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Tehran Trial for Iranian Univ of Texas Student; Angelina Jolie to Act in Iran?

04 Oct 2011 21:30Comments

Press Roundup provides a selected summary of news from the Farsi and Arabic press and excerpts where the source is in English. Tehran Bureau has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy. Please refer to the Media Guide to help put the stories in perspective. You can follow breaking news stories on our Twitter feed.

Iran Standard Time (IRST), GMT+3:30

OmidKokabeeFacebook.jpg9:30 p.m., 7 Mehr/October 4 Omid Kokabee, a first-year physics Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, went on trial Tuesday in Tehran on charges of "communicating with a hostile government" and "illegal earnings." The Islamic Republic is apparently accusing him of profiting from the leak of Iranian nuclear secrets to the United States. He faces a sentence of as many as ten years if convicted.

Kokabee, 29 (seen here in an image from his Facebook page), graduated from Tehran's Sharif University of Technology in 2005 with a degree in applied physics and mechanics. He received a master's in optics from the University of Barcelona in 2010, and then relocated to Austin to continue his education. He was arrested this past January or February at Imam Khomeini International Airport during what was intended as a brief visit home -- reports differ as to whether he was detained on arrival or when he was attempting to depart. According to his attorney, Saeed Khalili, who was not allowed to speak with his client during the procedure, Kokabee pled innocent to both charges during the trial's opening session.

The Washington Post reports,

Kokabee was studying optics in the physics department of the University of Texas and had previously specialized in lasers, one of his academic advisers said. None of his studies were linked to nuclear applications, said John Keto, chair of the graduate studies program at the University of Texas at Austin's department of physics. [...]

Keto said Kokabee had difficulty getting a visa to the United States.

"It took a number of letters to the State Department. But he finally arrived here in August of 2010 and started graduate school," Keto said. [...]

Keto said that the university first learned of Kokabee's arrest from another student after he failed to show up for his studies.

"His family actually asked us at that time not to make a big deal out of this because they felt like some kind of rabble rousing from the U.S. would not be in his interest," he said.

According to a September 22 item in Science Insider,

He had been due to appear in court on 16 July...but officials cancelled his trial at the last minute.

One of Kokabee's friends in the United States, who asked to remain anonymous, thinks media attention was behind the original trial's cancellation. "Everybody was waiting to hear the verdict," he says. "This is generally [looking] good for Omid. They [the Iranian authorities] would much rather close the case without any media reflection."

Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at the City University of New York and a member of the international Committee of Concerned Scientists, agrees. "My theory is that in the light of broad public attention, the judge decided to play safe and have instructions from the office of the supreme leader [Khamenei] before imposing the sentence," he says. [...]

But Chudnovsky adds that he was hoping public pressure would have secured Kokabee's release, and not just a delay of the trial. "The new date is not a good sign," he says. "It may indicate that the instruction from the office of the supreme leader to the judge was to work harder to prepare the case better by, for example, extracting a confession from Omid."

Yesterday, an opinion piece about the case by Samian Quazi, a University of Texas graduate student of nursing, appeared in the school's newspaper, the Daily Texan:

The UT community shamefully has remained silent on Kokabee's ordeal, and this silence has serious implications for international students throughout the United States. [...]

[T]heories abound as to why Kokabee was arrested. Iran's theocratic Shiite government may have sought to suppress ethnic and religious minorities from entering the ranks of the academic elite, as Kokabee is from the mostly Sunni Turkmen ethnic group. More likely, Tehran may have sought to try Kokabee as a warning to its diaspora and students abroad as a chilling effect on pro-democracy advocacy against the regime.

In any case, UT's failure to generate public awareness of Kokabee's condition will embolden other authoritarian regimes to muzzle their international students. If UT administrators can't advocate for the release of a strictly non-political Iranian student, could we really expect them to defend a UT student arrested in China or Burma or Belarus? [...]

Ironically, Khamenei himself personally honored Kokabee for the latter's academic achievements. The two met years earlier at a meeting of Iran's National Elite Foundation, and Kokabee had demonstrated his intellectual and academic prowess by ranking as 29th in that country's nationwide entrance exams.

The Daily Texan reports that the school's president, William Powers Jr., released a statement Monday in which he expressed that the university community is "deeply concerned for the fair and humane treatment of our graduate student Omid Kokabee." A letter appealing to Khamenei for Kokabee's release issued by the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society -- of which he is a member -- states, "Mr. Kokabee has no training in nuclear physics, is not politically active, and is not associated with any political movement in Iran. Rather his primary concerns were his science studies in the field of optics. This area of physics has essentially no overlap with nuclear technology." An online petition calling for his release has been created by the Committee of Concerned Scientists.


The Tehran Times reports:

An Iranian producer said on Tuesday that he is in negotiations to hire American actress Angelina Jolie for a film project, which will be shot in Iran.

"We entered into discussions with Angelina Jolie's manager Geyer Kosinski and (Angelina Jolie's attorney) Robert Offer 10 days ago," Ali Sartipi told the Persian service of the Fars News Agency.

"According to the discussions, it appears that Mrs. Jolie has shown an interest in coming to Iran to act in an Iranian film, but the necessary arrangements must be made beforehand," he added.

He declined to name the film project and its director.

Asked if he thinks the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance will approve the project, Sartipi said, "We plan to first obtain Angelina Jolie's consent to act in the project and then to enter into discussions with the Culture Ministry."

