Jailed Iran Intellectual Asks US to Butt Out

TEHRAN – One of Iran’s best-known intellectuals Ramin Jahanbegloo, who was released on bail this week after spending four months in prison on charges of compromising national security, has said it would be best for the United States and its institutions to avoid contacting prominent Iranians.

Jahanbegloo told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) in an interview on Tuesday, barely hours after his release from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, that contacting Iranians could result in putting them in danger of acting against their country’s security. He accepted that this may have happened to him. Arrested on his way back from a seminar in India at Tehran airport on Apr. 25, Jahanbegloo is now out on ‘heavy’ bail. Curiously, one of his first acts was to pop into the offices of the ISNA and offer an interview, saying he trusted the agency.

In an apparently long session, Jahanbegloo, who holds both Iranian and Canadian citizenship, clarified that he had not been charged with espionage but with acting against the interests of national security and maintaining contacts with foreign countries, ISNA reported.

Jahanbegloo’s release and interview were cautiously received by Iranian newspapers. Similar confessions over the media by dissidents like Ali Afshari and Abbas Abdi, to having acted against national security, turned out afterwards to have been made under pressure. Commentators said, because of this, it would be hard for the Iranian public to trust what Jahanbegloo is saying now.

“My interrogators were very polite and there was no physical or psychological pressure on me,” Jahanbegloo said. Although initially placed in solitary confinement, after a month he was put in a cell which had a TV set and was given access to newspapers and allowed visits by his family. He said he and his family have decided to waive the right to have a lawyer because he did not know whom to trust. No date has been set for his trial.

He cited contacts with U.S. think tanks as one reason for his arrest. “My relations with foreign institutions started in 1999 when I went to Canada and then to Harvard University,” Jahanbegloo said. “But the chain of events leading to my arrest started when I got a fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy which gets its budget from U.S. Congress and mostly investigates the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Later it was proposed that I do a comparative study of Iranian and East European intellectuals for them. I was arrested before I gave them the results of that research,” he told ISNA.

Jahanbegloo denied that a video tape of his confessions would be aired on TV but did not deny the existence of such a tape. Excerpts from the tape, released to pro-government media in July, had Jahanbegloo confessing to having been in touch with anti-revolutionary groups through a European diplomat. The newspaper Resalat claimed that he was involved in plotting a “velvet revolution” in Iran.

“The hardline part of the Iranian state considers the reformist movement and the contacts of individuals with circles abroad that want to strengthen civil society as attempts to undermine the Islamic republic. They call their activities ‘attempts at a soft overthrow,’ says an analyst in Tehran, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“Jahanbegloo, women’s rights and civil society activists and their like are seen as people attempting to very slowly and gradually empty the Islamic republic of its revolutionary and religious content. Jahanbegloo has confessed that he had done research for the Marshal Fund on the characteristics of the movements leading to the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The Islamic republic is so sensitive to the idea of similar attempts being made here,” he says.

“Jahanbegloo is highly respected in intellectual circles and by the Iranian elite, but he was also the weakest link in the elite chain. He was not affiliated to any important political groups, nor had any revolutionary portfolio or connections to anyone influential within the system itself. He had lots of contacts with foreign entities. It was much easier and less costly for the regime to arrest him than say, for instance, Akbar Ganji, Abbas Abdi or Hashem Aghajari,” the analyst says.

“Arresting Jahanbegloo was the most effective message to the intellectual elite here to know they are watched carefully and closely by the intelligence bodies of the Islamic republic and that they could be confronted seriously. The arrest and the confession could provide the Islamic republic with the opportunity to silence the elite and to reduce their relations with foreign entities to the lowest possible level. All these can very well serve to give the Islamic republic immunity to a ‘velvet revolution,’ as Jahanbegloo was said to have been plotting,” he added.

The rights lobby Amnesty International said in a statement in May that heightened international tension over Iran’s nuclear program has led to a reduction in international attention to severe curbs on the freedom of expression. “As a result, the scope for Iranian civil society activists is becoming increasingly restricted, and there are fears that other journalists and intellectuals could be at risk.”

Iran, a major oil exporting country, failed to meet a deadline set for Thursday by the United Nations Security Council to halt all uranium enrichment activity or face international sanctions.

In his interview, Jahanbegloo mentioned that he wanted to go back to India to continue his research in Indian studies. “I hope the results will be made into one or two books and I think it will take at least a couple of years of my time,” he said. The holder of a chair at the prestigious Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, Jahanbegloo’s unexpected arrest moved protests in India and other neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Canadian government made discreet representations on his behalf mindful that Zahra Kazemi, another Canadian-Iranian national, died in June 2003 allegedly from torture in Evin Prison

“I think the regime is eager for him to leave the country and to fall into oblivion, like Akbar Ganji, Mohsen Sazgara and Ali Afshari, for instance, who are now much less talked about than before,” the analyst said.