By Sophia A. Niarchos
"I intend to go back to Iran," said Iason Athanasiadis. In his first post-release interview with an American journalist, the British-Greek freelance reporter released from a Teheran prison on July 5 was concerned about the potential impact of his remarks. Although he didn't outright reject the request for an interview, Athanasiadis thought it important to "take it easy" during this transitional period and reflect on the possible ramifications of anything he might say that could prevent his return to a country he has been covering for years.
An Oxford- and Harvard-educated freelance journalist, Athanasiadis was arrested on June 17, accused by the Iranian government of "illegal activities" during the protests that followed the June 12 elections. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting had been supporting initiatives to obtain Athanasiadis' release as had friends and fellow journalists who created a page on Facebook to draw attention to his situation.
Athanasiadis' trip to Iran to cover the elections for The Washington Times and Global Post was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
Athanasiadis' parents, Polymnia Athanasiadi and Georgios Fowden acknowledged and expressed their appreciation for efforts by Orthodoxy's All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew "whose appeal to the Iranian authorities played a decisive role in Iason's safe return" and the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyiannis as well as to three "devoted and loyal" close friends who provided them with "astute advice and constant sympathy" during the period of his detention. According to an Athens News Agency report, Athanasiadis himself acknowledged those efforts and their importance in obtaining his release more quickly than it might otherwise have been effected after having been received by Bakoyiannis on Wednesday.
Speaking with this reporter on Tuesday, Athanasiadis said it was likely that the Iranian authorities' learning of the unbiased nature of his articles during his interrogation was instrumental in his being freed.
"[Those who cleared him of espionage] seemed embarrassed that they hadn't read the 19 articles I'd written, articles that were widely available through a Google search, which would have revealed the [unbiased] nature of my coverage."
He said he covered rallies on both sides of the electoral debate and gave equal space to arguments concerning whether the protests were begun by the citizens of Iraq or by foreigners seeking to impact Iranian affairs.
The only "hard" evidence upon which the Iranian authorities were basing their accusations, he noted, was a four-year-old photograph of him speaking to a British diplomat. "If they consider that evidence, then photographs of me speaking to diplomats from more than twenty countries whom I had interviewed throughout my career would also qualify."
Athanasiadis said he received no apology from Iranian authorities. "The closest they came to an apology was a statement that my case would have been a 48-hour affair had it not been for the upheaval in the country."
Speaking from his home in Greece, where he had arrived only hours earlier from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Athanasiadis was alert and energetic during the interview, effectively juggling interruptions by callers on another phone line while simultaneously remaining focused on questions presented to him despite just having emerged from weeks of solitary confinement.
The only people with whom he had been able to speak were his interrogators and other prison personnel. Athanasiadis explained that the isolation to which he was subjected is a commonly used technique because it creates such a desire for the detainee to communicate that he is willing to provide the information being sought.
One might surmise that the ringing of his phone and the e-mails that had accumulated during his absence re-ignited the flame of communication for this well-traveled and widely published young journalist.
Overall, Athanasiadis said, he was "treated well" during his detention. However, he did note that he had been subjected to constant light, another interrogation technique, which "has a way of playing with your biorhythms." He didn't mention having been subject to blindfolding although there are news reports of his keeping the blindfold and the prison-issued pants he wore.
Asked why he had violated the government's prohibition of on-the-street reporting and orders to remain in his hotel room, Athanasiadis said he thought it was important to "tell the truth."
"I could have stayed in a hotel room in Dubai or any other city," he said.
Athanasiadis, who has written for many highly esteemed publications in both the West and East, had pursued Middle Eastern studies and learned Farsi and Arabic having been influenced by his parents who specialized in the late antique period of Arabic civilization civilization (he recalls his mother reading stories to him from "One Thousand and One Nights").
In the biography on his web site (www.iason.ws), Athanasiadis refers to his move from Athens, where he covered preparations for the Athens Olympics, to Teheran in 2004 and how his ensuing tripsto "Iraq and Afghanistan broadened his understanding of the region and its unreported dynamics." The ignorance of those dynamics, he said, clearly has had an impact.
"The 2003 Iraq war was a case of complete cultural inadequacy," he added when asked about the difference he thought cultural understanding could make in international political relations. "Not speaking Arabic or being familiar with cultural traits resulted in disrespectful treatment and counterproductive behavior," he said, adding that knowledge of a culture can enable political entities to achieve the results they seek. He said recent U.S. anthropological initiatives that take into account sensitivities of local villagers are an improvement.
By Sophia A. Niarchos