September 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran's decision to allow scholar Haleh Esfandiari and RFE/RL correspondent Parnaz Azima to return to the United States this month shows that Tehran no longer sees any benefit to keeping them in Iran.
Experts say Tehran's treatment of Esfandiari and Azima already has had a chilling effect on other Iranians -- sending them a message that by cooperating with the United States in any kind of activity they could face imprisonment as an opponent of Iran's Islamic Revolution. Underlining that apparent warning against internal dissent in Iran is the continued detention of two Iranian-American men.
Kian Tajbakhsh is a consultant with the Open Society Institute, which was created by U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros. A social scientist who specializes in urban planning, Tajbakhsh was detained in Tehran along with Esfandiari in May. Like Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh faces charges that include acting against Iran's national security.
But unlike Esfandiari, Tehran has not allowed Tajbakhsh to be released from prison on bail. Shortly after Esfandiari's release from Evin prison in August, an Iranian judicial official said Tajbakhsh also would be released on bail soon. But many days have gone by and Tehran still has not determined his bail or provided a date for his release.
Peace Activist Held
Another Iranian-American arrested by Iranian authorities in May is Ali Shakeri -- a peace activist and businessman who serves on the Community Advisory Board of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. Shakeri was reportedly arrested at Tehran's international airport while trying to leave the country for Europe. In June, Tehran confirmed that he was being held in prison, but Iranian authorities have not specified where.
In August, Tehran's deputy prosecutor said Shakeri's case was not related to the cases against Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh. Those remarks by the deputy prosecutor are the last official word from Tehran about Shakeri. He said, "The time had not yet arrived for providing full information about his situation."
Shakeri's son, wife, colleagues, and human-rights groups have all expressed concern about his fate. In a short telephone call to his family while in detention, Shakeri's son said he sounded very depressed.
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Robert Levinson -- a former FBI agent from the U.S. state of Florida -- have remained unknown since he disappeared during a visit to Kish Island off the southern coast of Iran on March 8. According to Levinson's family, he had gone to Kish to seek information about cigarette smuggling.
Meeting With Ahmadinejad
His wife, Christine Levinson, has been trying to get an appointment to meet with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. She says she knows Ahmadinejad has the ability to find her husband and she wants to ask him for help. But so far she has not been able to schedule even a short meeting.
Levinson says she suspects her husband is still somewhere in Iran.
"I really have no information," Levinson told Radio Farda, "other than the last place he was seen was on Kish Island and his passport has not been seen in any other country and we have no record of him leaving Kish Island. So I really believe he's still there."
Levinson said she has contacted Iranian authorities since her husband's disappearance. They have told her repeatedly that they don't have any information about him. She says the U.S. State Department has sent a diplomatic note to Tehran, through Swiss diplomats, asking to allow a Swiss team to travel to Kish Island to investigate.
So far, however, those diplomats have been told that the Iranian government needs more information before they can allow such a visit.
(RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report.)
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