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How Iranian dissidents slip through Tehran's airport dragnet

Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran is a chokepoint for Iranian dissidents seeking to flee the country. A look at how some are escaping authorities.

By Iason AthanasiadisCorrespondent / February 8, 2010

Iranian journalist Delbar Tavakoli poses in a rented house which she shares with two other Iranian refugees, in Ankara January 7, 2010. Rather than risk the perilous and expensive overland route out of the country, Tavakoli fled on a flight out of Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.

Umit Bektas/REUTERS

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Tehran’s gleaming international airport has served as a hub for arresting political dissidents fleeing the Islamic Republic of Iran since it was brought into service in 2007.

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“The airport is a chokepoint, ideal for ambush type arrests,” said James Spencer, a UK-based security and strategic affairs analyst. “There is the advantage that the individual’s friends expect him to go away for a while so if they’re not seen for a while then no one is surprised, which may allow the security forces to interrogate the individual and then (arrest) his colleagues too.”

But while several prominent journalists and human rights activists have been detained at the airport, a surprisingly large number believed to be on government watchlists have slipped through, thanks to bureaucratic delays and also because Tehran’s new airport may not be integrated into the country’s security network.

Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA) has been accompanied by controversy since the Revolutionary Guard occupied it in 2004, hours after its inauguration. In 2007 it reopened under Guard's auspices with boarding gate security run by the organization.

Delbar Tavakoli, a dissident journalist targeted after the killing of Neda Agha Soltan, decided to flee from IKIA rather than brave the dangerous journey and steep prices charged by human smugglers on the border with Turkey.

Having checked in and passed through passport control uneventfully, she froze when she heard a tannoy announcement requesting “Mrs. Tavakoli to direct herself to Sepah (Revolutionary Guard) Intelligence.” Certain that she was facing imminent arrest and unable to flee the restricted zone, she went up to the desk and confessed to being Mrs. Tavakoli.

“Sorry, it was a colleague of ours with the same name that we were calling,” the beaming employee manning the desk told a relieved Tavakoli.

Passengers entering and leaving the country are checked against two watchlists issued by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Revolutionary Guard. Those flagged are either arrested on the spot, allowed to pass through and surveilled while in the country, or have their passports confiscated and enter Iran on the condition they attend interrogation sessions at MOIS offices.

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