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When the sanctions on Iran were lifted earlier this month, as a result of the nuclear deal, we also got news that four Americans would be released from Iran, as part of a prisoner swap. Separate from that swap, another American, Matthew Trevithick, was being released.
Trevithick has worked as a journalist and a researcher for think tanks. He went to Iran in September for language study. When he left his dorm in Tehran one day to go buy his plane ticket home, and ended up being arrested. He was held in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons for 41 days, including 29 days in solitary confinement.
Trevithick speaks with Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti about what it was like in Iran’s Evin Prison, and how he’s been readjusting to life in his hometown of Hingham, Massachusetts.
On the day he was arrested
“I was arrested just outside the dormitory for foreign students and married students at Tehran University. I was actually on my way to buy my ticket home when three people jumped out of and unmarked car and [asked me] one question: ‘Are you Matthew?’ [I answered,] ‘Yes.’ And in to the car you go.”
“I think people would be surprised to learn that even while it’s a very notorious institution for a lot of very valid reasons, it’s not hidden. There are signs to it all over Tehran. There’s a bus stop there, there’s a taxi stand there, there’s usually a hundred people outside looking for information. So it’s well known.
“And as we’re driving down the mountain I start realizing this is where we’re heading and right when we pull through the gates I was saying to myself: ‘There’s about a 95 percent chance this is a very bad thing and a 5 percent chance there’s just been a major misunderstanding and hopefully I can just talk my way out of it.'”
On the experience of being detained at Evin
“It is, and I learned this once I was taken out of solitary confinement, a more typical experience in Iran than I actually realized. When I started to realize who I was sharing the building with — intellectuals, professors, artists, poets, political dissidents — that actually, you can draw a very small amount of comfort from that.”
On being interrogated
“I think much to the gentle amusement of my interrogators, both of them, I actually conducted almost all of the interrogations in Farsi. We only switched to English when my second interrogator said this was a good opportunity for him to practice his English.”
“I think I was taken in for domestic political considerations. And because the objective, as I understood it, from my arrest was to put me on national television to admit that I was there to personally overthrow the Iranian government, I was accused of having access to banks accounts with millions of dollars in them and knowing where the locations of weapons caches were around the country that had been hidden. And that is what they tried repeatedly to get me to admit. I did not admit it because it’s simply not true.”
On his time in solitary confinement
“My cell was about 6 feet by 7 feet, and I’m just over 6 feet tall myself so that made for pretty cramped living quarters. There’s no bed or pillows or anything like that. You’re just in a box. That became home for 29 days.”
On the disconnect between life on the ground for people in Tehran and the geopolitical moment we’re in
“I think parts of the Iranian government are trying, and I think that’s an important part to state. I do not think there’s been a sea change in our relationship on either side. I think the recent diplomacy should be seen for exactly what it is, which is a very narrow point of convergence between two countries on an extremely limited amount of interests.”
“The domestic political situation completely changed from September to December, and, you know, I’m a Farsi student so after class you go out and you pick up the newspaper as a way to practice. And week by week they got progressively more xenophobic, specifically anti-American, and anti-foreign in general. And you’re reading these things and when you read statements from the top leaders in that country, saying we must work to root out American influence, we must work to root out foreign corruption, you’re standing on the street with otherwise pleasant civilian folks who are all thrilled to have an American in the city studying, and you’re wondering: Does this mean me?”
On criticism over the prisoner swap
“It’s a very delicate situation right now in the relations between these two countries. I think that’s a criticism you can’t ignore, but I think it is a simple reality. I’m not an ideologue on Iran. What I say is largely verified by my own personal experience and I can tell you there are parts of Iranian government that do not want a rapprochement with the United States.
“I think what really struck me once I was released is Iran is a nation that is at war with itself. People who are there, people who are in neighboring countries can get pulled into this and become pawns in a three-dimensional chess that’s occurring first inside Iran and second with Iran’s relations with other countries. Iran, as it’s discovering I think, cannot change 36 years of behavior and at times intense or at times light xenophobia. You can’t turn that on a dime. And while they may say they can, and ‘Oh, we’re open now for business and everyone can come,’ to expect radical changes in the way Iran conducts itself and conducts its affairs I think is premature.”