Kian Tajbakhsh, Still Captive in Iran

Special from The Record

Feb. 19, 2010Bookmark and Share

Columbia alumnus Kian Tajbakhsh was supposed to join the faculty of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation last fall. Instead, the Iranian-born scholar was arrested in July and jailed at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, accused of supporting the uprising that followed the country’s disputed elections last June and of spying for the United States.

Now, many of those in the Columbia community who expected to welcome Tajbakhsh as a colleague and teacher are working to win his freedom.

Kian Tajbakhsh prior to his arrest in Iran
Kian Tajbakhsh prior to his arrest in Iran

“There’s nothing political about his work,” says Professor Ken Prewitt, vice president for Global Centers and Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs. “He’s being persecuted, as far as we can tell, for being in Iran at the wrong time. This is a violation of the principles of freedom of mobility for scholars.”

Last month, some 20 members of the Columbia faculty—including the deans of the School of General Studies, the Graduate School of Journalism and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)—signed a letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeking her assistance in securing Tajbakhsh’s release.

“The Iranian government has established a pattern of harassment of scholars,” the letter stated. The arrest “is a destructive and pernicious act that does not address the problems confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran, now or in the future.”

Secretary Clinton wrote back Feb. 1, saying that “the espionage charges against him are groundless” and that the State Department “is using every available diplomatic tool to achieve Dr. Tajbakhsh’s release.” The government has urged Iranian officials to let Swiss officials visit him, to no avail so far.

Tajbakhsh has been in custody since July 9, when Iranian security forces arrested him. At the time, he was providing “nonpolitical urban technical advice as a consultant,” according to the letter to Clinton, and he has denied any connection to the street protests that followed the election.

Nevertheless, on Oct. 20, an Iranian court found him guilty of “political crimes” and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. He appealed the case. But on Nov. 23, the government announced additional charges of “spying.” An Iranian appeals court has since reduced the sentence to five years, but the efforts on his behalf continue unabated.

“Starting with President Bollinger, dozens of faculty and officers across the University have spoken forcefully about the violation of academic principles involved in the arrest of Kian,” said Prewitt. “Senior leadership of the University has also been active in less visible ways, consulting the State Department when that made sense, and coordinating with other organizations and individuals who are acting to secure Kian’s freedom so that he can return to his teaching and research.”

This was Tajbakhsh’s second arrest by Iranian authorities in two years. In 2007, while doing work for George Soros’ Open Society Institute, he was jailed and held for four months.

He was released shortly before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York in September 2007 to address the United Nations and speak on campus at SIPA’s invitation, though he remained under house arrest. President Bollinger publicly called on Ahmadinejad to allow Tajbakhsh to leave the country and announced that Columbia was inviting the Iranian American alumnus to join the faculty as a visiting professor of urban planning.

Tajbakhsh’s supporters have set up a website to lobby for his release, The number of signatures on a petition posted on the website had reached 1,329 as of mid-February, while a second petition at the New School of Social Research, where Tajbakhsh taught for seven years, has garnered 1,200.

Columbia professors have posted video appeals on the site. In one, Mark Wigley, dean of the architecture school, describes Tajbakhsh as “one of the leading experts in the evolution of the city and the way that leaders can best provide services to local populations.” Wigley emphasizes the architectural leadership of Iran and notes that Tajbakhsh was to be the first full-time Iranian scholar at the school.

“It’s incredibly important for our faculty, our professors, our colleagues, our students to learn from Iran,” he says. “If Kian was going to do any of the things he’s been accused of doing, he certainly would not have accepted this full-time academic position here in New York City.”

Ira Katznelson, a professor of political science and history at Columbia, says he first met Kian in the late 1980s, and sponsored his dissertation. Through “long conversations, I discovered what so many of us know: that Kian is a person of luminous intelligence, moral commitment and fierce desire to understand the world and make it better.”

His previous work with the Open Society Institute was preapproved by the Iranian government, Katznelson pointed out. The trouble started with the rise of hard-line factions in the government who believed that Tajbakhsh’s work was designed to undermine the Iranian republic, he said.

“If they want a reason to let him go, he’s devoted to and loves Iran and the Iranian people,” he said. “It’s out of that commitment that he stayed.”

—by Adam Piore