Scholars, Analysts Held After Iran's Disputed Election

Human rights groups are trying to track how many Iranians are in custody after last month's disputed presidential election in Iran. Karim Sadjadpour, who analyzes Iranian affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, talks with Steve Inskeep about some of the people he knows are in custody — including well-known scholars and political analysts.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

More than a month after Iran's disputed election, human rights groups are still trying to track Iranians thrown in jail. It's hard to get reliable information, but this morning we'll talk about who a few of those prisoners are.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Karim Sajadpour analyzes Iranian affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. KARIM SAJADPOUR (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thank you, Steve. It's a pleasure.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, you know some of the people who've been detained, and that includes some people who are familiar to listeners of this program, like the first one we'll talk about - a man named Bijan Khajedpour. Who is he?

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Bijan is a very close friend of mine and he is one of the most decent individuals I know. And I think he was really the last independent-minded Iranian intellectual, Iranian analyst, based in Tehran, who has continued to travel to Europe and the United States and explain contemporary Iran for people.

INSKEEP: And just so that we're clear on why we're saying he's in custody, you yourself have heard from his family, that they believe that he is in custody in Iran.

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Yeah, we know that he had gone to the U.K., the United Kingdom, for a business trip, and when he came back to the airport in Tehran he was detained, and this was about two weeks ago, and we haven't heard from him since.

INSKEEP: Now, listeners to this program have heard from Bijan Khajedpour. He was on the air as recently as last February when we were talking about Iran's Islamic revolution, which was then 30 years old. Here's some of what he said.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. BIJAN KHAJEDPOUR (Iranian Analyst): 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. Today it's 30 years old and settling down. It's getting married and, you know, finding a house.

INSKEEP: This guy didn't seem like a radical. He seemed very optimistic about the Islamic Revolution and the direction it was heading.

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Well, that's absolutely right, and I think a lot of people would look to Bijan and say that he articulated Iran's national interests far better than Iranian officials themselves ever did. So he was actually a real asset to the Iranian government, because he did it in a way which was very thoughtful, wasn't ideological.

And he had tremendous respect from his peers and senior government officials throughout the world.

INSKEEP: Now, here's another person who may be familiar to our listeners. In February we did a story about Iran's most famous poet, an epic poet who wrote hundreds of years ago, but his most famous book is still in Iranians' homes all across the country, and that includes the home of Saeed Laylaz.

Mr. SAEED LAYLAZ: Even the Islamic Revolution couldn't be able to destroy his poems. They tried but they didn't be successful. You know, even now when I'm talking about (unintelligible) I'm excited.

INSKEEP: We should mention that Saeed Laylaz also commented on politics. He'd been in government, he commented for us in the days before the election about how people seem to be turning against the regime. But how politically active was he, Karim Sajadpour?

Mr. SAJADPOUR: The last few years he had been outspokenly critical of Ahmadinejad's government. But certainly in the past - as you said, he was senior government official - and it's quite incredible now to think that someone like Saeed Laylaz, who was, you know, amongst the political elite in Iran, there's accusations that he's being tortured in prison.

INSKEEP: Those accusations, where do they come from?

Mr. SAJADPOUR: There's a European government which has challenged a lot of the official statistics which have come up. They estimate that several hundred have been killed and several thousand have been imprisoned, and some of the accusations and allegations of torture we're hearing from European diplomats on the ground in Tehran.

INSKEEP: I want to bring another name here: Kiyan Tajmash(ph). Am I saying that correctly?

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Perfect.

INSKEEP: Who is he?

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Kiyan is also a good friend of mine. He is a Columbia University-trained sociologist, and he chose to move back to Iran in the late 1990s. And he, like Bijan, I truly respected them because they could've easily made their lives outside of Iran. Kiyan has had numerous offers to teach in Ivy League universities.

And despite the fact that he was imprisoned in 2007 - he served four months in solitary confinement - when he came out, his family begged him to come back and live in the United States, and he said, no, Iran is my home.

INSKEEP: Even though he's an American citizen, he could come back.

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Exactly. Even though he's an American citizen, he said, Iran is my home, I haven't done anything wrong and I want to remain here.

INSKEEP: And so what is the information that you've heard about him?

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Well, we know that he was taken from his home last week by revolutionary guardsmen and they violently ransacked his apartment in front of his wife and his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. And what we know is that he is in solitary confinement and in prison. And there's deep concern that this time around things could be different, whereas two years ago they didn't use methods such as tortures.

There's a lot of concern this time around from the family that maybe the measures taken in prison are going to be more violent.

INSKEEP: Given that we don't have a complete list, do you see any pattern in who's being arrested and who's being released and who's not being touched?

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Well, one pattern certainly is that the Iranian government wants to essentially decapitate any alternatives to themselves. Individuals like Bijan and Kiyan and Saeed Laylaz, none of these individuals were politically active. Certainly they commented about politics, but they don't have any political constituency.

And in many ways they were great explainers of the Islamic Republic to the outside world.

INSKEEP: One other thing I want to ask about, because you are talking with us in public about people who you know, whose families you've been in contact with, and when someone gets taken into custody by an authoritarian government, there's always the question that comes up: Should we publicize this? Could that actually add to the danger they face? What are the families telling you what they want done?

Mr. SAJADPOUR: What we've learned the last few years is that when people have been taken into custody and we haven't said anything, there's no cost for the Iranian government to continue to hold onto them. The Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the great human rights worker, has always said that when people are imprisoned, you have to act, you have to speak out, or else the government will continue to hold onto them.

INSKEEP: Karim Sajadpour, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington, thanks.

Mr. SAJADPOUR: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: We have reached out to Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York City asking for information about these prisoners or the charges against them, and we will let you know what we hear when we hear it.

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