Kian Tajbakhsh was supposed to be starting a prestigious professorship this month at Columbia University.
Instead, the Iranian-American urban planner is standing trial on allegations that he is one of the masterminds of the protests that followed Iran’s June 12 presidential elections.
Mr. Tajbakhsh, who served four months in an Iranian prison in 2007 on espionage charges, is not the most well-known American citizen arrested in recent years by Iran’s authorities, but he may be in the most jeopardy.
The government has accused him of fomenting a so-called “velvet revolution” — the sort of peaceful, mass political movement that ousted several Eastern European regimes two decades ago after the fall of the Berlin Wall and, more recently, governments in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia.
“The circumstances surrounding Mr. Tajbakhsh’s current detention are particularly serious, given the severity of the ongoing power struggle within the Iranian regime,” said Pamela Kilpadi, a friend who has been working on a book with the professor.
“[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard appear to be pitted against the clerical judiciary establishment, with Kian an innocent victim caught in between,” she said.
Mr. Tajbakhsh appears to have been targeted because he has been associated with the Open Society Institute, an organization largely funded by financier George Soros. Mr. Soros has achieved an almost mythic reputation among Iran’s hard-line factions, who believe he is behind much of the civil unrest around the world against authoritarian regimes.
A 2007 Iranian television commercial from the country’s Intelligence Ministry shows a fictional planning meeting featuring Mr. Soros; Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican; and Gene Sharp, an author who is considered the founding theorist of nonviolent strategic action, according to a 2008 report from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
Mohammad Ali Jafari, the current head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, reportedly studied velvet revolutions before taking command of the elite force.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is paranoid about the activities of civil society organizations and the prospect that they can engineer nonviolent change.
“Ayatollah Khamenei has long believed that the United States has designs to unseat the Iranian regime not by using military force, but via a soft or velvet revolution,” Mr. Sadjadpour said. “He’s institutionalized paranoia.”
In the case of Mr. Tajbakhsh, his friends say he had very little to do with politics in Iran. Indeed, in 2007, Iranian courts did not convict him of such activities after his first arrest.
“Since his release from prison in 2007, the Iranian government has been heavily monitoring all of Kian’s activities,” Mr. Sadjadpour said. “They know better than anyone that they’ve imprisoned an innocent man. Unfortunately, Kian is simply a pawn in the hard-liners’ game of painting indigenous popular protests as somehow orchestrated from the outside.”
(Corrected paragraph:) Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was also jailed for four months in 2007, said the charges against Mr. Tajbakhsh are phony.
“I don’t understand why he was picked up,” she said. “He was not at all interested in this notion of the velvet revolution. This whole allegation and accusation is absurd. Having him do these confessions, nobody believes them. It’s just terrible.”
In her new book about her experience at Evin prison, “My Prison, My Home,” Ms. Esfandiari wrote that Mr. Tajbakhsh lent her English-language books — “Our Man in Havana” by Graham Greene and “The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoevsky — while both were incarcerated in a special section for political prisoners.
“Getting those books from Kian was a godsend for me,” Ms. Esfandiari said.
For now, his friends and his future employer, Columbia University, are doing what they can to get Mr. Tajbakhsh freed. Kenneth Prewitt, vice president for global centers at Columbia, said the university made sure to call the urban planner’s mother in the United States and assure her that the professorship was still reserved for her son.
“Our interest in him is as an American scholar and not an activist,” Mr. Prewitt said. “There is no evidence that he has been engaged in political activity, and there is ample evidence that he has been engaged in serious academic work, which is the basis upon which we have offered him a professorship.”