Iranian TV Shows 2 Iranian-Americans

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

TEHRAN, Iran – Two detained Iranian-Americans were shown on state television Wednesday night in a program contending they tried to foment regime change in Iran with the support of the U.S. government.

The 50-minute program showed a montage of disparate quotes from Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh combined to form what could be interpreted as incriminating statements, which their supporters and the U.S. government called illegitimate and coerced.

The scholars appeared alongside footage of anti-government protests in the former Soviet Union and of President Bush saying that the “untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”

Email newsletter signup

Esfandiari, 67, appeared first, describing her activities as director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has been held largely incommunicado since May except for brief telephone conversations with her mother, whom she was visiting before her detention.

“The aim of the Iran program was to plan sessions of lectures,” she said. “When people came to the U.S. for lectures, policy makers listened to their lectures … and a network was formed.”

It was not clear if the broadcast signaled any impending change in the cases of Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant detained since mid-May.

British sailors detained for two weeks for allegedly entering Iranian waters were freed in April after appearing in videos in which they “admitted” trespassing. Other people have been jailed for long periods even after their purported confessions were broadcast.

Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh have been accused of endangering Iran’s national security and Iran announced this month that fresh evidence had pushed its judiciary to further investigate their cases. Two other Iranian-Americans _ journalist Parnaz Azima and peace activist Ali Shakeri _ also are being detained on national security charges.

Esfandiari’s daughter, Haleh Bakhash, characterized the TV program as “propaganda,” saying her mother’s statements did not appear to amount to a confession of wrongdoing.

“She didn’t say anything even remotely incriminating. She just talked about her job,” said Bakhash, a Washington resident who has not seen her mother since the went to Iran in December.

Clips promoting the program with Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh, described as a documentary titled “In the Name of Democracy,” had been shown on state TV since Monday.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said before Wednesday’s broadcast: “Simply, we’re appalled by the fact that these innocent people were paraded on Iranian state television.”

“The Iranian government should focus on making sure that these people are reunited with their families as soon as possible,” he said. “These are people who pose no threat to the Iranian regime. They pose no threat to the Iranian people.”

Iranian state television said a second episode would be broadcast Thursday.

Esfandiari said on the program that she had attended meetings at the University of California-Los Angeles attended by U.S. and Israeli officials.

“I twice attended an annual UCLA conference on the Mideast … in which people from the U.S. and Israel were present,” she said. “Some of them were former intelligence officers.”

The U.S. has “allocated a budget to create a change in decision-making bodies in Iran,” she said. “It means change from the inside.”

Appearing separately, Tajbakhsh, a 45-year-old urban planning consultant with George Soros’ New York-based Open Society Institute, explained his purpose for visiting Iran.

He said the institute financed Iranian university libraries on two conditions _ “the formation of a non-governmental organization, and its participation in the international networks formed by the Soros Foundation.”

He said the “long-term aim” of the Soros foundation is to “implement a philosophy of open society” in the countries where it operates.

Both detainees were also seen describing their families’ ties to the dynasty of Iran’s former pro-American shah, who was toppled in the 1979 revolution that brought hard-line Islamic clerics to power.

Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh have been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. They appeared in the video clips in what seemed to be homes or offices.

The Woodrow Wilson Center on Monday discounted any “confessions” that Esfandiari might make. “Any statements she may make without having had access to her lawyer would be coerced and have no legitimacy or standing,” it said.

The Open Society Institute said Monday that it was “disheartened by the Iranian government’s decision to stage television footage of coerced statements” from Tajbakhsh and Esfandiari.

Iran’s state radio said those reactions showed there is a Western plot to overthrow the regime.

“A wide reaction, by the Western media and governments, to expressions of some citizens with dual nationality indicates a calculated conspiracy to topple the system in Iran,” state radio said in a commentary after the TV program aired.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Stephen Manning in Chevy Chase, Md., contributed to this report.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)