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Three Iranian-Americans Detained in Iran

May 28, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, another topic on the U.S.-Iran agenda of the future. As we’ve been reporting, three Iranian-Americans are being held in Iran. Two are in the infamous Evin prison: Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant for the Open Society Institute, a private democracy-promoting foundation established by financier George Soros; and Haleh Esfandiari, a Mideast scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center. An Iranian-American journalist, Parnaz Azima, has been barred from leaving Iran since January.

We get an update now from Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute; and Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University and husband of Haleh Esfandiari.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us. Mr. Neier, let me begin with you. What was Kian Tajbakhsh doing in Iran?

ARYEH NEIER, Open Society Institute: The Iranian government had, over a period of time, asked us for help in dealing with a number of problems that they have. We don’t only promote democracy. We also provide assistance on public health programs and humanitarian programs in all parts of the world. And we did that in Iran.

A former ambassador to the U.N. for Iran, Ambassador Husseini, asked me for help in dealing with Iran’s terrible problem of intravenous drug use. They have one of the worst problems in the world. And we provided specialists, experts to go to Iran to help them in dealing with that problem.

And we needed somebody on the ground in Iran who would oversee the implementation of programs that we had. And so a scholar and expert in urban public policies such as Kian Tajbakhsh was the kind of person who could do that sort of work for us. And so we made an arrangement with him that he would be the person in Iran overseeing the implementation of the few projects that we’re able to conduct there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So working as a consultant for you…

ARYEH NEIER: Working as a consultant, and dealing with public health, and humanitarian, and cultural programs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When was he taken into custody? And what happened?

ARYEH NEIER: Well, as far as I know, he was taken into custody on May 11. We didn’t find out about it right away. And I’m not quite sure what is happening to him in custody, because we can’t communicate with him. And so far as I know, he is not represented by counsel.

The latest on Haleh Esfandiari

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, he's been able to get some phone calls out to his wife who's in Iran?

ARYEH NEIER: Right, but she's not eager to communicate with others. I think she is concerned not to make his situation worse, and so we have only fragmentary information on his situation in Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Professor Bakhash, your wife, Haleh Esfandiari, couldn't leave Iran since December, has been in prison since earlier in May. What's the latest on her condition?

SHAUL BAKHASH, George Mason University: Well, as in the previous case, we have no information about her condition in prison. The only thing she's allowed is a very brief telephone call, usually lasting under a minute, to her mother in Tehran, in which she can ask after the health of her grandchildren and say she's OK. But we feel there's a minder standing right next to her.

So we have no idea as to her condition, and they have denied access to the family. They've denied access to the lawyers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you hear anything through third channels?

SHAUL BAKHASH: No, so we do not know how she's being treated in prison. And this is a prison which is notorious for its interrogation methods.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Has she been charged with something?

SHAUL BAKHASH: She hasn't been officially charged with anything, but a statement by the Ministry of Intelligence last Monday implicates the Wilson Center, where she works, in this fantastical plot, so to speak, to advance a velvet or what the Iranians call a "soft revolution" in Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Changing the minds of the Iranian people?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, so to speak. But this is -- sorry -- yes, it is criminalizing scholarly activity. This is saying, holding conferences and inviting people to give talks somehow is nefarious activity.

No official charges

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Neier, has Mr. Tajbakhsh been charged?

ARYEH NEIER: So far as I know, he has not been officially charged. Iranian authorities have even denied knowing about him. But, of course, Iranian newspapers have published lengthy stories denouncing him and creating the impression of a conspiracy. So there may be charges, some vague general charges of undermining national security or something of that sort, but there's nothing official that we know of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your sense that the Iranians are up to here?

ARYEH NEIER: I don't know what the Iranians are up to. I don't know if they're trying to hold people in order to make an exchange for the Iranians who are being held in Iraq. I don't know if there is some internal power struggle, and one faction is using this for its advantage. I don't know if it plays into the elections next year.

There are all kinds of speculations, but I don't have any way of figuring out which is right or whether any of them are right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's this, Professor Bakhash, about exchanging for prisoners being held in Iraq?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, I don't think that this has ever been officially stated, but as Aryeh Neier says, we don't know. They don't talk to us. There's no communication between the families of these detainees and the Iranian authorities. And they use the press to make vague and unsubstantiated accusations against my wife and others, so we're left totally in the dark as to what this is about.

And I think, you know, since we don't really quite understand the way these people in the Ministry of Intelligence think at all -- I don't think they think like you and I - it's very difficult to figure out what they have in mind.

Deciding to go public

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said a minute ago, you mentioned -- you used the term "soft" or "velvet revolution," and I asked you about changing the minds of the Iranian people about their own government. I mean, can you see any connection here between what your wife was doing and others are doing with...

SHAUL BAKHASH: I don't see a connection in, at least, a sense normal people would see a connection, because, after all, the Iranian government itself holds conferences to which it invites scholars from the U.S., from European and other countries. There are exchanges at scientific conferences.

And it would be absurd to suggest that the Iranians are holding these conferences to bring about a revolution in the United States or in Germany or in France. And that's really what they're trying to say, and it doesn't make any logical sense to anybody who thinks clearly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Neier, you were saying that Mr. Tajbakhsh's wife in Iran doesn't want much publicity. How did you make the decision to be public, to do this interview?

ARYEH NEIER: Well, we didn't make the decision ourselves. Journalists, Western journalists found out about Kian Tajbakhsh, and they published the information. And, of course, once they published the information, we don't want to deny an association with him.

We don't know whether it's better to make the information public or to try and soft-pedal this and keep entirely quiet about it, but we really didn't have a choice. We were forced to go public on the matter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Professor Bakhash, you and, of course, as the husband of Haleh Esfandiari, the Woodrow Wilson Center we've had on this program, the leadership of the Wilson Center, you've chosen to be more public. Do you have a worry about what's the right way to handle this?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, I think it's the natural reaction of families and employers in these kinds of situations to try and resolve these issues quietly and through private probing, because of the atmosphere of fear such governments create.

And, again, we didn't choose to go public. Haleh was taken to Evin prison. The story leaked, and we felt, once she was taken to prison, we had no choice but to make public statements. But I now believe that one should speak publicly and one should say what one thinks, which is that these allegations against my wife and others are without foundation. They're false.

Looking for outside help

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Neier, just quickly, next, you look for word from whom on this?

ARYEH NEIER: Well, we look for word from the Iranian government; we're not likely to get much from them. But we would hope that scholars who are trying to come to the help of their colleagues will get some kind of response.

We hope some friendly governments will be able to exercise some influence. Now that it's public, we'd like as many people as possible to join in the effort to try to free Haleh, to free Kian, and to make sure that this comes to an end without any harm coming to them or further harm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we appreciate both of your talking to us, Aryeh Neier and Professor Shaul Bakhash. And we certainly wish safety for both of these individuals we've been discussing.

SHAUL BAKHASH: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much.

ARYEH NEIER: Thank you.