TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Two Iranian-Americans detained here on national security charges appeared Monday for the first time on state television, with one saying in a brief video clip that his foundation may have targeted “the world of Islam.”
The TV images followed Iran’s announcement this month that fresh evidence had pushed its judiciary to launch new investigations into the cases of Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh.
State TV said the video clips were a preview for a longer program titled “Under the Name of Democracy” that will air later this week. Relatives and employers of Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh denounced the videos, saying they were coerced and illegitimate.
Along with shots of the Iranian-Americans, the preview also showed archived images of street violence and protests, apparently from Iran and Eastern Europe.
Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh appeared separately. They both spoke in Farsi and appeared to be in homes or offices.
Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with the New York-based George Soros Open Society Institute, and Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, have been held in Tehran’s Evin prison since being arrested separately in May on charges of endangering national security.
Two other Iranian-Americans face similar charges.
Family members, colleagues and employers of the four Iranian-Americans deny the allegations. The U.S. government has demanded that they be released.
In one of the video clips, Tajbakhsh, 45, is shown reading from a piece of paper. “The role of the Soros foundation might have been targeting the world of Islam,” he says.
In another segment, Esfandiari wore what appeared to be the traditional black cloak called a chador. A man wearing glasses was shown seated across from her asking questions.
“I was an element in the velvet revolution in Georgia,” Esfandiari said. The TV did not elaborate or explain the context in which she said this.
But the Iranian Intelligence Ministry has accused her of trying to set up networks of Iranians with the ultimate goal of creating a “soft revolution” in Iran to topple the hard-line Islamic regime, along the lines of the revolutions that ended communist rule in Eastern Europe.
At another point in the video, Esfandiari said: “Finding speakers has been my role,” a possible reference to her efforts to bring prominent Iranians to the U.S. to talk about the political situation in Iran.
The Woodrow Wilson Center said any “confessions” made by Esfandiari — which Iranian state-run television says it will air later this week — have no legitimacy.
“Any statements she may make without having had access to her lawyer would be coerced and have no legitimacy or standing,” said former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, president and director of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
The Open Society Institute also said in a statement it was “disheartened by the Iranian government’s decision to stage television footage of coerced statements” made by Tajbakhsh and Esfandiari.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he had not seen the footage, but he renewed calls for the detainees’ release.
“These are people who have devoted large chunks of their lives to building bridges between the Iranian and the American people, so to prevent these kinds of people from especially leaving Iran really sends a negative message and is an unfortunate comment about the nature of this particular regime,” McCormack said.
The spokesman also renewed an appeal for information about the whereabouts of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran in March and has not been heard from since.
Iran in the past has allegedly forced detainees to incriminate themselves publicly on television.
Most recently in March, British sailors detained by Tehran for allegedly entering Iranian territory appeared in videos during their captivity. Britain accused Iran of using the sailors for propaganda by putting them on TV, where they said they trespassed in Tehran’s waters. The crew was freed after two weeks.
It was unclear if the program scheduled to air later on state TV would also show the other two Iranian-Americans facing charges: Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the University of California, Irvine, Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. Shakeri is in prison, while Azima is free but barred from leaving Iran.
Speaking from his home in Potomac, Md., Esfandiari’s husband, Shaul Bakhash, said some of the claims made in the video of his wife were “absurd.” Esfandiari has never visited Georgia or worked on issues related to the country or Eastern Europe, he said. Her work organizing speakers and academics for conferences is also not in dispute, he said.
“If that is all they can produce, it is pretty thin gruel,” Bakhash said.
International human rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, have expressed deep concern for the health of the detained Americans — especially the 67-year-old Esfandiari.
The Wilson Center has said that Esfandiari, who was arrested while visiting Iran to see her ailing mother, has been held in solitary confinement without access to her family, lawyers or international rights organizations.
The detentions come as Iran has escalated accusations against the United States, saying it has uncovered spy rings organized by the U.S. and its Western allies.
President Bush has demanded that Iran “immediately and unconditionally” release the Iranian-Americans and has denied they were spying for the United States. Bush’s remarks have drawn criticism from Iranian officials, who accuse him of interfering in Iran’s internal affairs.