Edmonton software engineer says Iranian regime attempted to make him their spy

Seven months after an Edmonton software engineer was arrested by Iranian intelligence agents, imprisoned, interrogated and coerced into becoming a state informant under threat of death, he still feels trapped.

Behdad Esfahbod says he was arrested and interrogated daily for nearly a week

Software engineer Behdad Esfahbod says he was interrogated, abused and nearly blackmailed into becoming a spy for the Iranian regime. (Andreane Williams/Radio-Canada)

Seven months after Iranian intelligence agents arrested and imprisoned him in Tehran, an Edmonton software engineer says he still feels trapped.

Behdad Esfahbod, 38, says he was subjected to days of interrogation before his captors coerced him, under threat of death, into becoming an informant for the state.

He says the ordeal has ruined his marriage, derailed his career and damaged his mental health.

He's now speaking publicly against the abuses he suffered in a desperate attempt to protect friends and family members who remain in Iran. 

He fears they may become silent victims of the country's repressive regime — collateral damage in the false deal he brokered in an attempt to regain his freedom.

'Turning the tables'

"What are my options? They have leverage on me," Esfahbod said in an interview from his home in Edmonton. "They have physical access to my relatives and friends.

"They have leverage on me to try to coerce me to do things. I don't have anything on them. Going public gives me leverage so now I'm turning the tables and I'm playing the game by my rules, not theirs.

"Now, if something happens to my family, the whole world will know." 

For Esfahbod, an accomplished software engineer who was working at Facebook in Seattle, the nightmare began Jan. 15 during a trip to Tehran.

He grew up in northern Iran and returned to the capital city often to visit family and conduct business meetings.

He said he was waiting for a taxi when he was accosted in the street and arrested by four officers with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an arm of the Iranian military.

The plainclothes intelligence agents had a warrant for his arrest. He was accused of endangering the security of the country and of having co-operated with organizations hostile to the regime.

"There are multiple intelligence agencies in Iran and they each work independently. This is a deadly one that you don't want to deal with."

A document that was used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for Behdad Esfahbod's arrest in Tehran. (Submitted by Behad Esfahbod)

Esfahbod was taken to Tehran's Evin Prison, where generations of political prisoners have been held or executed under brutal conditions.

He surrendered his passports, credit cards and electronic devices. His captors downloaded more than a decade's worth of his digital history and used it as evidence of his alleged crimes against the regime. 

Esfahbod says he was held in solitary confinement, in a filthy cell, for six days. Blindfolded, he was interrogated daily about messages and images found on his confiscated electronic items.

After three days he asked for a lawyer. His captors laughed, he said. 

He said he was told that if he didn't co-operate, he could suffer the same fate as Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photojournalist who was raped, tortured and killed by Iranian officials following her arrest in Iran in July 2003.

It was "psychological torture," Esfahbod said. "They basically said I could be killed and it could be passed off as a mistake."

His interrogators initially accused him of being a covert internet activist. They said his acquaintances had been involved in the 2009 Green Movement protests, uprisings which demanded the removal of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office.

Then his captors changed their approach. They tried to coerce him into being a spy for the regime.

'They tried to cut the deal'

He said he was told if he wanted his freedom, he would need to act as an informant and feed the government information on his contacts in the Iranian tech sector.

"They made it clear I wasn't going anywhere soon and then they tried to cut the deal," he said.

Convinced that he would not get out of prison if he didn't co-operate, he finally accepted their terms. But he never had any intention of following through.

"It's a sad moment for me," he said. "I was disillusioned. Before, I thought the IRGC was hijacked by a few bad apples and then completely derailed. Now I realize the IRGC is an abusive terrorist force that has hijacked the whole country and is not giving up."

A sister in Tehran posted bail for Esfahbod. After a harrowing trip through airport security, he left the country. 

Then, in mid-June, after he was safely out of Iran, he began receiving encrypted messages through his social media accounts. Agents contacted him on Instagram and called him multiple times.

He ignored the coded messages. Then his sister in Tehran began receiving threatening calls, reminding her of the deal he made. Esfahbod received a summons, delivered to his sister's house, giving him five days to report to the Revolutionary Court for further questioning. 

It was then that he decided to write about his ordeal in a blog post and go public with his story. 

Shockwaves through community

The blog post sent shockwaves through the Iranian community, said Nima Fatemi, an Iranian activist in exile who knows Esfahbod from the tech industry.

Fatemi is a U.S.-based tech entrepreneur and founder of Kandoo, a non-profit organization that provides cybersecurity services to vulnerable populations.

He said Esfahbod became a target even though his work was politically benign.

"It doesn't get any easier by the number of times you hear a story like this," Fatemi said. "It's still shocking."

He said it's especially sobering for Iranian nationals living abroad.

It reminds us that these threats are very real and they can follow us everywhere.- Nima Fatemi

"It reminds us that these threats are very real and they can follow us everywhere."

Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American journalist who served as Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post, said the Esfahbod case draws similarities to his own arrest by the IRGC in 2014.

Accused of espionage, Rezaian was imprisoned for more than 500 days.

He said Esfahbod's experience proves that the regime forces Iranians in the diaspora to gather information for their intelligence services.

"The state has a very bad and long habit of using foreign nationals and dual nationals as hostages to extract political leverage on other countries," Rezaian said.

"This is something that a lot of people have suspected for quite a long time. The question then becomes how many people have made similar agreements and are living by them?"

'I became a machine'

Months after his ordeal, Esfahbod remains shattered by its effects.

Following his incarceration, he was forced to go on medical leave from his job at Facebook. As the coded messages began to trickle in, he was crippled by the pressure of work. The prospect of international travel was terrifying.

As his mental health deteriorated, Esfahbod asked for new medication to help him cope. He returned to work but the pills aggravated his bipolar disorder.

For weeks, he said, he was paranoid, angry and untethered from reality. He quit his job at Facebook, left Seattle and moved in with a sister in Edmonton.

"For a month I was manic. And I was starting fights. It felt like I wasn't feeling anything. Nothing. No depression, no happiness. 

"I became a machine." 

Esfahbod said he was never a political activist; instead, he said he was dedicated to a career that saw him take senior positions at Facebook, Google and multinational software company Red Hat.

Defying the regime means he can never return to his home country but with his career on pause and his exile from Iran assured, he feels compelled to speak out. 

"I had always made the choice not to attack the Iranian regime," he said. "But they decided to involve me in all of this, so I will carry out my fight to the end."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Radio-Canada's Andreane Williams