Profs Petition to Free Iranian Colleague

Ramin Jahanbegloo was Harvard fellow for 1998-1999 academic year

A group of Harvard professors have organized a petition to free a former colleague who was arrested on unspecified charges in Tehran this past April.

Iranian officials have not said whether the Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Sorbonne-educated scholar who served as a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in the 1998-1999 academic year, has been charged with any crime.

But Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei suggested at a news conference earlier this month that the scholar had worked on behalf of American interests.

“Jahanbegloo is one of the people who was arrested in line with the U.S. effort to instigate velvet and soft revolution in Iran,” Mohseni-Ejei said, according to the Iranian Student’s News Agency. “Mr. Jahanbegloo had an assignment and the intelligence apparatus became suspicious at the scale of his activities and resources.”

The petition is being circulated by Gurney Professor of History Roy W. P. Mottahedeh ’60, who said that “it is very improbable that he committed any crime by international legal standards.”

“[Jahanbegloo is] not only intellectually outstanding but also a staunch advocate of non-violence and an able spokesperson for the great cultural wealth of the Iranian tradition,” said Mottahedeh, who is also a fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Other Harvard academics who have signed the petition include Divinity School Dean William A. Graham; Meyer Professor of Middle East History E. Roger Owen; Jacqueline Bhabha, the executive director of the University Committee on Human Rights Studies; and Emran Qureshi, who is a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

Qureshi said that the group hopes to eventually present the petition to the Iranian Ambassador at the United Nations.

Jahanbegloo was detained on the grounds of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport and subsequently placed in solitary confidement at the notorious Evin prison.

Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was arrested in 2003 for allegedly photographing that prison and died after 19 days in Iranian custody, setting off a diplomatic row between Ottawa and Tehran.

Since 2002, Jahanbegloo has served as the head of the Cultural Research Bureau, a non-governmental think-tank in Tehran.

Iran’s assertion that Jahanbegloo is a subversive drew ridicule from his Harvard friends, all of whom remember him as a soft-spoken, apolitical scholar who admires Gandhi.

Graham said he was “baffled as [to] why anyone would feel this man should be imprisoned.”

“I know his deep love for philosophy and the humanities, his interest in Gandhi, for instance, and I find it hard to imagine him as a threat to this Iranian regime or any other,” he said.

Qureshi called the charges against Jahanbegloo “lurid,” adding that “Jahanbegloo is a philosopher and apolitical academic.”

“He’s simply a cosmopolitan intellectual that represents the very best of the Iranian tradition,” Qureshi said. “He struck me as a contemplative, quiet-spoken public intellectual.”


Late last month, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter G. MacKay told The Toronto Globe and Mail that his government has been attempting to negotiate Jahanbegloo’s release.

“The difficulty is Iran has been literally non-responsive to the approaches,” MacKay said. “Whether it be...Jahanbegoo, who is currently in custody, [or] the previous engagements by the previous government on the Kazemi case, their government has simply chosen to ignore those advances.”

Qureshi said that since Jahenbegloo has been held on what he characterized as false charges, it is up to academics everywhere to ensure that he is released.

“The idea that he is a subversive is absurd,” Qureshi said. “And Harvard should rally behind him.”

—Masuma Ahuja and Matthew Wilmott contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at