Accused Of Spying, Iranian Remains Optimistic

Steve Inskeep profiles Bijan Khajehpour, an Iranian exile forced out of his beloved country along with hundreds of other professionals for views that are too moderate.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we'll meet a man who got in trouble for talking. He's an Iranian businessman known for explaining his country's politics to outsiders, as he did in Washington just this month.

BIJAN KHAJEHPOUR: Thank you very much, (unintelligible) thank you, everyone, for joining us today. And...

INSKEEP: Given the global confrontation with Iran, he drew a crowd when invited to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

KHAJEHPOUR: And I always learn a lot from discussions in these realms.

INSKEEP: Of course, people had come to learn from him. The visitor was Bijan Khajehpour. He wore a dark suit, black shirt and gray tie. He's a consultant who helped international investors do business in his nation. At this meeting he took questions from analysts outside and inside the U.S. government.

WILEY BARNES: Thank you. I'm Wiley Barnes, a strategist in the Air Force.

INSKEEP: And some of the questions were tough, like the one about the stability of Iran's political structure.

BARNES: If a major military strike happened in Iran, what would that do to that structure?

KHAJEHPOUR: OK.

INSKEEP: Just the kind of subject that would make Iran's government nervous.

KHAJEHPOUR: Depending on what happens in that strike...

INSKEEP: For the record, Bijan said going to war with Iran over its nuclear program is a bad idea and would only strengthen the clerics who rule the country. He did not dwell on his own personal story, but that story is what made Bijan Khajehpour of special interest to us. His experience shows how Iran is responding to pressure. Increasingly isolated abroad, Iran has been weeding out perceived enemies within, and the government came to see Bijan as an enemy, even throwing him in Iran's most notorious prison. Part of the reason is that he speaks candidly with foreigners at events exactly like the one we've been hearing.

KHAJEHPOUR: OK. What comes after Ahmadinejad? What kind of thinking, what kind of policies and so on?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please join me in thanking Bijan.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: We first met Bijan in 2009, back when he was still on the authorities' good side. He welcomed us to the office of his consulting firm, noisy with traffic from a nearby street in Tehran. In our meeting, he reflected on the 1979 revolution that brought Iran's clerics to power.

KHAJEHPOUR: I see the Islamic Republic of Iran as a human being that was born in 1979, and it was very naughty as a child, made a lot of mistakes in its first decade of life and then...

INSKEEP: He was open about the Islamic Republic's failures yet argued that his country was getting better.

KHAJEHPOUR: This regime, this system, has grown with time, has gone through a learning process and has learned a lot of things, and today it's 30 years old and it's settling down. It's getting married and, you know, finding a house.

INSKEEP: Bijan had studied in Europe and could have stayed there but made the optimistic choice to return home to Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

INSKEEP: Soon after we met Bijan, Iranians rose in protest over a disputed presidential election. A government crackdown followed and the government soon moved against Bijan. Talking of his experience now, Bijan says he played no role in those 2009 protests. In fact, he left the country on a business trip, speaking in seminars and briefings in Europe.

KHAJEHPOUR: This was the normal pattern. You know, we always - it was part of our work to analyze the consequences of these elections and so on. And then when I returned from that trip, I was unfortunately arrested at the Tehran airport.

INSKEEP: Right at the airport. You never got...

KHAJEHPOUR: Right at the airport, yeah.

INSKEEP: You didn't even get a chance to say hi to your family then?

KHAJEHPOUR: No, no. My mobile was taken away immediately, so I didn't get a chance to contact anyone and let them know.

INSKEEP: He was taken to Evin Prison, destination of so many political prisoners over the years that its very name makes Iranians shudder. He says his interrogators thought Bijan was a spy since he met with foreign businessmen and diplomats, sharing his knowledge as people in a free society do. Let me ask this directly so you have a chance to say a yes or no answer: Were you a spy?

KHAJEHPOUR: Obviously not. I mean, what I feel I've always done is to try to explain the very complex and at the same time interesting political situation of my country to foreign stakeholders. My personal analysis before my arrest was always - and I told that my interrogators as well - my personal feeling was there are different factions - some like me, some don't like me - but on the whole I was under the impression that they appreciate that I'm not a traitor, they appreciate that I'm trying to, you know, offer a service that was important. And that was definitely not the interpretation of the people who decided to arrest me.

INSKEEP: What was your worst day in prison?

KHAJEHPOUR: In the first six weeks, I did not have any visitation rights. A couple of times the interrogators came into the interrogation room and told me they have arrested my wife as well. I didn't know what was happening and I didn't know whether they had arrested my wife. And obviously you start thinking about your children. So those were the worst days.

INSKEEP: Had they arrested your wife?

KHAJEHPOUR: No, no, no.

INSKEEP: They were telling stories...

KHAJEHPOUR: It was putting psychological pressure on me basically.

INSKEEP: Bijan says he spent many weeks in solitary confinement at Evin Prison, emerging only to be questioned by men who were never clear about what secrets they thought he knew.

KHAJEHPOUR: I said why did you bring me to Evin to ask me these questions? We could have gone to a hotel and had a cup of tea and I would have given you all the - and then he said, you know, what's your problem? I said, well, it's not the nicest of places to be. And then these guys' reaction was very interesting, because he turned around and said, well, we are also here all the time. So in a way he was...

INSKEEP: You should have sympathy for the jailers.

KHAJEHPOUR: He wanted my sympathy as well. You know, they were also caught in a scenario that was very difficult to handle.

INSKEEP: And having plenty of time to think in prison, Bijan did consider the guards' situation and what it could tell him about Iran.

KHAJEHPOUR: I think the intelligence apparatus of Iran panicked. It was just an overreaction to a popular reaction to the elections.

INSKEEP: In that panic, he says, his interrogators were under pressure to identify Iranians - lots of Iranians, not just Bijan - supposedly behind a plot to overthrow the government.

KHAJEHPOUR: We all became faces in a conspiracy scenario that was, you know, written somewhere else.

INSKEEP: Bijan is now part of a whole class of Iranians who have been sidelined, driven into exile or imprisoned in recent years. Iran has been purging many people, especially those seen as politically moderate. Bijan was luckier than some. Friends in other countries raised an outcry over his arrest. Iran's president was asked about his case in an appearance on this program, and the government finally released Bijan on bail. You were in prison for how long, how many days?

KHAJEHPOUR: A bit over three months - three months and one week, yeah.

INSKEEP: Was your family there to get you when they let you out?

KHAJEHPOUR: Yeah. They were in front of the gate, yeah.

INSKEEP: What was that moment like?

KHAJEHPOUR: Surreal, very - you don't know what to expect. But it was very nice, yeah.

INSKEEP: Businessman Bijan Khajehpour now lives in Austria with his family. He's waiting for a chance to return to Iran, the country he says he never wanted to abandon. You have said you're still optimistic, but I'm wondering, given your experience, aren't you a little bitter?

KHAJEHPOUR: I am bitter at the people who have taken over decisions like this in Iran. I'm not bitter at my country.

INSKEEP: He says Iran still has great potential, and he continues to explain Iran to foreigners, as he did in Washington the other day, attending the same kinds of meetings that caused his country to call him a spy.

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