The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I was imprisoned in Iran for two years. It taught me a lot about how Tehran negotiates.

I don't trust Iran, but I know a nuclear deal is the only way to keep the country honest.

An Iranian clergyman chants slogan in an annual pro-Palestinian rally in Tehran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

America and Iran have signed a nuclear agreement, good news for international security. Naysayers will argue that U.S. officials should be careful about trusting Iran.

But really, that’s all the more reason to sign the agreement.

I’d know.

In July 2009, I was arrested while hiking near the border between Iraq and Iran. I spent the next two years negotiating with Iranian officials about the details of my detention. The prison guards and interrogators I interacted with served as intermediaries with their bosses at the intelligence department and the foreign ministry.

Early on, I went on hunger strike, demanding to see my two fellow hikers, also detained and kept in solitary confinement. Five days later, Iranian officials gave in and let me share a meal with Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd. After that dinner, I was returned to solitary. So I went on another hunger strike again, demanding to exit the torture of solitary confinement. On the sixth night, they promised me I’d see my friends, so I ate. But they lied. I remained in solitary confinement for four more months. I soon learned what prisoners everywhere know: lying is commonplace. When I complained about not receiving letters from my family, the interrogator told me that my family had stopped writing. When I complained that the guards had stopped letting Shane and I meet Sarah in the courtyard, he told us she didn’t want to see us anymore.

I quickly learned not only to distrust prison officials, but also politicians. I eventually had access to a television and heard President Ahmadinejad’s daily pronouncements. Infuriatingly, he’d say that my case was non-political, that he was advocating leniency. He’d claim—to media and to other heads of state—that we were to be freed “soon.” We stayed in prison for a year more. Iran’s Human Rights Council secretary Mohammed Javad Larinjani promised that I’d be granted due process and access to a lawyer, which never happened.

Paradoxically, my distrust of the Iranian government is why I think a nuclear deal is the best avenue for the United States government. A nuclear deal would ensure international monitoring of Iranian centrifuges. Without a deal, we are left with the Iranian government acquiring and enriching nuclear material at will. Without a deal, the American government’s options to regulate Iran’s nuclear program are unattractive: war or sanctions. War is an obvious disaster as exemplified in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sanctions failed to stop their nuclear program after decades of application and have caused untold misery for ordinary Iranians.

A deal would make Iran accountable to international monitors. This is crucial, because my time in Iran showed me that the country’s politicos are eminently concerned with the international image of Iran. They allowed international media to film and broadcast the one instance when they granted my mother visiting privileges. They also timed my rare phone privileges with publicity about my case.

They even released me and my friends from prison so as to coincide with Ahmadinejad’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly. (Sarah was released in 2010, timed to the UNGA summit; Shane and I were released one year later to coincide with the same event.)

A nuclear deal would force the Iranian government to follow strict protocols or face international shame. Indeed, they have followed the interim nuclear deals scrupulously, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A nuclear deal also removes one of the Iranian propaganda machine’s favorite arguments about the West. While in prison, I became a diligent student of the structure and rhetoric of Iranian propaganda. Their central claim is that the United States holds Iran to double standards, and thus, their criticisms are illegitimate. When I complained about my conditions as a prisoner, many prison guards would look at me and say one word: Guantanamo. For them, the fact that Guantanamo Bay’s prison held prisoners in worse conditions than I was held in justified their use of torture. Their argument about double standards focused particularly on women’s rights, human rights and nuclear technology—all of which they are heavily criticized. To delegitimize such criticism, they never fail to point out that Saudi Arabia, China, and Israel are the U.S. government’s key partners and allies. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia won’t let woman drive, China’s human rights record is abominable and Israel has secret nuclear weapons and did not even sign the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty.

With this argument about double standards, they counter criticisms made by the U.S. and other so-called “hegemonic powers.” However, if the Iranian government signs an accord with the U.S., England, France, Germany, China and Russia, they are agreeing to the standard by which they will be held.

After two years of detention, Shane and I went on hunger strike again, demanding letters from our families. This time, we weren’t in the dark pit of solitary confinement. We were soon to receive our judicial sentence and be in front of the judge, potentially a lawyer, diplomats, and the media. Under this international gaze, the prison boss personally came to our cell to urge us to end the hunger strike. The next day a guard brought letters. International monitoring made all the difference.

When my perceived trespass on the Iraq-Iran border turned me into an international chess piece, I learned that distrust is a healthy way to deal with the Iranian government. An international accord that monitors the country’s nuclear program and undermines the government’s claims to double standards provides a glimmer of hope to mitigate the catastrophes unfolding in the Middle East.