Why is the Iranian government so afraid of Kian Tajbakhsh?

October 23, 2009

Iranian-American Scholar, Kian Tajbakhsh © Getty/AFP

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of Kian Tajbakhsh? To all appearances, the 47-year-old Iranian-American is a mild-mannered social scientist who taught urban policy at the New School University in New York. He was living quietly in Tehran with his Iranian wife and baby daughter and working on a book when he was arrested on July 9.

So why was he just convicted by a Revolutionary Court in Tehran and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison? Judging from the list of charges piled up against him and the long prison term imposed, one would think he was one dangerous fellow, single-mindedly bent on overturning the Iranian government, working with foreign enemies to undermine Iranian society, and sowing mass chaos.

Tajbakhsh was one of the more than 100 people charged with fomenting the post-June 12 election unrest in a mass show trial before a Revolutionary Court in Tehran.  The assortment of defendants who were hauled into the multiple sessions of the trial displayed the wide net cast by the government in its zeal to staunch the protests over the elections: many were prominent opposition political figures such as Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Mohsen Aminzadeh, Mohsen Mirdamadi, Behzad Nabavi and Abdollah Ramazanzadeh who supported, or were believed to have supported, reformist candidates in the June 12 presidential elections.

Others were journalists such as Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian who worked for Newsweek. Other defendants included Hossein Rassam, an Iranian employee of the British Embassy in Tehran and Abdollah Momeni, the spokesperson for the Alumni Association of Iran (Advar-e Tahkim Vahdat).  Even the prosecutors did not accuse the defendants of standing on the hustings in front of the crowds and literally urging them to tear down the Iranian government by force. Many had not actually even participated in the mostly peaceful mass protests by ordinary Iranian citizens after the election results were announced—protests that were met by brutal and often lethal force by riot police and the paramilitary Basij. Most of the defendants were “guilty” of nothing more than quietly supporting reformist political parties or questioning the election results.

Even granting the Iranian government’s spurious argument that peacefully protesting the election results was not a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and association, but rather a criminal activity akin to high treason, it is hard to see why the government would have targeted Tajbakhsh for such harsh treatment. According to his friends, he had not participated in the post-June 12 election protests, had not expressed support for opposition candidates and had not publicly questioned the election results or even mentioned the election in his writings.

Let’s look at what he was charged with. Charges against Tajbakhsh included espionage, co-operation with an enemy government, and acting against national security. And what was the evidence used to back those charges? Well, years ago, he had been a consultant for the Open Society Institute. He was also charged with belonging to an e-mail list Gulf/2000 run by Gary Sick, a professor at Columbia University, whom the indictment identifies as a “CIA agent.” Implicit in the charges is the matter of Tajbakhsh’s dual citizenship.

This is not the first time that Kian Tajbakhsh’s scholarly activities have led to persecution by the government. He was one of four Iranian-Americans detained for several months in 2007 for attempting to—yes—foment that scary-sounding “velvet revolution” in Iran. He was then accused of “acting against national security by engaging in propaganda against the Islamic Republic by spying on behalf of foreigners.” So the new charges seemed to be warmed-over versions of the previous charges against him. Somehow the usual activities involved in a scholar’s life such as research, writing and engaging in dialogue with colleagues, have been transformed by the authorities into treachery and malice.

By attempting to portray Kian Tajbakhsh as an existential threat to the Islamic Republic and inflicting such a disproportionately harsh punishment on him, the Iranian authorities seem to be going to preposterous lengths to draw in as many elements of society as possible into a continually sucking vortex of fear and oppression.