After many years of incarceration and house arrest, American-Iranian dual national Dr Kian Tajbakhsh, 53, was at last permitted to leave Iran in late January and be reunited with family and friends in New York in the United States. 

Tajbakhsh was first detained by the Iranian authorities in 2007 for four months. He was rearrested in 2009 for his alleged involvement in the protests that followed the 2009 presidential election. For this, he has been charged with a number of offences, including espionage. Since the 2009 arrest, he has either been in detention or on parole in Iran.

Then, on January 28, Tajbakhsh was at last able to leave the country with his wife Bahar and daughter Hasti after the authorities handed them back their travel papers earlier that month, coinciding with the release of US-Iranian prisoners Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, on January 16. 

Dr Kian Tajbakhsh, who is one of the world’s leading experts in urban planning and local government reform, has taught at a number of well-respected Iranian and American universities, including Columbia University in New York. He has also acted as a consultant for several Iranian government organizations, including the Ministry of the Interior and international non-governmental organizations, including the Open Society Institute and the World Bank. 

Since his recent return to the US, Tajbakhsh has resumed teaching at Columbia. Iranian academic Ramin, who is friends with him, is pleased he is safely back in the US.

“I’m very happy that he’s now back at his old job at Columbia,” says Ramin Jahanbegloo, who also spent time in an Iranian jail. “Kian is a bridge maker between the US and Iran and therefore he’s like a bird that needs to fly out of its cage between different cultures.” 

On January 31, just days after he had left Iran, Dr Kian Tajbakhsh posted a message on the “Free Kian” website – a site that has chronicled his case and campaigned for his release since 2009 – thanking all his family, friends and colleagues that have worked tirelessly over the years to secure his freedom and enable him to return to the US.

“I would like to thank all those family members and friends – official and unofficial – who expended great effort over the course of many years to help resolve my case, finally allowing us to leave Iran for the US,” Kian writes. “I would like to thank the US and Swiss governments for their tremendous diplomatic efforts and support.”

Dr Tajbakhsh also specifically mentions his friends Andrew Parker and Pamela Kilpadi — the latter with whom he was co-writing a book prior to his arrest in 2007 — as well as his colleagues at Columbia University and The New School. 

At the end of the message, he adds, “I look forward to getting back to work in academia and rebuilding a life in the US.”

Tajbakhsh, who was born in Iran but who spent a good deal of his adult life in the US, returned to Iran in 2005 or 2006 to work on urban planning in Iran, a project that was funded by the George Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI). According to IranWire sources, the professor had received permission for the OSI-funded assignment from the Iranian Foreign Ministry before going. However, in May 2007, Tajbakhsh was arrested at his home in Tehran and charged with “endangering national security.”

When news of his arrest came out, the OSI released a statement, calling the allegations against him baseless.

“In the aftermath of the earthquake in Bam, the Iranian authorities requested assistance from OSI in aiding victims and rebuilding communities in that devastated city,” said the statement published on May 27, 2009. “Iranian officials also sought OSI’s expertise in the area of public health. Dr. Tajbakhsh worked on these humanitarian efforts.”

After spending four months in detention, Dr Tajbakhsh was released. However, he was rearrested in July 2009, alongside thousands of other people who were detained in the protests that followed the 2009 presidential election. He was then included in a mass trial held for more than 100 reformers and election protesters, which included journalist and IranWire founder Maziar Bahari. All of those tried were were accused of trying to topple the government.

“Kian is a patriotic and honest person who left the US and went to Iran to help his country,” says Maziar Bahari. “In a country with a better government, someone like him, with his unique experience and qualifications in urban planning, would have been celebrated. Even certain people within the Iranian government thought Kian could help Iran and so gave him permission to work. But, unfortunately, Kian became the victim of a paranoid scenario envisioned by the Ministry of Intelligence in 2007, and then again by the Revolutionary Guards in 2009.”  

Dr Tajbakhsh was also specifically incriminated for his work with the OSI, and his online subscription to the Gulf/2000 mailing list, which is run by Middle East expert and analyst Gary Sick. Following his trial, he was initially sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, but following international condemnation, the appeals court reduced this to five years.

However, after eight months in prison, Tajbakhsh was then allowed to serve out the remainder of his sentence on parole with his family in Tehran, which he did until he left Iran in late January 2016. 

“The fact that Kian was unjustly jailed and has now been forced to leave Iran is a loss for Iran,” says Maziar Bahari. “But, I’m happy for him and his family that they’ve been reunited and can live in peace in the United States, a country that has welcomed him and will benefit from his knowledge.” 


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