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Iran program alleges U.S. plot to overthrow regime

Iranian Americans in custody are shown implying such efforts.

July 19, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Iranian state television aired a documentary Wednesday using statements by detained Iranian American scholars to make a case that Washington was plotting to foment a velvet revolution in the country.

The program, called "In the Name of Democracy," showed extensive video, apparently heavily edited, of academics Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh. They have been held for more than two months without access to legal counsel in Tehran's Evin prison, home to Iran's most famous political prisoners as well as common criminals.

The 50-minute documentary, apparently assembled to suggest a U.S.-backed attempt to bring down Iran's clerical government, is filled with fragmented and seemingly mundane descriptions of the scholars' professional lives and is interspersed with video of the "color" revolutions that toppled governments in the former Soviet bloc.

Esfandiari, 67, of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, described her day-to-day activities as director of a program that brings together scholars, policymakers and journalists from the Middle East and the West.

"Anyone who was invited from Iran to deliver a speech at a highly reputed center like the Wilson center could attract many listeners, including policymakers," she said. "The main objective in communicating with these groups was to know key ones in order to invite them for lectures and place them in the vast network."

The Iranian government alleges that the Bush administration, which has spoken often in favor of "regime change" in Tehran, is trying to use Iran's once-vibrant constellation of civil society organizations to pursue its foreign policy objectives.

But at least a few Iranian viewers were unimpressed with the documentary's purported evidence.

"I could not understand ... the relationships between Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, the so- called velvet revolutions with the Iranian situation and these three poor detainees," said a Tehran woman who spoke on condition that her name not be used.

The second detainee, Tajbakhsh, summarized his work for philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Institute, a New York-based think tank that promotes democracy. He described meeting with the editor of the Iranian magazine Dialogue, describing it as a publication that promotes democracy and civil society.

The documentary also shows Canadian Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who was held for four months and released last year. He describes how he was once offered a fellowship at a U.S. foundation that promoted democracy abroad and talks of conferences he attended as a Woodrow Wilson scholar recruited by Esfandiari.

"On the sidelines of these conferences, I got to know Americans and even Israelis, who were mostly intelligence agents," he said.

A second part of the documentary will air tonight.

In a statement Monday after the airing of a promotional clip for the documentary, the Wilson center condemned the use of Esfandiari's interview.

"Any statements she may make without having had access to her lawyer would be coerced and have no legitimacy or standing," said Lee H. Hamilton, president and director of the center.

U.S. officials also condemned the program.

"We are outraged that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran would parade two of these American citizens on state-run television on July 16, showing Dr. Esfandiari and Mr. Tajbakhsh apparently reading statements made under duress," said a State Department statement issued Tuesday.

Tajbakhsh, wearing gray slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, and Esfandiari, in a black chador, appeared gaunt and pale but otherwise healthy. Sources close to their families said there were no indications that the two were being physically harmed.

Tajbakhsh was recently moved to a larger private cell equipped with a shower. He is allowed to call his wife daily and meets her once a week, said a source close to his family, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she travels to Iran.

Though denied visits by lawyers, Esfandiari is able to speak briefly to her mother several times a week, said her husband, Shaul Bakhash, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

"The calls last less than a minute," he said. "We don't know how she's doing, physically or mentally. We don't have the slightest information about what conditions she's in."

The two scholars, along with Iranian American peace activist and Orange County resident Ali Shakeri, are being held on various security charges. Iran's judiciary announced last week that it had new evidence against Tajbakhsh and Esfandiari.

Iranians with dual nationality, especially those with links to organizations that promote democracy and civil society in Iran, have been caught in a government crackdown on dissidents, labor activists, women's rights groups and the media.

On Wednesday, Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which regulates the media, directed all Iranian newspapers to drum up support for an unpopular government program to ration subsidized gasoline.

"With the aim of countering the plots of the enemies, it is necessary that Iranian newspapers carry out interviews with experts supporting the project of rationing and to make positive reports at the pumps," the letter says.

--

daragahi@latimes.com

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