Guest of the Shah

Richard Savin, a licensed British arms salesman, arrived in Italy in November after serving thirty months in an Iranian prison. His account of conditions there contrasts sharply with official Iranian claims that no brutality, beatings, or torture go on inside the country’s prisons. Mr. Savin was interviewed in Rome for the International Herald Tribune by Christopher Matthews, formerly the Rome bureau chief for Reuters and currently a freelance contributor to both the International Herald Tribune and Newsweek. Mr. Matthews has given The New York Review this account of how he obtained the interview:

I’d like to be able to say that the following report on prison conditions in Iran was the result of skill, perseverance, and intense dedication on my part. It wasn’t. Savin had a story to tell and was looking for a reporter to talk to. A friend of mine who works as an advertising copywriter called me and said he knew of an Englishman who’d just come out of jail in Iran and had horror stories to tell. Would I like to hear them? We arranged to have dinner together.

The strange coincidence of being approached, just at the moment when Iran was falling into chaos, by a man whose story sounded as if it would do the Shah’s reputation no good obviously had not escaped me. I have no reason to suspect, in fact I completely trust, the ad man who served as intermediary, but, inevitably, when we sat down to dinner, I was looking as hard as I could for flaws in Savin’s story. There was never, by the way, any question of paying him.

Savin was tall, sandy-haired, intense, and high on his own story. He could talk about nothing else and this, to my mind, was the first sign of authenticity. Anyone trying to con you at least has the sense to switch subjects when your eyes start glazing over. Not Savin. He talked of Savak, Vakilabad prison, and the Shah for three hours.

Savin was staying in the country north of Rome where he intends to settle and farm. I can’t be too precise about details because, as he told me, Savak had already tried to strangle him once after he got out and he wasn’t keen on repeating the experience. We agreed to meet at his country place for a formal interview which would be taperecorded and in which I could ask any questions I liked.

During dinner, the point was to see what sort of a story Savin had to tell and the conversation ranged pretty much over his entire life up to, during, and after his months in jail. The circumstances of his arrest were complex. He was returning from Pakistan where he was supposed to deliver an automobile to a local politician as a bribe for help with an arms deal, but the Pakistani had got cold feet. Savin was on his way to an African country where a £20,000 sterling commission awaited him for another deal…

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