He went on to say that the screenplay of the project is currently being translated into English in order to be sent to Jolie. [...]

Jolie would be the first Hollywood star to act in an Iranian film in the country if Sartipi can obtain the Culture Ministry's approval for the project.


Our columnist Muhammad Sahimi compiled the following news items and commentary:

In a nationally broadcast news program on Monday night, Prosecutor-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, who has been appointed as the special prosecutor in the case of the embezzlement of nearly $3 billion, provided more details about the case. He said that the alleged central institutional culprit, a company founded by Amir Mansoor Khosravi in 2006, began its illegal activities only this year and that "it cannot be said that the entire operations of the company from the beginning have been illegal." While the Amir Mansoor Aria Investment Group (AMAIG) obtained credit lines totaling close to $3 billion from several banks, its current net value is approximately $4.2 billion. Ejei said that Bank Melli, Bank Saderat, and a few other financial institutions were involved, and that the Central Bank must also bear responsibility because it oversees the banking system. According to him, in 2009 the National Inspection Organization warned Bank Melli about the company's operations, and AMAIG has confirmed that it currently owes about $3 billion to the bank. So far, 22 people have been arrested in the case, and Ejei said that another 15 will soon be arrested. He added that it is in the interest of Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the former Bank Melli chief who resigned and fled to Canada, to return to Iran because "if he does not, everything will be attributed to him." Ejei also "apologized" to the nation and any Iranian who believe that he did not do his job completely.

Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, head of the National Inspection Organization, strongly criticized the administration. He said, "Some who are offenders themselves, instead of apologizing to the people and making up for their mistakes, attack this and that and are impolite to and [verbally] assault those who are trying to do their jobs to identify the weakness [of the system] and publicize it. Unfortunately, we are seeing such behavior in some." He said that his agency "owes" the citizens of Iran. "We accept that we are indebted to the people," he said.

The Nasim website, which is aligned with the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, reported that, in addition to Khavari, several other senior managers of Iranian banks are currently residing in Europe. Quoting an "informed source in the Majles," the website said that the Central Bank, the Ministry of Economic and Financial Affairs, and the National Inspection Organization must publicly identify and publicize those managers who are living abroad.

Ayandeh reprinted a cartoon that indicates the depth of financial corruption in Iran and how it has spread over the past two decades. The cartoon, published in the satirical magazine Gol Agha in 1995, depicts a man in a flashy red suit and a policeman standing in front of a court building at the bottom of a steep staircase. The suited man says, "I embezzled only $4.5 million, and you expect me to go up so many stairs?" At the time, $4.5 million would have represented an exceptionally large theft.

On Monday, the hardline Kayhan newspaper tried to link former President Mohammad Khatami to the embezzlement, claiming that he is a shareholder in the privately held Bank Saman, which has been implicated in the case, and that his brother and former chief of staff Ali Khatami is the bank's investment manager. Khatami's office immediately issued a statement rebuking Kayhan and denying that he has, or ever had, shares in Saman "or any other company, financial institution, or bank."


Khatami met with Abdollah Nouri, who was interior minister in his first administration, to discuss the state of affairs in the nation. The two reformist leaders emphasized that the only way to get the country out of its present crisis, and the ruling group out of its crisis of legitimacy, is to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners, ensure freedom of the press and political groups, and hold truly free elections without any intervention by the military and security forces or manipulation by those charged with supervising the vote.

The judiciary denied reports that attorney Masoud Shafiei was arrested. Shafiei was the attorney for American hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, recently released after two years in Iranian prison, as well as their friend Sarah Shourd, who was released last year. The prosecutor-general's chief of staff said that Shafiei was only summoned to the judiciary to explain a few issues. He did confirm that Shafiei has been barred from leaving Iran, but said that "at this point there is no explanation as to why he has been barred."

Amnesty International has issued a statement condemning the arrest of six Iranian documentary filmmakers, and calling for their immediate and unconditional release. The organization said it appears the five men and one woman are being incarcerated solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, or for their contacts with foreign media, particularly the BBC. Five documentary directors -- Hadi Afarideh, Shahnam Bazdar, Naser Saffarian, Mohsen Shahrnazdar, and Mojtaba Mir Tahmasb -- along with producer and distributor Katayoun Shahabi were arrested on September 17. They are believed to be held in Evin Prison's Section 209, which is controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence. Their families are reportedly under pressure not to speak about their detention.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered the Central Bank governor, Mahmoud Bahmani, to open a $5 billion line of credit for the National Iranian Oil Company outside Iran. The apparent purpose is to speed up development of the South Pars natural gas field in the Persian Gulf that Iran shares with Qatar. The first ten phases of development of the field have been completed, and another 11 of a total of 28 phases are currently underway. During the current Iranian year, which ends next March 20, $16.5 billion is supposed to be spent, of which $7.5 billion has already been disbursed.

Iran has agreed to provide Belarus with a $400 million loan. The country's economy is in depression, and Belarus has already received another large loan from China. Iran has close military relations with Belarus.

The Ministry of Communications has ordered the cutoff of all virtual private network (VPNs), which use the public telecommunications infrastructure and the Internet to provide remote offices or individual users with secure access to their organization's networks. Minister of Communications Reza Taghipoor has declared the use of VPNs illegal.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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