Backstory Out of Iran
Buried within WikiLeaks’ exposed secrets is one L.A. dentist’s great horseback escape
Dr. Hossein G. Vahedi is a 77-year-old Los Angeles dentist. For decades, he has led a very private life. Until November 28, when WikiLeaks publicized its first batch of 250,000 classified State Department documents. Among them were U.S. Embassy cables from Ankara, Turkey, to Washington, D.C., written in February 2009 on Vahedi’s behalf. They essentially said this: “Refused permission to return home to the U.S. after visiting relatives in Iran, Hossein Ghanbarzadeh Vahedi, 75, undertook a daring secret trek over the mountains to Turkey and turned up in Ankara asking for help.”
In a follow-up, it was said that Vahedi’s getaway was made on horseback over snow-covered mountains patrolled by armed border guards. In the wake of the WikiLeaks release, news organizations around the world have been clamoring for details, but Vahedi himself has not spoken. “I can tell the story only once,” he says today from his son and daughter-in-law’s home in a hillside section of Brentwood. “It is too difficult to relive. The memory makes me feel sick.”
Before I meet with Vahedi, my mental picture of him is a cross between John Wayne and James Bond. Instead, he looks more like a violinist—soft-spoken, with white hair, bifocals and graceful hands, which makes it all the more difficult to imagine him atop a horse, switchbacking along icy cliffs.
Prior to his escape, Vahedi had not ridden a horse since he was a boy in Iran. He moved to America in 1984, and his previous visit to Iran was 10 years ago. Then in May 2008, he planned a trip to visit his parents’ graves.
Seated at a dining table, Vahedi opens a thin folder of papers that chronicle his ordeal. He had just arrived at the airport in Tehran when his troubles began. “A man—unshaven, in pajamas and a dark olive coat—called out to me by name,” he relates. “He said, ‘Could you give me your passport?’ ” Like many Iranian Americans, Vahedi carries one from the U.S. and one from Iran. He complied and presented the Iranian one. When he asked for his passport back, he was told to report to a building in Tehran run by the Islamic Revolution Court.
Once there, he says, “I was invited to talk with officials about the matter. ‘What matter,’ I asked?” One IRC official was polite, even offering some tea. But another demanded personal information about the American businesses of Vahedi’s sons (two of his three sons promote concerts featuring, among others, Persian pop singers Kamran & Hooman). When he protested, he was told to shut up. “When I left, I had the feeling this was a serious problem,” Vahedi says.
He traveled to his parents’ graves but soon received a call summoning him back to court in Tehran. This time, Vahedi says, “there were verbal threats...then [veiled] discussions about having my sons bring some ‘goods’ to Iranian officials in Dubai. It was extortion. Over my dead body would I leverage my sons.” With no American Embassy in Tehran, he turned to the Swiss Embassy.
When officials at the Swiss Embassy learned Vahedi still had his American passport, they told him to leave Iran immediately. “They said, ‘Just go, now!’ ” So he paid a fee to change his ticket and started to head home immediately. Passing through customs, he breathed a sigh of relief. “Then I heard my name over the loudspeaker,” he says. Iranian officials held him overnight and told him he was not allowed to leave Iran. They did not say why.
While solving the “matter” had been challenging up to this point, it had now turned Kafkaesque. He sought counsel and was told, “Lawyers can’t help you in Iran.” What he needed, he realized, was to find an official who would “help” (as in, take a bribe).
He paid a fee to change his ticket...Passing through customs, he breathed a sigh of relief. “Then I heard my name over the speaker,” he says.
First, he was introduced to a man who claimed to be a bodyguard of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Next came a man claiming to be “connected to [Ayatollah Al] Khamenei,” the Supreme Leader of Iran. “He kept saying, ‘I’m gonna fix it for you,’ ” Vahedi recalls. After several weeks that included meetings in a hospital room, a taxi and a park, those trails ran dry.
Another round of meetings began, this time involving cash payments and odd gifts. “One guy’s mother needed something. Another [person] needed a tin can of fruit,” Vahedi says. All the efforts reached dead ends.
