Family hopes Iran soon frees jailed UC Berkeley scholar
Visit to relatives during protests resulted in arrest
Friday, October 24, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle
The family and colleagues of a UC Berkeley lecturer whose imprisonment in Iran has drawn the attention of international human rights organizations and the U.S. State Department said Thursday that he may be released within days.
Dariush Zahedi, 37, an Iranian American who teaches Middle Eastern politics at UC and Santa Clara University, was visiting relatives in Iran during a period of political protests in early summer and was arrested in late June or early July, according to family members and human rights groups.
His plight wasn't known publicly until it was reported on an Iranian Web site last week. He is being held in Evin prison, the facility in which Iranian- Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi died from injuries in July after being arrested.
Relatives of Zahedi and his colleagues have been trying to work behind the scenes to secure his release. Zahedi, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Lafayette, was allowed to phone a relative in Iran Thursday and said that "he'd been told by officials in Evin prison that he'd be released in a few days," said Edwin Epstein, head of Cal's Peace and Conflict Studies, which sponsored Zahedi's class.
"I guess you could say it is a time of guarded optimism," said Epstein, who said he received the news from a member of Zahedi's family in the United States.
"It's definitely encouraging," said a family member in the Bay Area, who asked not to be identified. "We're being cautious. It's not the first time (that a pending release has been reported). I think this was the most optimistic."
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch representatives said Thursday they are investigating the case, and U.S. State Department officials "are concerned for the welfare and safety of Mr. Zahedi and are willing to provide all possible assistance to him and his family," said spokeswoman Joanne Moore.
U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, is "concerned about this case" and his caucus staff members are "in touch with State Department officials and the family to determine the best course to follow," Lantos' spokeswoman Lynne Weil said Thursday.
A serious scholar
Professors and students who know Zahedi said he is a serious scholar, not a spy or even a political activist, and that he bends over backward to be objective. A 1988 graduate of UC Davis, he received a doctorate in political science from the University of Southern California in 1998 and has written articles in academic journals as well as a book, "The Iranian Revolution Then and Now," published in 2000 by Westview Press.
A holder of dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, he was visiting relatives in Iran, as he has done annually for the past several years, and was arrested in late June, said Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Rutgers University professor in urban planning and policy development. (A Human Rights Watch spokesman, citing sources in Iran, said the arrest came in early July.)
Amirahmadi, a friend of Zahedi's who has been in contact with Iranian officials about his case, is also founder and president of the American Iranian Council, a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to improving U.S.-Iran relations. Zahedi is West Coast director of operations for the organization, whose honorary chairman is former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
"We are expecting within two weeks he'll be released," Amirahmadi said Thursday.
Iranian diplomatic officials in the United States wrote a letter to authorities in Tehran saying that Zahedi is a serious academic and, to their knowledge, is not involved in any espionage, Amirahmadi said. That letter has now reached Tehran, he said.
A representative of the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, D.C., which serves in place of an embassy, referred calls Thursday to Iran's U.N. mission in New York, where spokesman Morteza Ramandi said he had no information about Zahedi's case.
Zahedi was arrested for spying when he "very innocently accepted an invitation from a group of political-freedom-movement people to talk about what's going on here (in the United States)," Amirahmadi said. "I'm told he was actually arrested during that time."
"The timing (for his trip) was not good," said Amirahmadi, noting that the Iranian government was confronted by student protesters demanding reform and by increased U.S. and international pressure over suspicions of a secret nuclear weapons program.
"Those were the days the regime would take no chances," he said, particularly when an American showed up from California, the state with some of the harshest exile Iranian critics of the Islamic regime in Tehran.
"It's absolute madness to go there," said Iranian American Behrouz Saba, a Los Angeles freelance writer who broke the news in English of Zahedi's imprisonment. In an article posted to Pacific News Service's NCM ethnic news Web site Oct. 16, Saba reported that the Tehran-based news service, Iran Emrouz, disclosed on the previous day that Zahedi was being held as a spy, a fact that became known after a reformist parliamentarian raised the issue in public.
Seen as desperate gesture
Saba said he believes the clerical hard-liners are holding Zahedi because "the Iranian government is losing its legitimacy" and because Zahedi "represents the progressive, educated class" of reform-minded Iranians, both inside and outside Iran, who pose the biggest threat of displacing the fundamentalists from power.
Saba said the latest promise of early release for Zahedi is merely a device that "makes the prisoner more cooperative and stalls friends and family. "
Zahedi's colleagues acknowledge that he has been critical of the Iran regime, as he has also been of the hawkish U.S. approach to Iran. A column he co-authored in Newsday in April called for friendly U.S. engagement with Iran instead of "instead of threatening, bullying or chastising Iran for developing a nuclear weapons program."
University of Southern California political science Professor Richard Dekmejian, who knows Zahedi from his graduate student days, said the arrest could represent a "sort of vengeance" by the Iranian regime for Zahedi's criticisms as well as Iranian government "paranoia" brought on by economic woes and U.S. threats.
"The regime is extremely nervous about its own existence," said Amirahmadi, adding that Zahedi's colleagues feared he could be tortured by hard-liners in the Department of Justice, said to be controlled by the fundamentalist clerics.
Zahedi was first arrested by the reformist-dominated Ministry of Information and cleared of spying by that ministry after 40 days in solitary confinement, Amirahmadi said, but the Department of Justice took charge of him and put him back into solitary after he had two weeks among the general prison population.
A former post-doctoral fellow at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Zahedi came to UC Berkeley as a visiting scholar in 1999 and became a lecturer in 2001. He came to the United States two decades ago in the large exodus caused by the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-supported shah, a Bay Area relative said.
Zahedi's "distraught" mother, who lives in the Bay Area, is now in Iran "trying to work within the system, which is what we were trying to do quietly, " the family member said.
"He's not a threat to anyone," said UC Berkeley senior Babak Siavoshy, a former Zahedi student and member of the nonpolitical Iranian Student Alliance in America. "He was very soft-spoken and always showed both sides of any issue to the point where it showed he was unbiased." http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/10/24/MNGNE2INAG1.DTL