'Valley of hell': Anoosheh Ashoori dismayed as cellmate left out of Biden's deal with Iran

During his five years in a Tehran prison, Mr Ashoori shared a room with US resident Shahab Dalili

Anoosheh Ashoori said he is disappointed that the US deal to secure the release of Iranian hostages does not include his former cellmate. Victoria Pertusa / The National
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Anoosheh Ashoori, the former British-Iranian hostage, has said he is “disappointed” by President Joe Biden’s failure to include his former cellmate in a prisoner exchange deal with Tehran.

In an exclusive interview with The National, Mr Ashoori said it pains him to see US residents sidelined from the $6 billion pact that took two years to negotiate.

Five American prisoners are on track to be returned home and several Iranians released from US jails.

As a first step, the group including conservationist Morad Tahbaz have been released into house arrest in Iran.

But Jamshid Sharmahd, an activist who holds dual Iranian-German citizenship and American residency, and Shahab Dalili, also a US resident, are not on the list. Mr Sharmahd's daughter previously told The National the Biden administration had distanced itself from her father.

During the five years he spent in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, Mr Ashoori shared a cell with Mr Dalili, a retired shipping captain who was detained in Iran in 2016 during a visit for his father's funeral.

He expressed regret that the US president had not pressed the Iranians harder to secure his companion’s freedom.

“Not everybody is being released. This is a great disappointment,” Mr Ashoori admitted.

“For example Jamshid Sharmahd, who has got a death sentence on him, has been left behind and is not included in the deal. Also, a roommate of mine, Shahab Dalili.”

However, Mr Ashoori, 69, welcomed news of an agreement that will see five men reunited with their families in the US, adding: “I cannot hide my happiness at the same time.”

‘Apprehensive about the US deal’

When it comes to the Iranian authorities, he knows from experience that things can turn sour at the last minute.

“I worry in case they change their mind. With these people you cannot really predict exactly what they will do,” he said.

He drew on his own experience from his March 2022 release alongside fellow detainee Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

“It almost happened when Nazanin and I were at the airport and we were going to be taken to this Omani Air Force aircraft,” he explained. “At the last minute, Stephanie Al-Qaq… if it wasn’t for her perhaps we would have been taken back.

“Until I looked through the window of the aircraft and I saw that we have passed the Persian Gulf, I was worrying in case we were returned.”

At the time, Ms Al-Qaq was director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London and played a role in securing the pair’s release.

Staging a fake release is one of the sickening tools used by the prison authorities to punish detainees, he said. He cited several cases of his fellow prisoners being released from Evin to be reunited with their relatives at the gate only for the officials to drag them back behind bars moments later.

“It’s one of their methods,” he said. “So that’s why I’m a bit apprehensive [about the US deal].”

Mr Ashoori’s feelings of apprehension are shared by Mr Tahbaz’s daughter Tara, who has said she has a “fear of what happens next”, following her father's release from Evin Prison.

The £400 million agreement that secured the release of Mr Ashoori and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe did not include Mr Tahbaz.

The businessman and wildlife conservationist holds American, British and Iranian citizenship.

He was arrested in his country of birth in January 2018 during a crackdown on environmental activists.

‘Valley of hell’

Mr Ashoori, who lives in London, has thrown himself into advocacy work and campaigning since being reunited with his wife and two adult children.

On the question of whether Western governments should be paying money to Iran in exchange for prisoners, he said it is challenging to reach a definitive answer.

While he understands the point that funds risk being “misused by this barbaric regime” he wants people to know the anguish his family went through when he was locked up.

Families of detainees “want the government to do anything in their power to rescue them from that valley of hell because every minute spent in that place is torture,” he said.

“I see it from both points of view.

“The question I would ask politicians is: in all honesty, if it was one of their family members who was taken hostage, what would they do?”

He is still grappling with the effects of torture and imprisonment and has flashbacks of the many harrowing days he spent in Evin.

“This is not something that I expect will go away very soon,” Mr Ashoori said. “When I talked to Terry Waite after I was released, after so many years [he told me] he is still having flashbacks, still having some sort of trauma.”

Mr Waite, a British hostage negotiator, was captured by the Islamic Jihad organisation in Lebanon in 1987 and held for almost five years, most of which was in solitary confinement.

Mr Ashoori said unless a person goes through an ordeal such as his own there is no way they can wrap their mind around it.

To underline his point, he uses a Persian poem that roughly translates as: If you talk about the pain of bee-sting to someone who has not been stung by a bee how can you explain the pain?

“I’ve been stung by that bee. I know what the pain in like,” he said. “The least I can do is make social awareness about these bees. Bees are quite useful creatures, but these creatures [the Iranian authorities], evil is perhaps a better description for them.”

'Find a purpose'

As five American citizens prepare to taste freedom once again, Mr Ashoori offered words of wisdom to them: find a purpose. And that he certainly has done.

The father-of-two is planning to run the London Marathon for the third time next year to raise awareness about the prisoners who continue to languish in Iranian jails.

Front and centre of his mind as he crosses the finish line will be the Iranian conservationists whom he met during his ordeal.

These “fantastic people” would hold classes for inmates to raise awareness about endangered species such as the Persian leopard, he said.

The determination showed by these brave men in the face of harsh punishment is all the fuel he needs to carry out his lengthy training for the marathon.

The idea of running a 42-kilometre race at the age of 70 might sound daunting to many, but not to Mr Ashoori.

“There are some positive things that came out of this darkness,” he said.

“Perhaps my ultimate goal is if I can be of any help to prevent this happening again to others [and to] do something so that you would not feel that all those years have gone to waste.”

Updated: August 21, 2023, 3:30 AM