When the doorbell rang, it was longer and harder than normal, like someone was ramming an angry finger on the button. Then the window suddenly was smashed and the police were inside the house.
It was eight years ago in Tehran, but Parisa Kohandel, who was just nine at the time, remembers the authorities coming to take her father as if it happened yesterday.
“I was crying, and I hugged him, and they were just searching the home,” she says. “I hugged him so they wouldn’t take him.
“Then, they put a gun on my head and separated him from me.”
The case of father Seleh Kohandel, a member of the Mujahidin-e-Khalq — a controversial Iranian opposition group — resembles that of dozens of other political prisoners in Iran.
The Islamic republic’s oppressive regime is something the Obama administration chose mainly to ignore as it pursued this year’s historic nuclear accord with Tehran, which formally took effect Sunday, even as some high-profile human rights cases prompted outrage in Washington and beyond.
Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, for instance, has been detained for more than a year at Tehran’s Evin prison, a place where the practice of severely beating political prisoners has long prompted outcry by Western human rights groups.
The fate of prisoners there is a matter of uncertainty. Some end up hanged from construction cranes in public squares. Others get lucky and are released after years of sordid incarceration.
“The worst torture happens when you are in solitary confinement, both physical and psychological,” says Farzad Madadzadeh, one of the lucky MEK members who was set free last February after five years of imprisonment.
“Over the years, scores of my best friends were hanged — scores of them,” Mr. Madadzadeh, 30, told The Washington Times in an interview. “Their only crime was they were seeking freedom.”
What’s worse, according to both Mr. Madadzadeh and Parisa Kohandel, 17, is that the crackdown on political opposition has grown more intense just as Iran’s leaders have sought to appear moderate on reaching the nuclear deal and getting the U.S. and its allies to lift sanctions.
The Obama administration has so far insisted that sanctions for human rights violations and support of terrorism remain in place. But the Iranian regime appears undeterred.
The two dissidents, who recently fled Iran in pursuit of asylum in Europe, warned that the West’s wider policy of appeasement toward Tehran is emboldening Iranian leaders.
“The nuclear deal has already made the regime more brazen because they feel the West is going to be silent no matter what they do,” said Mr. Madadzadeh, who claimed the regime lives in “constant fear” of an uprising by opposition forces.
“The number of arrests I know of university students and teachers, simply people who partake in any protest, has increased dramatically over the last three years,” he said.
Human rights and prison conditions, he added, have particularly worsened since President Hassan Rouhani came to power in mid-2013.
President Obama and other Western leaders, Mr. Madadzadeh argued, have been duped into believing Mr. Rouhani is moderate when reality shows the Iranian president is “no different” from supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei and other mullahs who wield the real power in Iran.
The ‘Purple Fox’
Mr. Madadzadeh said frustration runs deep among many Iranians that “the West is not standing with us, but standing with a dictatorship like this — one that’s creating chaos in the whole region and killing prisoners.”
The biggest outrage, he said, is that the regime has achieved a kind of complicity from the West in promoting Mr. Rouhani as a man of the people fighting for reforms.
“There are some people who are playing this political game trying to depict Rouhani as a moderate. Some in the regime play this game to buy time from the West, and some in the West have an interest in playing this game,” he said. “This is all a gambit to deceive the international community. I call it the massive deception of moderate show in Iran.
“Reality is totally different,” he said, adding that, in private, many Iranians “call Rouhani the ‘Purple Fox’” because of the deceptive nature of his image on the world stage.
“He’s also called the ‘deceiving Mullah,’” Mr. Madadzadeh said, although the ‘Purple Fox’ nickname has stuck because it stems from Mr. Rouhani’s use of purple as the official color of his campaign while running for president three years ago.
Mr. Madadzadeh pointed to the soaring number of executions that have occurred in Iran since then, claiming the rate under Mr. Rouhani far outstrips that of past periods, including during the 2005-to-2013 presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Amnesty International has pointed to “an unprecedented spike in executions,” describing the situation as “shocking,” with some 694 people having been executed in the first six months of 2015.
A vast network
Mr. Madadzadeh was arrested in 2009 for promoting anti-regime political activities through the Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MEK), whose members claim to have a growing and deep opposition network both inside and outside Iran.
The network facilitated Mr. Madadzadeh’s flight to Europe in recent months. He spoke with The Times via videoconference from an undisclosed location.
While his story could not be independently verified, his name and the severity of his detention have been referenced in State Department human rights documents.
The MEK, meanwhile, has had a long and turbulent relationship with Washington.
The group, which engaged in a power struggle against leaders of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, was known to have carried out terrorist attacks against Iranian government targets during the 1980s and was, for a time, listed as a terrorist organization by Washington.
The Council on Foreign Relations has described the MEK as having formed along ideological lines espousing “a blend of Marxism, feminism, and Islamism.” And some former members have criticized it as a kind of cult.
But more recent years saw the group form a powerful and international public relations push through a wider France- and U.S.-based organization known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
Both the NCRI and the MEK are said to have deep sources inside Iran’s nuclear community, and members have made some game-changing revelations about Tehran’s nuclear activities over the years.
During the early 2000s the NCRI revealed the existence of Iran’s Natanz uranium-enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water plutonium facility — two operations that have been at the center of international scrutiny and distrust of Tehran during the years since.
It’s a factor that seems only to have hardened the regime’s resolve for cracking down.
“The regime is only fearful of one domestic phenomenon, and that’s Mujahedin-e-Khalq,” claimed Mr. Madadzadeh, who asserts that “support for the MEK is growing in Iran.”
He pointed to expanding government propaganda aimed at smearing the group.
A sad prison hallway
One tactic involves programming on Iranian state-controlled media that features interviews with known MEK members who’ve been coerced by the regime into publicly condemning the organization. If a dissident refuses to play along, the consequences can be grave.
Parisa Kohandel told The Times that when she was a young child, government officials apprehended her father and pressured him to speak out against the MEK on state television.
“He didn’t accept it, and because of that, now he’s in prison,” the 17-year-old said, adding that the true terms of his incarceration are unclear.
“He’s been told that it is a 10-year sentence, but he has also been told that he is awaiting execution,” she said.
His predicament has inspired her own activism and membership in the MEK. “I have made up my mind,” she said. “I am not afraid of anything.”
But Parisa also was remorseful about the horrific experience of having grown up with a father behind bars in a country where thousands have been executed on murky terms.
“A lot of political prisoners are executed under the guise of being drug dealers,” she said, adding that they are not drug dealers but ordinary Iranians — many jailed purely for their Kurdish ethnicity or being Sunni Muslims in the Shiite-dominated Islamic republic.
“When I used to walk in the hallway of the prison to the visiting place to see my father, I could see many young kids, six, seven, eight years old, who had to walk the same path,” Ms. Kohandel said. “A lot of them were carrying small pictures, a child’s hand-drawn picture of them and their dads, and many of them, when they came the next week, their dad was gone.”