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Popular businessman linked to UC Irvine is missing in Iran

May 26, 2007|Ashley Powers and Yvonne Villarreal | Times Staff Writers

Ali Shakeri is admired for diplomacy through wit. He has a knack, said fellow board members at UC Irvine's Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, for cutting through tension with a well-timed joke.

He has kidded tirelessly to knit together Orange County's large Iranian American community and has taken his lessons home, sharing meals with another board member who is Jewish.

In March, Shakeri told colleagues he was flying to Tehran; his mother was ailing. But when former President Carter spoke at UCI this month, and Shakeri was oddly absent from the event, board members began to wonder whether he was coming home.

This week, the group Human Rights Watch said the Iranian government probably detained Shakeri, 59, at a Tehran airport and might be interrogating him in an isolated location. He was scheduled to leave Iran and fly to Europe on May 13 but never arrived at his destination. Instead, his ticket had been canceled and his luggage taken from the airline's possession, the group said.

"It's a disaster," said John Graham of the UC Irvine center, "that this voice of peace has been potentially silenced."

Iranian officials have not commented publicly on Shakeri's whereabouts. In recent weeks, two Iranian American scholars with dual citizenship have been imprisoned while visiting the country. A reporter, also a dual national, had her passport confiscated and is unable to leave Iran. The detention of one of those scholars, Haleh Esfandiari, bears close parallels to Shakeri's apparent disappearance.

Esfandiari, a researcher based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, traveled to Iran late last year to visit her 93-year-old mother. When she headed to the airport to leave Iran on Dec. 30, she was stopped by knife-wielding men in masks, according to center officials.

She was interrogated extensively and, earlier this month, imprisoned. The Iranian government this week announced she was being charged with setting up a network to overthrow the Islamic establishment. Her husband, Shaul Bakhash, denied the allegations as "totally without foundation."

Javad Payam, a friend of Shakeri's who edits a Persian magazine in Laguna Hills, is anxious. He has interviewed former detainees who have described being locked in cells without windows, air-conditioning or radio and forced to sleep on the floor.

"When you look at the history of the regime for the past 25 years, whoever has a voice lands in jail, is killed or disappears. It's nothing new," said Payam, who met Shakeri at a rally in Los Angeles. "We pray and hope nothing happens to him."

In Orange County, where immigrant groups estimate about 250,000 Iranians live, Shakeri moved in political circles but did not dominate them, friends said. He gave speeches and radio interviews and periodically wrote about politics for Payam-E-Ashena, Payam's magazine.

Shakeri's biography on the UCI center's website describes him as "an Iranian American activist who advocates democracy in Iran and peace in the world."

Hossein Hosseini, a member of the Network of Iranian-American Professionals of Orange County, said Shakeri advocated changing Iran's leadership but maintained that the Iranian people would bring about that change only over time.

"He was only controversial depending on your point of view," Hosseini said. "To those who wanted to up and overthrow the regime, he's a sympathizer. He wasn't a big thing. He wasn't well-known across the world. He was a harmless local guy."

Shakeri was born in Iran but spent much of the last three decades in the United States. He earned a business administration degree from the University of Texas in 1979, according to the biography, and briefly returned to Iran after the revolution that overthrew the late shah.

"He had a false hope that there would be real dialogue between the civilizations, but it didn't work," said Ahmad Mesbah, who helped found the local Iranian American professionals network.

Shakeri then moved to Orange County and opened a mortgage company, Global Estate Funding, in Irvine. He and his wife live in Lake Forest and have two adult sons, both of whom attended UCI, friends said.

A short, mustached man who favored dress suits, Shakeri helped found the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, which examines how people can promote peace in divided societies, said co-director Paula Garb, an anthropology professor.

Shakeri's mother died during his visit to Iran and, after attending her funeral, Shakeri had planned to meet friends in Europe, said Hadi Ghaemi, an Iran analyst for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based nongovernmental organization. He never showed up.

Two days later, Shakeri called family members and said "there was some misunderstanding, it wasn't a big deal and he will be OK," Ghaemi said. It appears no one has heard from him since.


Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.

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