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Arrest Rattles Iranian Exiles in U.S.

A UC Berkeley lecturer jailed in Iran is said to be caught in a feud between political factions.

November 09, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The arrest and detention of an Iranian American scholar from UC Berkeley has sent tremors through Iranian communities in the United States, as friends and relatives fear that he is caught in a power struggle between moderates and hard-liners in Iran.

Dariush Zahedi, a 37-year-old Berkeley lecturer in political science, was arrested in July after visiting relatives -- and reportedly meeting with pro-democracy activists -- in Tehran.

Zahedi's arrest has raised fears among many in the large Iranian exile population here about their safety if they return to their native land for visits.

A scholar who has not been active in exile opposition groups, Zahedi is considered by friends to be generally apolitical. He has encouraged ties between Iran and America and was the West Coast director of the American Iranian Council, which promotes dialogue between the two nations. In April, Zahedi co-wrote a commentary in Newsday calling for U.S. engagement with Iran.

Three Iranian expatriates have been detained in Iran in the last few years, said Masoud Kazemzadeh, spokesman for the Iran National Front, an opposition group. One of the detainees, a Canadian journalist, died of head injuries while in detention and has become a symbol of human-rights abuses in Iran.

Officials with Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations could not be reached for comment, but Iranian officials quoted in news reports have said Zahedi was detained on suspicion of espionage.

The scholar's students at Berkeley launched a campaign last week to publicize his plight, announcing plans to construct a Web site, circulate a petition and hold a candlelight vigil on campus scheduled for Nov. 12, Zahedi's birthday. The case has also been publicized on KIRN "Radio Iran" and other Iranian media in California and elsewhere.

"This arrest is unconscionable, unjust and immoral," said Najm Meshkati, a USC engineering professor who co-wrote the Newsday piece with Zahedi. "This man is a clean man."

The scholar's meeting in Tehran with opposition leaders from the Iran National Front and other groups was "purely for research," said Kazemzadeh, who emphatically added that Zahedi was not a member.

"I was shocked by his arrest," said Kazemzadeh, a Utah Valley State College assistant professor of political science who once shared an office with Zahedi at Harvard. "It has placed a chilling effect on scholars going to Iran and doing research."

Kazemzadeh and others speculate that Zahedi was arrested because he was in Iran at a particularly sensitive time -- during student protests in June and just weeks before the July 9 anniversary of 1999 student uprisings, whose violent suppression is annually memorialized in Iran and abroad. Coming from California is also a handicap, Meshkati said, because Iranian officials view the state as a hotbed of opposition groups.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time talking to the wrong people," Meshkati said.

According to news reports, two of Iran's reformist politicians -- Mohsen Armin and Mohsen Mirdamadi -- said that Zahedi was cleared of espionage charges by the Intelligence Ministry after a 40-day investigation. But the judiciary, which opposition groups describe as dominated by hard-liners, has refused to release him.

Kazemzadeh said the standoff illustrated a power struggle between reformists and hard-liners played out in their divergent approaches to Iranian expatriates. Reformists, he said, see expatriates as a welcome source of tourism, money and expertise, while hard-liners fear the exiles as a threat to their authority.

Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council, disagreed with the power struggle theory. Rather, he said, the case underscores "the fact that there is still no real due process and human rights are still on the back burner."

He said he spoke last week to Zahedi's mother, who has traveled to Tehran from her home in Orinda, Calif. She said she was told that Iranian officials have requested bail of about $250,000, Amirahmadi said, adding that they could release him at any time. But, he added, "When you ask for bail it means you're not cleared."

Another source close to Zahedi's family said that his mother has said the scholar was "OK physically but mentally drained."

"It's been devastating," the source said. "Everyone is sick with worry and concern."

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