His tone was frantic. He was scared and paranoid, deleting his WhatsApp messages as soon as I had read them. Masoud Molavi Vardanjani wanted to speak to someone “in Washington”. I was cautious, too. I am just a journalist, I insisted. Who would I know “in Washington”? And how can I even be sure it’s you, I asked, and not some Iranian regime operative up to some trickery?
It had happened to me before. Shadowy figures in the Tehran government reaching out online, pretending to be friends or sources in attempts to draw out information. And Vardanjani, a computer whiz, engineer and hacker, had been an adviser to Iran’s ministry of defence, a source who had helped me out with a story – never published – about Iranian cyber defences that had caused me quite a bit of grief just months earlier.
Though we had never met, we had spoken several times via video chat, and I had checked him out on Instagram and social media channels, where he kept a high profile. To verify our identities, I suggested we each take pictures of ourselves holding up three fingers and send it to each other. He wanted to talk by voice, but I was aboard a plane that was about to depart.
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