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.

Umit Bektas/REUTERS
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.

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.

“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.

“Those on the list are normally allowed entry, only to have their movements inside the country monitored and [later] be arrested at the airport when they are leaving Iran,” said Nader Uskowi, a Washington-based Iran expert and consultant to the US government on Afghanistan.

A former regime insider, who goes by the name Saeed Pakniat, claims that one reason several dissidents have slipped through is that the MOIS list is manually updated every twelve hours, allowing fugitives a slim window of opportunity.

“The regime is so worried about MOIS being hacked over the Internet that they record the details of all those entering and exiting the country onto a tape, which they transfer by car to Tehran and then upload onto the MOIS and Foreign Ministry internal networks with a 12-hour delay,” he said.

Pakniat, who claims he was an arms-buyer for the Ministry of Defense and did a stint in a military jail in 2003, escaped Iran through IKIA by simultaneously buying tickets to several destinations and taking advantage of the half-day lapse in updating watchlists to slip through.

Nicola Pedde, the director of the Rome-based Institute for Global Studies and a frequent visitor to Iran, said that the Turkish-constructed IKIA is a “middle-level security standard international airport like a Turkish or Egyptian one.” Although cameras are fitted, it is unknown whether they are equipped with facial recognition technology or the equipment to machine-read passports. Officers tap names and passport codes manually into their computers.

The authorities may also be alerted to Individuals of interest when their tracked cellphones enter the airport cellphone towers’ coverage area.

A foreign businessman who preferred to remain anonymous because he visits Tehran frequently describes seeing “something red flashing on the screen” every time his name is tapped into the IKIA database. On several occasions he has been directed to a waiting room, then allowed to proceed into the city about an hour later.

“Knowing the Iranians, the idea they’re so scared of being hacked that they would keep me waiting while they checked with Tehran whether I could enter the country,” he said.

“Mobile phone networks and how they connect is one of the IRGC’s key priorities because it’s one of the key tools for opponents of the regime to coordinate their actions,” said Pedde, suggesting that the regime is improving its connectivity and information-sharing and extending its street surveillance capability. “Now, a stay in Tehran is Soviet-like – people are constantly accompanying you.”

Ultimately, one of the simplest ways to identify persons of interest is also one of the most time-tested. Spotters keep watch for up to 200 suspects whose pictures they memorize.

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