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Talk to foreigners and we will view you as a spy, Iran warns academics


The Guardian: Iran’s powerful intelligence ministry has stepped up its war of nerves with the west by telling the country’s academics they will be suspected of spying if they maintain contact with foreign institutions or travel abroad to international conferences.
The Guardian

· Lecturers told not to travel to conferences abroad
· Purge of liberals feared in atmosphere of suspicion

Robert Tait in Tehran

Iran’s powerful intelligence ministry has stepped up its war of nerves with the west by telling the country’s academics they will be suspected of spying if they maintain contact with foreign institutions or travel abroad to international conferences.

The blunt warning has been issued by the ministry’s counter-espionage director in an atmosphere of rising suspicion and paranoia as Iran claims to have cracked a CIA-backed spy ring and has charged three American citizens with spying.

In a briefing with Iranian journalists, the official – whose identity was not disclosed – accused western intelligence agencies of using academic contacts to lure scholars into an espionage network against Iran. He said seminars inside and outside the country were used.

“Unfortunately, our lecturers are exposed to intelligence threats,” he said. “We are worried about many academic conferences which foreigners attend and establish relations [with Iranian academics”>. Any foreigner who establishes relations is not trustworthy. Through their approaches, they first establish an academic relationship but this soon changes into an intelligence relationship.

“Some conversations which take place under the auspices of academic or scientific interviews are pretexts for getting close to the country’s scientific figures. Unfortunately some decent individuals fall into the trap of these plots.”

The official also elaborated on claims that Iran had uncovered a spy network run by US and British intelligence from Iraq. The network was active in Tehran and six western provinces neighbouring Iraq, he said, and was engaged in planning bombings, assassinations and kidnappings, and filming sensitive installations. He said the ring included many Iranians but did not say if academics were among them.

Some scholars claim spying allegations are a pretext to purge universities of those deemed too liberal or pro-western. Some say they have been hounded from their posts after their foreign contacts or attendance at international seminars aroused suspicion. Dozens of lecturers have been forced into early retirement as Iran’s fundamentalist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has sought to stamp out the relatively permissive campus atmosphere that flourished under his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

“I have been told that my services will not be required in the next academic year, even though I am not close to retirement age and they need lecturers in my field,” one social scientist, who has taught in the US, told the Guardian. “I was told that I was in touch with quite a few foreign academics and travelled abroad quite frequently to lectures and, therefore, I was a suspicious person. They warned that if I followed it up and created publicity, they would make more trouble for me and even threatened my family. It’s terrible. For the first time in my life I have the feeling I’m living in a police state. I think things will get worse before they get better.”

The mood has been captured on campuses by the appearance of slogans such as “the cultural revolution is forthcoming”, seen as signalling a return to puritanical values of the 1979 Islamic revolution. It has been accompanied by tales of harassment for such perceived offences as advocating a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or even wearing a tie, seen as a decadent western affectation.

This week Iran said it was charging two American-Iranian scholars Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh with spying after accusing them of fomenting a “velvet revolution”. Parnaz Azimi, a journalist, has been charged with acting against national security.

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