By Cotton Delo
In many ways, Kian Tajbakhsh was a quintessential New Yorker who loved eating sushi and browsing the aisles of the Strand bookstore. By night, the former New School professor would host musical gatherings in his Chelsea apartment and participate in seminars with his academic friends.
Tajbakhsh, 45, now languishes in Iran’s Evin prison – an infamous holding pen for political prisoners, where “white torture,” or solitary confinement, is reportedly employed to force confessions from inmates. He’s accused of spying and could face a three-year sentence, according to Human Rights Watch.
How Tajbakhsh got from Chelsea to Evin is the story of one man’s clash with Iran’s brutal police state. His fate could be the same as hundreds of other political prisoners who have been held for lengthy periods in Iran’s prison system. Tajbakhsh, some observers say, is being used as a pawn in Iran’s game of brinksmanship with the U.S. over its burgeoning nuclear program.
The irony is that Tajbakhsh, a dual citizen, often defended his native land. He told American friends that the Western press was too negative in its portrayals of Iran. As if to prove the point, Tajbakhsh moved to Tehran in late 2001. He had spent most of his life abroad, since his family emigrated to England when he was a teenager. After more than a decade in Manhattan, he longed to reconnect with his country of birth.
In Tehran, he settled into a life of teaching and consulting work. But around May 11, Tajbakhsh was whisked from his home and brought to Evin prison.
He has been held there ever since, beyond the reach of family members or a lawyer. He has only been allowed to communicate with his pregnant wife, Bahar, in one- or two-minute phone conversations, according to Nidhi Srinivas, a friend and former New School colleague, who’s been in touch with Tajbakhsh’s mother, an Upper West Side resident.
Tajbakhsh and another scholar, 67-year-old Haleh Esfandiari of the Washington-based think tank, the Woodrow Wilson Center, are accused of spying. An Iranian judge said the pair have admitted to “some activities.”
When he was arrested, Tajbakhsh was working as a consultant for billionaire George Soros’ New York City-based Open Society Institute (OSI). He evaluated relief efforts after a 2003 earthquake and worked on HIV/AIDS prevention – conducting both activities at the behest of Iranian authorities, according to OSI.
OSI has been on the Iranian government’s radar lately. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence claims that Esfandiari was an agent carrying out the “revolutionary” agenda of the Soros Foundation, which has funded pro-democracy initiatives in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union since before the fall of Communism. OSI released a statement last week dismissing any admission made by Tajbakhsh while he was held at Evin. The group says it’s doing only humanitarian work in Iran and that none of its activities are funded or controlled by the U.S. government.
Tehran’s hard-line government may in fact be making an example out of Tajbakhsh, using him in its struggle against liberals, experts say. The Iranian leadership may be fearful of a “velvet revolution” fomented by intellectual dissidents.
Another theory is that the detainments are a response to the arrest of five Iranian Revolutionary Guard agents held by U.S. forces in Iraq since January, said Iran expert and Columbia University professor Gary Sick.
“Part of it is ordinary paranoia that the hard-liners have in the sense that the more reformist members of society [could be] in fact collaborating with the enemy, so this is also a way of sending a message to their own liberals, their own reformers, that this is what they have in store for you,” said Sick, observing that even high-ranking government officials have come under unusual scrutiny. A former high-ranking nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, was recently charged with giving away state secrets.
Iran may be imprisoning dual nationals to use as a bargaining chip in its clash with the U.S., said Hadi Ghaemi, an Iran expert at Human Rights Watch. The U.S. claims Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge but some U.S. politicians, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D.-Conn.), say the U.S. should launch a pre-emptive strike.
“Definitely the timing of it comes when the nuclear crisis [between the U.S. and Iran] has come to a turning point,” he said.
Iran’s mission to the United Nation, the only diplomatic representation in the U.S., did not respond to a request by the Resident for information on the terms of Tajbakhsh’s imprisonment and his release date.
Tajbakhsh’s former colleagues dismiss the notion that he is a spy.
“He was totally apolitical and not involved at all in the politics of the country, that I know,” said New School colleague, Professor Alex Schwartz. “He was interested in the issue of local governance – at the municipal level.”
Tajbakhsh earned a Ph.D in urban planning and policy in 1993 from Columbia and taught at the New School from 1994 to 2001.
With intense dark eyes and a neatly-clipped beard, Tajbakhsh found a ready group of friends in the mid-‘90s among other junior faculty members at the New School, who would teach in the evenings and go out for dinner at restaurants like Salam, a Middle Eastern café on West 13th Street.
Though not politically active, like many expats, he enjoyed debating the state of Iran’s government. His friend Nidhi Srinivas recalls once having dinner with Tajbakhsh and a visiting Iranian cleric, who were having an animated discussion on the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who believed religion should be banished from the public sphere, and essentially agreeing to disagree.
Such discussions were typical of Tajbakhsh’s Bohemian New York life. A Renaissance man who played the tar and the setar (Persian string instruments), he took singing lessons and sought out the novels of Indian writers he’d grown familiar with during his stint living in New Delhi.
His one gripe with New York was its career-obsessed inhabitants, and Srinivas recalls his friend occasionally mimicking the neurotic expressions of stereotypically harried New Yorkers.
Perhaps seeking a slower-paced life, Tajbakhsh returned to Tehran but visited New York several times a year. Srinivas said he never expressed concern about his safety in Iran, even when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners took power in 2005.
“His position seemed to be that there was still the kind of space to do the work that he was doing,” said Srinivas. Although Tajbakhsh was delighted to revisit Manhattan’s bustling city streets and to see women dressed in wildly eclectic fashions – so unlike Iran – he continued to describe Tehran as a wonderful, cosmopolitan city to live in.
In addition to consulting for OSI, the World Bank and the Dutch Association of Municipalities, he did work for Iran’s Municipalities and Social Security organizations and the Ministry of the Interior. He also taught urban sociology at Allameh University, and one of his students – a 29-year-old named Jadi who maintains the blog “inside Iran” (jadi.civiblog.org) – said those who knew him were shocked by the news of his arrest.
“He introduced many books, from literature to urban society textbooks, and asked us to study them,” said Jadi, in an e-mail. “He talked about the music, about the movies, about the reflection of our city (Tehran) in the contemporary poetry … We knew him and knew that he was not a revolutionary. His life shows that he was a scientist and not even an activist.”
Jadi thinks that a tragic error in perception has ensnared his teacher: Iranian authorities suspect Tajbakhsh because of his desire to return after establishing himself in New York.
“In their mind, no one wants to be here, except those who are spies or those … who try to undermine the government,” he wrote. “They do not understand ‘loving the homeland.’”