When Maziar Bahari met Jason Jones in a Tehran coffee shop, he didn't know he was being followed by agents of Iranian state security.
When agents came for him and searched his mother's house, he didn't know why he was being arrested.
When his interrogators confronted him with evidence that they said proved he was a spy, he assumed that the tape they were about to play was taken from real life.
When he heard the recorded voice of Jon Stewart as part of the supposed evidence, he thought, "What?"
Only later, as he explained this week to The Daily Circuit's Tom Weber, did Bahari discover what was going on behind his arrest in 2009. Members of the Republican Guard, hoping to discredit reformists who were contending for political power, had hatched a plan to arrest three people and "force them to say that they were the conduit between ... foreign powers and reformists within Iran."
"All the questions they were asking me in the beginning, all the charges that were thrown against me, it was nothing to do with what I had done," he said. "It was all about which reformist I had introduced to the British Embassy, for example, or I had put in touch with American agents."
When he met with Jones, he gave him a list of names — but only names of English-speaking Iranians he thought would make good interviews for the Daily Show. In his produced piece, a Jones voice-over referred to the session as a "clandestine meeting with Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari:"
Iranian intelligence didn't get the joke, and hauled him off to Evin Prison. There, Bahari's interrogators told him he was a spy, and beat him.
"In a situation like that, when you are blindfolded in a dark room in one of the most notorious prisons in the world, whatever happens to you, you always have to have a bit of strategic thinking, and think ahead of them and think, what should be my reaction? How can I react in order to alleviate the situation and either make them beat me less, or interrogate me less, or I can convince them? The charges were so absurd and so ridiculous that I was just dumbfounded. I did not know how to come up with a strategy, how to react."
Bahari worried that he had brought danger upon people he had interviewed.
"I had interviewed dissidents," he said. "I had interviewed a drug addict. I had interviewed underground musicians, underground artists. And because they confiscated so many tapes from my house, when they said, 'We have evidence that you're a spy,' I thought that they were going to play something I had actually done and was a little bit, maybe, subversive. And I thought, 'My God, I'm going to compromise the security of a friend.' So I felt quite guilty when they said they had evidence against me."
Instead, his interrogators played a tape of the Daily Show.
"Jon Stewart's voice was the last thing I imagined to be played to me inside the prison cell," he said.
All of his strategy for surviving the beatings and placating his interrogators escaped him. "When they played Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, I really did not know what to do."
Apparently, the Iranian agents who had observed Bahari's meeting with Jones had not been able to record it. "Because they did not have any recordings of the original conversation, [the Daily show broadcast] was the evidence they brought forward that I was a spy ... . In the absence of any evidence that I was a spy, because I was not a spy, they threw ridiculous evidence against me. And the appearance on the Daily Show was one of them."
Bahari was imprisoned for 118 days after the 2009 elections. "Rosewater," a movie based on his experience and directed by Jon Stewart, will be released next year.
Bahari recalled the interrogation experience for Newsweek:
The interrogators weren't interested in what I was saying. They were fixated on Jason [Jones].
"Why is this American dressed like a spy, Mr. Bahari?" asked the new man.
"He is pretending to be a spy. It's part of a comedy show," I answered.
"Tell the truth!" Mr. Rosewater shouted. "What is so funny about sitting in a coffee shop with a kaffiyeh and sunglasses?"
"It's just a joke. Nothing serious. It's stupid." I was getting worried. "I hope you are not suggesting that he is a real spy."
"Can you tell us why an American journalist pretending to be a spy has chosen you to interview?" asked the man with the creases.
Bahari will be in town Saturday for Temple Israel's 13th Annual Voices of Inspiration Speaker Series.