A second-year modern languages student has been forced to abandon his year abroad after being hounded out of Iran by its security services.
The student, who wished to remain anonymous, had been resident in Tehran for over six months when he was urged to return to the UK by consular authorities.
Alongside his daily classes at Tehran University, the student was taking part in the production of a multi-part documentary for the English-language regional television station, Press TV.
The student said that he feared that he and his friend were under police surveillance.
“From my first day, whenever I tried to make phone calls, I could hear background noise and voices,” he said. “One of my friends, Kamran, was followed by Iranian authorities after he published a range of reformist material. Police stopped him when he was on his way to visit me.”
The student said that he had made “repeated trips out of the city”. These are forbidden by Iranian policy on the movement of foreign nationals and may have contributed to his black-listing by authorities.
On one occasion, during a visit to an Iranian ski resort, he was turned over to the police after the hotel receptionist discovered he wasn’t carrying his passport.
In addition, he suggested that involvement with a number of individuals who were under surveillance for other reasons may also have put him at risk.
"I lied a lot in the interview"
A number of his colleagues, who were involved in the Press TV project, had been previously employed at independent media offices that had been shut down by the Iranian government for publishing ‘reformist material’, including the popular Salam newspaper.
Two of the contacts the student made included an environmental activist and a campaigner for gay and women’s rights.
The student said that it was only in the last few weeks of his stay in Iran that his position became untenable.
He said, “A man interrupted a language class that I was in at university and demanded that I answer his questions about my stay in Iran. He asked for a list of all my local friends, their addresses and their phone numbers.
He admitted that he "lied a lot" during this interview, giving names of coffee shops and museums which he had never visited, as well as telling his interrogator that nearly all his friends in Tehran were foreign.
A few days later, the student was detained again by a large group of men. He said that they were “asking the same questions, but much more forcibly, and using a much greater number of people.”
Following this questioning, the student received a letter from the ‘Disciplinary Force of Iran’. His immediate presence was requested at their headquarters in connection with “serious concerns over [his] visa.”
The student emphasised that Oxford University staff provided him with extensive advice and assistance. He said, “They were extremely helpful, especially as it was early on a Sunday morning.”
They directed him to the British Embassy, who are believed to have said they “Had no experience of [the Disciplinary Force]” and therefore strongly advised him to refrain from attending the interview, and to leave the country immediately.
The student said that, “On returning home, I was assured by my departmental supervisors that arrangement for the coming term, both in terms of my academic schedule and my financing, would be taken care of by the University.”
However, the student said that he was having problems finding accommodation. He described his college as “unhelpful” in this respect.
He said, “I am presently planning to live with a group of Pakistani friends and family, after spotting an advertisement in the window of a halal butcher in Cowley.”
When asked about the implications of the incident for other Middle-East language students on their years abroad, he suggested they ought to be “far less trusting” of those people they make contact with overseas.
“Be careful of trusting supervisors at the host university,” he said. “Keep your head down; if you’re English and speak Farsi, you’ll attract enough attention as you are. Don’t court any more.”