He showed up at the IRC each time he received a summons, but his prospects for freedom from Iran’s theocratic maze seemed to worsen. “I see men being led away in chains...Young girls from the university taken in for questioning. There was a basement in the court. Once you go there, you are on your way to Evin prison,” he says. Known worldwide for its political prisoners, Evin is where two American hikers, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, have been held on espionage charges since July 2009.
By then, months had passed. From Los Angeles, Vahedi’s daughter-in-law, Alisa Freundlich, a lawyer, had been com- municating with the Swiss Embassy. “There was nothing they could do,” she says. Meanwhile, both Freundlich and her husband, Kevin Vahedi, were working to get heart medication to his father: “We sent it to Switzerland, and they brought it to Iran inside a diplomatic pouch.”
In November, after some six months of limbo, things worsened. Officials at the IRC told Vahedi he had to post an amount equivalent to $50,000 or go to jail. As he was weighing his options, the bail was raised to $150,000. “I realized I had to escape,” Vahedi says. “I thought, Either I’ll die in an Iranian prison, or I’ll die on the run.”
He began to study exit routes and gather information about smugglers’ fees. He learned there were three viable options: over the water, in a shipping container across the Persian Gulf into Dubai; over land into Iraq and then to Karbala; or over the mountains into Turkey.
Escape was not a subject for casual conversation in Tehran; even broaching this kind of subversive talk could land you in jail. “I had to be careful about who I was talking to because it could be a setup. I began switching phones, making calls in the park. I thought I was being followed. Spies are everywhere—even street cleaners report to the government in Iran.”
Vahedi says he didn’t want to travel over water. He ruled out Iraq because soldiers are generally known to be loyal to Iran. Once he decided on a mountain escape into Turkey, he began walking the Tehran hills to get in shape. He told no family members of his plan, but in December, while collecting his heart medicine at the Swiss Embassy, Vahedi confided in a diplomat that he would try to escape. “They told me, ‘I don’t recommend it—it’s very dangerous.’ ”
Even so, the Swiss notified his family in Los Angeles. Freundlich recalls, “The [diplomat] said, ‘Your father-in-law was here. He looks very bad. I’m very worried about him. I think he’s going to try to escape.”
And he did. Vahedi paid $5,000 to a smuggler and hid another $2,500 on his body, to be paid on the other end. He was taken north by car, on a covert route along the Caspian Sea, then inland, then across a bridge over the Urmia River in northwestern Iran. “The first part of the journey was a little girl on a horse leading the way, then me on a horse, then a man walking behind us. ‘Don’t talk to anyone,’ they said. I had only a coat, no gloves, Ferragamo shoes.”
At one point, the group paused inside a small clay hut. At another, the smuggler in charge of Vahedi’s escape met up with the group. “He was a huge man,” Vahedi recalls, “big and strong. He could tell I was scared. He put his arms on [my shoulders] and gave me courage. He said, ‘You are going to make it. You are going to be okay.’ He lent me his phone to call my wife.”
It was after a short respite at another safe house that the death-defying journey began in earnest. “I was not told of the plan,” Vahedi says. “I had no sense of time or how long it would take.” If not for the kindness of an elderly Kurdish woman in the safe house, he believes he would have died from exposure. “She gave me a pair of gloves and tied a scarf around my head. She said, ‘Shoes no good,’ and gave me a warm pair.”
The smugglers took turns helping him, alternating between laying him over the horse’s back and carrying him. Guards were still within earshot, so Vahedi bit his fingers to keep from screaming.
Up into the mountains they rode in deep snow and bitter cold, through a maze of smugglers’ trails. “Around and around we went,” Vahedi says, apparently in an attempt to avoid the border guards. “There were wolves walking around us just 10 yards away. One [smuggler] had a stick, and he said, ‘Don’t be scared.’ ” Along the path, Vahedi spotted a dead horse, seemingly recently killed by a bullet in its side. He learned that horses know the route by rote, so smugglers will sometimes load contraband on their backs and send them down the mountainside on their own.
