They were trying to get you to confess, but they were also trying to get names of specific people for whom you were working. And meanwhile, they said you would have to spy for the Iranian government as a condition of your release. Eventually you gave them a false confession, right?
I knew that, in the past, people had been forced to make false confessions. They’d been released, and then they’d recanted their confessions. I thought: I’m in the worst prison in Iran, in solitary confinement. I’m cut off from the world. These people can do whatever they want with me, and nobody will ever find out. And [my captors] were threatening me. They said that espionage can result in the death penalty. They also said, “We have agents all over the world, we can find your family.” When you’re in that situation, every threat is very real.
They gave me a bunch of names: Americans I knew in different capacities, journalists, friends, acquaintances, people I’d interviewed in the past. They said, “One of these people you have to name as the one who told you to use your book to spy for America.” So I picked an innocent person, a completely innocent person [who] would not be coming to Iran any time soon. I thought, I’ll get out and I’ll tell this person what I’ve done, and hopefully he’ll understand that I had to do this.
And then you had to produce a composite image of this man, who you called Mr. D.
Yeah. They took me to an interrogation room, and there was a guy sitting there with a laptop computer, [which displayed] different noses, eyebrows, eyes, lips, chin, hair. They said, “We want you to make a composite drawing of Mr. D.” So I picked out some eyes and a nose. It didn’t actually look like the Mr. D I knew, which I was very thankful for, but I had to play along.
You were just randomly picking noses and eyebrows?
Right. They had very bushy eyebrows—Middle Eastern eyebrows. [laughs]
But you recanted your confession while you were still in prison.
It was a very difficult decision to make. I knew that if I recanted while I was still there, I would make my captors furious, and they would not release me as promised. I later found out that I’d recanted two days after the Iranian authorities announced that they were going to free me within days. But I had been so ashamed of what I’d done by making that false confession. Even when I get out of here, I thought, I’m not going to forgive myself.
And that gave you a measure of newfound courage.
Yeah. I felt much more defiant, because I had proved to myself that I could be strong even in the most difficult moments.
There’s always this calculus when journalists get captured or imprisoned—news organizations aren’t sure whether to publicize what’s going on or keep it a secret. Do you think the media attention helped in your case?
I believe that it had a big impact on pressuring the Iranian authorities to release me. I knew that it was aggravating my captors, because they would say, “Tell your parents to stop talking to the media.” Look, there are [Iranian leaders] who more or less do care about the image of the regime. And we’ve seen several cases in which the media attention has caused a prisoner to be treated better or freed sooner. Maziar Bahari, for example, is an Iranian-Canadian Newsweek journalist who was detained in Iran after last year’s disputed presidential election. He was able to get out after 118 days, I believe.
Did you ever hear the NPR story that I did about you?
Which one is it? [laughs]
It was while you were in prison. At the time, I was thinking of going to Iran to cover the elections with my colleague Brooke Gladstone. But I heard an interview your dad gave to NPR, and it had a chilling effect. If that was one reason for your arrest—to discourage foreign journalists from coming—it worked.
I did hear that report, actually, after I was released. I’m sorry if I prevented you from going to Iran. [laughs] That is one of the goals they had: to intimidate other journalists, other dual nationals, other people who could work independently.
There is a specific sensitivity, I think, to dual nationals with Iranian citizenship.