The Iranian regime's drive for nuclear weapons and support for terrorism are cornerstones of its foreign policy. But for Iran's political dissidents--many of whom are currently languishing in Iranian prisons--the regime's domestic agenda is just as dangerous.
Ahmad Batebi managed to escape the beatings and torture and make his way to America. He sat down with CBN News recently to share his story.
"As I sit here now," Batebi told CBN. "There are students, teachers, political prisoners, average workers, and even clergy who disagree with the Iranian regime and are being tortured to stop their civic activities."
Until recently, Batebi was one of them. He spent nine years in Iran's notorious Evin Prison, where he endured constant physical and mental torture.
Along the way, he became a worldwide symbol of the Iranian resistance.
A Life-changing Event
It was a role he never intended--one he stumbled into 10 years ago.
"In 1999, that was the first large-scale protest that college students were involved in after the Iranian revolution," Batebi said.
Those protests against the brutality of Iran's regime drew thousands of young Iranians onto the streets.
Batebi, then a film major at Tehran University, was taking part in one rally in July, 1999 when police opened fire on the crowd.
One of the bullets hit a student standing next to him in the shoulder.
After helping rush his friend to a medical facility for treatment, Batebi returned to the protest. He began waving his friend's bloody shirt to show what the police had done.
A photographer captured the image on camera. Within days, it made the cover of The Economist magazine and was picked up by media outlets worldwide.
Although he didn't know it at the time, Batebi's life was about to change forever.
"I was imprisoned and tortured," he said. "The regime was very upset by the photo. They were pushing me to announce on TV that the picture was a fake, and that I had done this for money that I received from foreign entities such as the USA and Israel."
Trapped in Iran
Batebi refused. He soon found himself standing before one of the Iranian regime's judges, where he saw the now famous photo for the first time.
"I was told that the regime is an Islamic regime and has come from God," Batebi recalled. "By showing that picture, I had defiled the regime, and as a result had defiled God's name. So I must die."
Batebi was taken to the gallows at least twice over the next several months. On each occasion, a noose was placed around his neck for several agonizing moments.
But the end never came.
Batebi says heavy outside pressure from human rights groups led to his life being spared.
His sentence was also reduced, to 15 years in Evin prison. But that didn't make his life there any easier.
He spent 17 months in solitary confinement--an experience which took a heavy physical and psychological toll.
"In isolation, one is under constant torture and pressure," he explained. "They would keep me up for hours, sitting on a chair, unable to sleep or walk around in order to extract information. They would tie me to the chair to prevent me from falling, and would inflict injuries to my body and rub salt on the wounds to prevent me from falling sleep. All the while I was blindfolded."
Escaping the Nightmare
Severe beatings at the hands of the regime's interrogators were a daily occurrence. Once, his head was held down in a toilet filled with human feces. On other instances, he was hung upside down and beaten with a cable, often on the soles of his feet. He suffered permanent hearing loss.
"The results are still with me," he said. "I still have nightmares. I sleep here at night, but have dreams of my imprisonment."
To keep from going insane, Batebi dreamed of a future outside prison walls.
"While in prison, I would try to live as if I had a normal life, and not fall behind," he told CBN News. "I continued my education and learned music. I was planning a parallel life outside prison for myself."
In 2008, thanks to more international pressure, Batebi was temporarily released from prison in order to get treatment for a stroke and seizures he had suffered due to his torture.
He would never return to Evin Prison.
"I contacted a friend who was connected with the Kurdish democratic party of Iran," he explained. "She provided me with those contacts, who planned and executed my escape from Iran within 24 hours."
Batebi was told he needed to move immediately. He threw a few belongings into a bag and jumped into a car filled with Kurds whom he'd never met.
The harrrowing, 300-mile journey to neighboring Iraq--and freedom--was about to begin. Batebi captured much of it on a mini video recorder.
"We had to travel by donkey," he recounted. "Navigating through areas laden with mines, and dodge the charges coming from Iranian defense forces, which would barrage the Kurdish areas on a regular basis. Once we got to the Iraqi side, I was passed to the protection of the Democratic Kurdish faction of Iraq, who accompanied me and provided protection."
The Kurds took Batebi to the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the Iraqi city of Erbil. But he never felt safe.
One day, he received a call on a private cell phone whose number he had never given out. It was his chief interrogator from Evin Prison, ordering him to return to Iran.
The Kurds feared that Iranian hit teams were hunting for Batebi. He knew he had to move quickly.
"At this point, my information had reached U.S. officials," said Batebi. "Who agreed to give me temporary one-year passage as an asylum seeker. With their help i went to Austria, and from there to the United States."
'Your Hands Will Never Reach Me'
Batebi arrived in the United States almost a year ago. He now lives in Washington, D.C., where he works in radio for Voice of America and has become a leading advocate for human rights in Iran. He's posted a message to the Iranian regime on his blog. It's a picture of Batebi, standing in front of the U.S. Capitol. Beneath the picture it reads: "Your hands will never reach me."
Batebi's mind is never far from the other dissidents he left behind in Iran. He is concerned that the Obama administration's outreach to the Iran regime may come at the expense of human rights issues. The President has yet to address the Islamic Republic's well-documented human rights violations and repression of dissidents.
According to Batebi, "People are worried that if the two governments patch things up, and the U.S gets its wish for a nuclear-free Iran, human rights issues in Iran will be ignored."
Although Batebi is deeply appreciative of the freedoms he now enjoys in America, he says that, until all of Iran's prisons are emptied of political dissidents, he can never truly be at peace.