“The day my father chose to escape was a holy holiday,” Kevin Vahedi says, noting that his is not the typical Persian-American family, at least in a religious sense. “My mother is a devout Muslim, and my wife is a Jew. The day was the Day of Ashura, which had its advantage. The guards were distracted.”
The group passed over the top of the mountain and came to a secret meeting point. “We hid behind this single large stone,” Vahedi says. “Somebody whistled. I was freezing—shivering. We were in Turkey now.” There was a switch of horses, two new guides. “One man came up and hugged me to warm up.” They began riding again, when “suddenly I just rolled off. I rolled and rolled, and when I came to a stop, I was crying in pain. I had injured my shoulder. I didn’t care. I lay in the snow and thought, Here I will die.”
Instead, the smugglers took turns helping him, alternating between laying him over the horse’s back and carrying him over their shoulders. Guards were still within earshot, so Vahedi bit his fingers to keep from screaming. After some time, he saw a little house. “They took me inside—it was warm!” Unable to move his fingers, a little girl fed him tea, then bread. He fell asleep. In the morning would be the final leg of his journey home.
The road from the Turkish border town to the bus station in the city of Van was rife with guard posts, Vahedi says. He sat quietly in the backseat of a car that had been loaded up with loaves of bread. Whether this was part of the smugglers’ disguise or an amazing coincidence he never learned, but Vahedi believes the appearance that he was part of a bread-selling concern aided in his escape.
Still, even though he was out of Iran, he was not out of danger. It is alleged that Turkish police turn escapees back in to Iranian border guards in exchange for payoffs. Finally, Vahedi arrived at the bus station, where he began a 27-hour overnight trip to the capital of Ankara. When he made it to the U.S. Embassy, he was so exhausted and overwhelmed he just laid on the floor.
“A tall man—a Turkish national—comes over, looks at me and laughs. ‘Are you Mr. Vahedi?’ he says. ‘I was looking for you yesterday.’ ” The State Department in Washington had sent word. Embassy staff took him to a hotel, and he enjoyed a long, hot shower. Then came the shocking news: Although Turkey is an ally of the United States, it was Turkish policy to send back anyone caught entering illegally from Iran. And because Vahedi’s American passport did not have an entry stamp for Turkey, the local magistrate could deny him an exit visa. “If it wasn’t for Hillary Clinton’s staff at the State Department,” Freundlich says, her father-in-law might have been deported back to Iran.
Vahedi also credits the Embassy in Ankara. “The woman at the consulate said to me, ‘Over my dead body will I let them send you back.’ She took me to her own house. She said, ‘We’re not going to leave your side until [the airplane] is wheels up.’ ”
Eight months and one week to the day after leaving L.A. for what was supposed to be a short visit to his parents’ graves in Iran, Vahedi was escorted by two U.S. diplomats onto an airplane in Ankara to make his way home.
Vahedi’s story is one of courage, but it is also a cautionary tale. As Kevin Vahedi realizes all too well, when Americans go to Iran, they are playing dangerous games, and the stakes are their lives. “I doubt many Americans—certainly Persian Americans—realize this when they travel there,” he says.
“Iran is the country I was born in,” Vahedi himself sighs. “I served in the army. I was a dentist on the frontlines...in the first Iran-Iraq conflict.” It is where he, his wife and their children were born. Discussing this, the gentle yet stoic Vahedi chokes up, and it’s readily apparent why he does not want to retell his narrative to news organizations around the world.
The real story of what happened to him is much more than “the daring secret trek over the mountain,” as the classified State Department cable reads. Indeed, his physical escape meant a 1,000-mile odyssey across the Middle East. But on a personal level, the journey was much shorter—from his head to his heart. “America is my country now,” Vahedi says. “America saved my life. I feel proud to be an American. I did not know this, in this way, until now.”
Stylist: Brandon Palas
Groomer: Carola Gonzalez
Sweater: Polo Ralph Lauren wool knitted sweater: $165, 310-281-7200, ralphlauren.com.