In January 2003, I received a call from Dariush Zahedi, my old classmate at University of Southern California. Dariush’s phone call was prompted by a blip I had written on Iranian.com. He was happy to have found my name, and after several years, wanted to catch up.
I first met Dariush, back in early 1990s when he was a few years ahead of me and was finishing his doctorate in political science. He was a genuinely nice man. He was reserved, quiet and brilliant. He had a bookish way of speaking but always wore a smile that put one at ease.
During that January phone call, I told him that I was planning a trip to Iran. He was elated and said he was planning a trip to Iran, too, and asked if we could meet in Iran. But, by April when I was leaving Los Angeles for Tehran, Dariush was unexpectedly held up in Northern California. He was testifying as an expert in a hearing about the burial rites of Sufis and had to delay his trip for a few weeks.
By May, when I returned from Iran, Dariush was still in the US but was getting ready to leave. He asked me for contact names and phone numbers: He was planning to study Iran for both business opportunities and also for the prospect of returning there and perhaps living there. I obliged and gave him phone numbers of family members. In the weeks following his arrival in Iran, I received a couple of emails from Dariush. In one he said all was going well and in the other he congratulated me on the birth of my son.
Then all went silent.
I subsequently found out that Dariush had been arrested early in the summer and was detained at the infamous Evin prison. He was accused of being a foreign spy and distributing funds among the opposition.
Now, three months later, he is still in confinement. His ordeal has begun to receive the attention of the US media. Further, now, Amnesty International, as well, as his friends and colleagues in the US have started an all-out effort to shed light on his situation and seek his release.
His case ails me because I know the charges against him are bogus and the case is a fabrication. He was merely caught in the wreckage of two forces — the reformist movement vs. the hardliners — colliding. It seems that human life is the bargaining tool of choice in this political game, and Dariush is the helpless pawn paying the ultimate price.
My fear, and I have nightmares about this, is that Dariush may end up seriously hurt or even dead. The randomness of this event, the knowledge that Dariush Zahedi is a good soul and a brilliant mind being wasted, and the fact that he is paying the price of simply being an Iranian citizen who was at the wrong place in an inopportune time are all one large travesty.
I like to think that being an expatriate returning to Iran means something more than being a cheap life to be toyed with, but that’s what it seems we are. If Dariush is hurt or if he dies, a huge part of my love for my country will die with it… well, let us not get into that.
I can’t change the mind of Dariush’s captors, but let me through these lines plead with them: The man you are holding deserves a better fate than languish in solitary confinement in a country he always called home.
After I returned from Iran, I remember telling him that after 20 years of absence as I exited Mehrabad airport into Tehran morning I immediately felt an intense sense of belonging. I wanted to see him on his return and ask if he was suffused with the same sentiment. Now I fear that he may not see the freedom to publicly say another word again.
I plead with the Iranian government: Let my friend go, he is not a foreign agent, he is just a man who on his return home was ambushed and now deserves to be freed.