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Iran's arrest of doctors jeopardizes US program


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  • Iran's arrest of doctors jeopardizes US program

    Iran's arrest of doctors jeopardizes US program
    By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff | September 9, 2008

    WASHINGTON - Two celebrated Iranian doctors who participated in a US-funded exchange program have been arrested in Iran and accused of using their global AIDS work to destabilize the Iranian government, according to State Department officials and former students at Harvard's School of Public Health who are seeking their release.

    The late June arrests of Harvard alumnus Kamiar Alaei and his brother, Arash - apparently because of their close ties to organizations in the United States - are a setback for State Department officials who are quietly attempting to expand people-to-people exchanges with Iran in a bid to improve relations between the countries.

    Goli Ameri, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, who oversees the exchanges with 165 countries, said the arrests are disturbing "be cause the whole idea behind the exchanges is creating a bridge between the American people and the Iranian people."

    Ameri, a naturalized American born in Tehran, said the arrests further isolate "the Iranian people who have shown time and time again that they are sophisticated and interested in being connected to the world."

    The Alaei brothers, who helped found a series of cutting-edge AIDS clinics in Iran, participated in the first-ever US-funded people-to-people exchange with post-revolutionary Iran in 2006, visiting Tufts-New England Medical Center and other medical-related sites with a group of other Iranian doctors. They appear to be the only participants among more than 200 such visitors to have been arrested since the program began two years ago. It is not clear whether their participation contributed to the regime's rationale for arresting them.

    But their deep ties to the US medical community and to international nonprofit organizations have clearly touched a nerve with the Iranian regime, raising questions about whether Iran is willing to tolerate meaningful interaction between its citizens and the West.

    "The Iranian government is paranoid about any contact with foreigners," said Maziar Bahari, a London-based Iranian filmmaker who made a BBC documentary in 2004 featuring the brothers' work against AIDS. He said the paranoia was sometimes understandable, given Washington's tough rhetoric against Iran. "But these brothers should not be in prison," he said. "They were not trying to overthrow the government."

    Until their arrest, they traveled freely between the United Sates and Iran. They submitted papers to international AIDS conferences, and spoke last October at a prestigious health forum organized by the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based organization that fosters young leaders. They were also involved in a young leaders initiative organized by the Asia Society, a global organization.

    In 2006, Kamiar spoke at an AIDS conference organized by the International Research & Exchanges Board, an international nonprofit. One Exchange Board member, Michael McFaul, runs a Stanford University program promoting democracy in Iran. An employee of the group was arrested in Iran in June.

    At the time of their arrest, Kamiar was enrolled in a PhD program at the State University of New York at Albany and home for summer break. Arash was living in Iran and planning to attend an AIDS conference in Mexico.

    The United States cut ties with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the seizure of US hostages. For decades, no state-sanctioned exchanges took place there.

    In 1998, Search for Common Ground, a non-governmental group, tried to end the taboo against interacting with Americans by bringing the US wrestling team to Tehran. Wrestlers have an exalted status in Iranian culture, and the match was a success.

    Those efforts flagged in recent years because of problems obtaining visas in both Iran and the United States. But in 2006, the State Department launched its own people-to-people exchanges in Iran, funding visits for doctors, lawyers, artists, and athletes to meet US counterparts, and sometimes stay with American families.

    "We have significant policy differences with Iran, but there is also a growing understanding that educational, cultural exchanges are of mutual benefit," said Ramin Asgard, director of a State Department office in Dubai that processes visas for Iranian citizens.

    US diplomats battled against logistical difficulties and the perception that the US government is bent on regime change in Iran, perpetuated by the Bush administration's funding for democracy promotion there.

    The exchanges began with no publicity, but they became more open with time. This summer, a handful of Iranian teams toured here, including the Olympic basketball team.

    Despite the arrests, State Department officials say they have no plans to curb the program.

    The program has been championed by two Iranian-Americans in the State Department: Ameri and Asgard, who hopes to expand it by increasing the number of Americans visiting Iran on exchanges, and perhaps holding a joint international film festival in Tehran. "Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not Iranians are welcoming of this," said Asgard.

    An Iranian official who asked not to be identified said that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad supported "people-based exchanges," but he said he had no details on whether they would welcome more Americans to Tehran or a US-funded film festival. "It is complicated and no one wants to comment on it right now," he said.

    He also had no details on why the Alaei brothers were arrested, although he remarked that AIDS work is "shameful" in Iran. The brothers worked hard to erode that stigma in Iran, where AIDS spread amid one of the world's highest heroin addiction rates.

    After attending medical school in Iran, the Alaei brothers helped found a series of innovative clinics and helped craft a national HIV plan that made Iran an unlikely leader in the world on prevention.

    Kamiar moved to Boston in 2006 to get a master's degree in public health at Harvard.

    When US media reported a possible attack on Iran's nuclear program, he sent an e-mail to classmates entitled "Beautiful Iran" containing photos of its people and culture, according to Clinton Henry Trout, a former neighbor and former classmate.

    "In all my time with Kamiar and Arash they never criticized the [Iranian] government," Trout, now a doctoral candidate at Boston University, said in an e-mail, adding that they believed the Iranian government backed them.

    If friends asked whether Kamiar feared arrest for his work, he "would laugh and say, 'What kind of country do you think we have over there?' " recalled Margaret Salmon, a colleague.

    She received an e-mail from Kamiar in June the day before his arrest, describing how happy he felt to be back in Tehran for summer. "He had no idea that this was coming," she said.

    But Arash, who lived in Iran, said he had been "harassed by different parts of the Iranian intelligence apparatus for the past two years," according to Bahari, the filmmaker.
    "When people show you who they are, believe them." - Maya Angelou

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