A Look Inside Iran's Regime Driven By Nuclear Ambitions

They warned him not to talk. When Maziar Bahari was finally freed after 118 days in an Iranian prison on phony espionage charges, he was instructed never to speak of what had happened in jail. If he told his story, his interrogator said, he would be hunted down. "We can put people in a bag no matter where in the world they are," the interrogator said. "No one can escape from us."

This week's cover is Maziar's declaration of independence from the threats of a regime that imprisoned and tortured him for months. As you would expect, it is a compelling narrative, told by a skilled journalist and filmmaker. But it is something else as well: a rare glimpse inside the mind and motives of a regime riven with internal rivalries and driven by nuclear ambitions.

The revelations—of paranoia, irrationality, insecurity, pride, and fury—are unsettling. Diplomacy and security depend on having rational actors in positions of power. Maziar's experience suggests that there are rising elements of the regime in Tehran, chiefly the Revolutionary Guards, guided by a warped theocratic and self-serving world view.

There is a lesson in Maziar's courage. It is a perennial one: that speaking truth to totalitarians is crucial if freedom is to prevail against regimes that depend on repression and terror to survive. Let there be no doubt: Iran is currently governed by just such a regime. Maziar was arrested for allegedly being a spy for Western intelligence services that included, he was told, NEWSWEEK. "As you know, in espionage cases, unlike other legal procedures, you are guilty until proven innocent," he was told. Maziar remembers his mouth going dry with hopelessness. "It will take between four and six years to investigate your case to see whether you are guilty or innocent," the interrogator continued. "At the end of that period, if you're innocent of course we will apologize and set you free."

President Obama understands the complexities we face in Iran, and Maziar's account provides fresh evidence for an observation of the president's from last week. Asked in Asia about the difficulties of opening negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Obama told reporters, "We've seen indications that for internal political reasons or perhaps because they are stuck in some of their own rhetoric, they are unable to get to 'yes.' As a consequence, we have begun discussion with our international partners about the importance of having consequences."

Maziar lived with the physical and psychological manifestations of that Iranian rhetoric. Beaten and endlessly interrogated about his supposed role in fomenting the demonstrations and near revolution that followed the regime's declaration of overwhelming electoral victory in June, Maziar found himself in the grip of a faction—the Revolutionary Guards—whose circular logic and brutality raise questions about whether the regime can keep such hardliners in check. "I don't think Iran will target Israel or American troops the day after it builds the bomb," says Maziar. "But a bomb will assure them that there won't be any serious outside pressure on them, so the Guards will step up their crackdown inside Iran and try to expand their influence abroad."

Given what he heard in prison, that seems a reasonable speculation. There is, for instance, clearly no lack of grandiosity on the part of the hardliners. "We will make this region a graveyard for Americans," Maziar's interrogator told him. "It doesn't matter if they want to fight us through the media and people like you, or send their planes and tanks to attack us. We will win the war." The "war" in his mind seems to be an imaginary one in which the enemies of Iran, chiefly the United States, seek to destroy the regime, a conflict in which the media (and this is where Maziar's captivity fits into the conspiracy theory) serve as an ancillary force in the attack on the "holy government of the Islamic Republic." The interrogator's ambitions were expansive, his talk big. "We have people all around the world who are prepared to be martyrs for our revolution and our Leader," he said. "We have allies all over the region. Hizbullah and Hamas are just two of them."

So what to do? The administration is on the right course: try to talk, but be ready and willing to punish the regime with sanctions if the talks turn out to resemble Maziar's communications with his captors more than substantive conversations between responsible nations.

For a man who has every reason to feel embittered and hawkish, Maziar has maintained a remarkably nuanced view of the issues at hand. "There are still some rational people within the regime," he says. "The United States should do everything it can to help those players in their struggle against the extremists." To get a sense of the depth of the struggle and its stakes, read Maziar's piece—and then imagine his captors with nuclear weapons.