student uprisings of a decade ago but remained largely subdued on the sidelines. Militarily, the IRGC never meddled in internal affairs; it was an elite corps we heard of on news networks in connection with arming Hamas and conducting defense maneuvers in the Persian Gulf.
IRGC grew to be despised under Ahmadinejad due to the enormous wealth it amassed, but it wasn't feared because it was invisible to us. The Basij we did see, occasionally surfacing at checkpoints camouflage-clad, and Kalashnikov-toting. But until June, such forces were not out in a public show of brutal force.
The word Etelaat ("Intel"), however, resonates with Iranians as KGB did for the Soviets or Stasi did for East Germany. Well-funded and well-equipped, the Ministry employs a network of "informers" who infiltrate workplaces, spy on the internet, lurk in hotel lobbies and even chat up tourists in taxis. In keeping with its Big Brother status, the ministry was founded in 1984. Under ministers Ali Fallahian and Ayatollah Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi respectively, Etelaat agents reportedly carried out the "Mykonos assassinations" of Kurdish party leaders in Berlin in 1992 and the "serial murders" of Iranian writers and dissidents in 1999.
While shooting an underground documentary in Tehran before the June elections, a European filmmaker could not fathom why potential subjects were so reluctant to take part in his project. Many refused to be on camera in any form; some agreed to body shots only and others consented to audio recording of their voices.All of them had advice for him on how to circumvent tailing by Intelligence agents: don't mention names and addresses over the phone, change your SIM card every few days, use an anonymous email address, log on to the internet via VPN service to divert your server route, don't tell anyone about your film unless they are referred to you by a trusted source.
"Iranians are all paranoid!" he would complain to me. "Like schizophrenics who think the CIA is chasing them!"
That was before a Basij officer caught him filming on the street without a permit. He was set free with a well-placed phone call, and although the incident had nothing to do with the Ministry of Intelligence, after that he believed those he once thought to be paranoid schizophrenics. In fact, his anti-intelligence caution grew to exceed ours. He would shush sources on the phone, insist on separate car rides, and took to hopping from hotel to hotel. Before leaving the country, he actually contemplated swallowing the memory stick holding his highly sensitive footage to pass through airport security -- although decided otherwise.
This is a small example of the chronic paranoia inspired by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, Vezarat-e Etelaat.
Not too long ago, a recently-arrived Iranian-British journalist was the victim of an Etelaati cab driver. "He asked about where I came from, why I'm in Iran," she recalls. "I mistook it for friendliness and answered unguardedly." Half an hour after she was dropped off at her door, Intelligence agents raided her home.
"They took everything," she said. "My laptop, cameras, cell phone, passport -- even my brother's desktop."
Many Iranian expatriates avoid visiting their native country for fear of being on Etelaat's radar -- even for a slight as minor as drawing cartoons.
A New York-based cartoonist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had satirized Islamic hijab in his work. When he traveled to Tehran in 2006, he was promptly hauled into an interrogation room at Imam Khomeini airport and barred from leaving the country for the next two years.
"I came back to see my parents and was marooned here," he says. "I had a job I loved, mortgage payments -- an entire life in the US which was left up in the air."
After the June 2009 elections, it was reported that Nokia-Siemens sold Iran spyware that allows monitoring of all phone calls and internet communication. Paranoia surged. I met people who would go as far as removing their cell phone batteries, because they believed the surveillance system is able to listen in one-way on cellular lines even when the handset is turned off.
A great number of Iranians on Facebook -- even those living outside the country -- took down their profile photos and changed their user names in order to shield their identities, because it was rumored that Etelaat agents had infiltrated the social networking site and were gathering information on opposition supporters.
The real scope of Intelligence power is probably far less than speculated. But because its bounds of surveillance capacity and range of informers are unclear, many Iranians modify their behavior and act cautiously as if under Etelaat's omnipresent watch. This Pantopticon effect in turn leads to self-censorship and censoring others, which then re-fuels the paranoia cycle.
Such effects apparently take time to wear off. A friend who recently left Iran said that although he could now speak freely on the phone, he could not shake off the feeling that Etelaat was somehow privy to the conversation. "You grow a persecution complex that's hard to outgrow," he said.
Meanwhile, some find ways to satirize the situation. A new slang term among Tehranis for someone who's a snoop, mole, or gossipmonger: "Nokia."
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau