UPDATE: Iran: Iranian-American Academic Kian Tajbakhsh Released

Iran has released an Iranian-American democracy scholar who spent four months in prison — the third time in recent weeks Tehran has set free dual citizens it accuses of trying to stir up a revolution.
Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, was released late Wednesday, Iran's official news agency, IRNA, reported Thursday.
He was one of four Iranian-Americans charged with endangering national security — an accusation they and their employers denied.

The charges have increased tensions between the United States and Iran, already high over U.S. accusations that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons and is fueling violence in Iraq. Iran denies both claims. But in recent weeks, Iran has shown a change of heart toward the case. Last month, Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari was also released from the Evin prison where Tajbakhsh, 45, was held. She has since returned to the United States. On Tuesday, Iran allowed a third Iranian-American, journalist Parnaz Azima, to leave the country after being trapped since authorities confiscated her passport in January. There has been no word on Ali Shakeri, a fourth Iranian-American detained on the security-related charges. Another American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has been missing since March when he was last seen on Kish Island, a resort off Iran's southern coast. Tehran has repeatedly said it has no information on his whereabouts. Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian political analyst, said he believes the government released the dual citizens because they were no longer useful.

"Iran did not achieve what it expected from their imprisonment," Laylaz said. "It was not welcomed inside the country, and it worked against its interests on the international level. ... Their detention was abandoned as a failed project."

IRNA reported that Tajbakhsh was released from Evin prison on bail of about $110,000, but he would not be allowed to leave Iran unless a judge grants him permission. Journalists were allowed to see Tajbakhsh during a visit to the prison this month. Tajbakhsh said he expected to be freed soon and a judiciary spokesman also said his release was likely.

The New York-based Open Society Institute, which has repeatedly called for Tajbakhsh's release, said Thursday it was relieved that he was allowed to leave Evin prison, where he was held in solitary confinement, and be reunited with his wife in Tehran. "It is our hope that the ordeal for this distinguished scholar and his family has finally come to a close," the institute said in a written statement.

Iranian state television ran a video in July featuring Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Tajbakhsh, in which he said that his group tried to create a "gap between the government and the nation." Both the Wilson Center and the Open Society Institute have criticized the Iranian government for the broadcast and dismissed the statements as "coerced."

Hadi Ghaemi, an Iranian human rights advocate in New York, said under Iranian law, detentions may only last four months before formal charges must be brought and detainees prosecuted. The releases also indicate Iran is trying to shift the spotlight away from the Iranian-Americans, especially because their arrests gained international attention, he said. But by arresting and detaining the dual citizens, Iran achieved one of its goals — keeping academics and democracy advocates from traveling to Iran, Ghaemi said. In recent months, some Iranian-Americans have said they were not traveling to Iran for fear of being arrested. The State Department also has warned U.S. citizens against traveling to Iran.

"It also had become clear the charges against these people were fabricated and not based on reality. ... But they got primarily what they wanted — keeping Iranian activists and intellectuals from interacting with the outside world," Ghaemi said.

Esfandiari was released from Evin prison in August and was allowed to leave Iran less than two weeks later after authorities returned her passport. She returned home to the United States earlier this month.

Azima, who worked for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty's Farsi-language service Radio Farda, was allowed to leave Iran earlier this week after her passport had been confiscated. Authorities never imprisoned Azima but prevented her from leaving. Still being held at Evin prison is

Shakeri, a peace activist and member of an Irvine, Calif.-based democracy group, the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. Iranian officials have not said anything about his release. Shakeri, 59, a businessman who posted pro-democracy writings about Iran on the Web, had been on his way back from visiting his mother who died while he was in Iran when he was jailed four months ago. His son and the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding have called on authorities to release Shakeri. Earlier this month, a spokesman for the Iranian Judicial Branch in Tehran said Shakeri's case was still under investigation.

Earlier this month, Iran refused a request by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to travel to the site where Levinson is believed to have disappeared. The Swiss Embassy represents U.S. interests in Iran because Washington has no diplomatic ties with Tehran. It was unclear whether the travel request was made on behalf of the U.S.

By: Nasser Karimi and Anna Johnson

20 September 2007