Middle East

Iran Resists U.S. Calls to Release Detainees

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President Bush calls on Iran to release three Iranian-Americans being detained by the Iranian government. Two of the detainees have been charged with spying. But Iran says Washington should focus on its own human-rights abuses. Iran expert Abass Milani talks with Alex Chadwick.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick.

Earlier in the program, we heard about a couple of the big issues at the G-8 Summit that starts today: global warming and the rift between the U.S. and the Russians.

BRAND: Also on the agenda: Iran. G-8 leaders will likely push that country to end its nuclear program, but nukes aren't the only source of trouble between the Bush administration and Iran. The Iranian government recently detained three Iranian Americans and a fourth is not being allowed to leave the country. We'll hear her story in a moment.

CHADWICK: But earlier I spoke about this with Abbas Milani. He heads the Iranian studies program at Stanford University.

Two of those detained in Iran are leading scholars like yourself. Iran accuses the U.S. of using intellectuals to undermine the Islamic Republic. How would you respond to that?

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Stanford University): I would respond to it by saying that that is the typical response of a paranoid regime that does not understand the rudiments of what scholarship is all about. The scholarship is about creating networks; if that is espionage, then we have to close down every university and go on finding a new line of work.

CHADWICK: Do you think the Iranian government genuinely misunderstands that or is it detaining these people for some political purpose and what might that be?

Prof. MILANI: I think they are completely after a very specific political purpose. And that is to scare any Iranian democrat from establishing any contact with U.S. academic centers, with think tanks. They think that these kinds of contacts are the beginnings of a soft revolution.

CHADWICK: They are worried about a counter-revolution. So how are Iranian scholars and activists? You say they are the - the immediate target of the government. How are they reacting to this - those, I mean, who are overseas, who are outside of Iran?

Prof. MILANI: The ones who are outside Iran are obviously abhorred by it; they are concerned with their own travels. We ourselves, at Stanford, for example, have been thinking about bringing some of the Iranian scholars to Stanford for a conference. And we now have to really seriously rethink the schedule, and almost everyone, I think, is waiting to see how this thing evolves. Is it going to become worse? In which case there will be, I think, for all practical purposes an end to scholarly exchanges, as well as back channel diplomatic contacts.

CHADWICK: Is this just a matter of scholars and intellectuals? Are there other Iranian Americans going in and out of the country, do you know?

Prof. MILANI: There had been an increase in the number of Iranians in diaspora who had gone back to visit their countries of birth. That, I think, has now brought to an almost grinding halt that kind of a travel. Everyone, as far as I know, are also trying to take a wait-and-see approach and see whether this is simply a brief show of the muscle. They want to make sure that the U.S. does not think that they can spend the $75-million budget for the State Department in Iran without the regime harassing the recipients.

CHADWICK: You know, you mentioned that money from the State Department. This is money that the Bush administration has set aside because it does want regime change in Iran.

Prof. MILANI: That is true. And that is why many people, including myself, have suggested in the past year that this kind of a program is in a sense counterproductive. The public announcement of this money puts everyone in Iran under the regime's attack. The democrats inside Iran have said almost unanimously that they think if this announcement was not made and this budget was not set aside, they would be happier.

CHADWICK: You too are an Iranian American, Professor?

Prof. MILANI: Yes, I am.

CHADWICK: When were you last in the country and would you dare go again now?

Prof. MILANI: I was last in the country 1986. Even before this, I had not thought that it would be a good idea for me to go back because I have spoken against the regime vocally, and this is not a regime that I had any illusions about. So I have not gone back and have no plans unless we have a democracy in Iran, of going back.

CHADWICK: Abbas Milani, co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. He's head of the Iranian Studies Program; also at Stanford University. Professor Milani, thank you.

Prof. MILANI: It has been my pleasure, sir.

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