Escape from Iran: Leaked Docs Tell American's Unlikely Story

Amid the release of 250,000 classified State Department documents, including frank assessments of foreign leaders and governments by online whistleblower WikiLeaks, are compelling stories of everyday people - in extraordinarily tight spots.

One cable, sent in February 2009 from the American Embassy in Turkey tells the story of an elderly American man, Hossein Ghanbarzadeh Vahedi, who embarked on a three-day journey to leave Tehran to travel to Ankara, which included a 14-hour trip on horseback over the Zagros Mountains in freezing temperatures.

Vahedi, a 75-year-old dentist from Los Angeles, became a resident and then citizen of the United States following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. He had only been back to visit Iran twice, and this time he was traveling to see his parents gravesite. After clearing customs at the Tehran airport on June 6, 2009, he heard his name over a loudspeaker and was asked to go to a separate office where Iranian government officials confiscated his passport. Vahedi appeared in court almost daily for seven months asking for his passport to be returned.

Worried that he would be stuck in Iran, Vahedi began researching escape routes. He decided to try leaving from the city of Urmia on the Turkish border on a Shia holiday, hoping the police would be distracted. Before he left, he tried to train himself and adjust to the altitude difference by climbing the hills around Tehran.

He met two men with a single horse in Urmia, and paid them an initial $5,000.

"For all his planning, Vahedi did not have clothing appropriate for the weather and had a very difficult time with the cold," reads the cable from the U.S. Embassy. "At one point during the 14-hour ride, the escorts had to physically hug him to keep him warm."

An inexperienced rider, Vahedi "fell off the horse tumbling into the woods."

Vahedi assumed he was following a drug-smuggling route because his horse automatically knew where to turn. He even went through one of the packs on his horse to look for drugs, but didn't find any.

Once he was across the border, he paid another $2,500 and was taken to a home to eat and rest, and then was driven to Van, Turkey where he then caught a 10-hour bus to Ankara and went to the U.S. Embassy.

U.S. Embassy staff then worked with Turkish authorities to prevent Vahedi's deportation back to Iran.

So why was Vahedi's passport confiscated?

He thinks it was a case of extortion. Vahedi told U.S. officials that he was told $150,000 would speed up the process and that he was told by Iranian government officials that he should pressure his sons, who own an entertainment company that represents Persian pop singers, to shut down their business.

"According to Vahedi, while they singers are simply Persian pop singers, they have gotten crowds riled up with occasional anti-regime rhetoric," reads the cable. "Also included in these performances are female dancers whose costumes would not raise an eyebrow in most countries, but are perceived as immoral by the conservative elements inside Iran."

More about WikiLeaks:

WikiLeaks Releases State Dept. Documents
Key GOP Pol: WikiLeaks a Terrorist Group
Ahmadinejad Dismisses WikiLeaks Cable "Mischief"
Hoekstra: World's Trust in U.S. Now at Risk
U.S. Encouraged Diplomats to Spy, Leaks Show
Leaked Cables Shine Light on Iran Nuclear Threat

  • Gina Pace

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