State Department officials and former students at Harvard University's School of Public Health believe Iranian physicians -- brothers Kamiar and Arash Alaei -- have been arrested and accused of using their work on HIV/AIDS worldwide to destabilize Iran's government, the Boston Globe reports.
Detained in late June, Kamiar and Arash Alaei have close ties to the U.S. medical community and international not-for-profit organizations, according to the Globe, and previously had traveled freely between the U.S. and Iran.
The brothers helped establish a series of advanced HIV/AIDS clinics and "a national HIV plan that made Iran an unlikely leader in the world on prevention," the Globe reports. They also participated in the first-ever U.S.-funded people-to-people exchange with post-revolutionary Iran in 2006, visiting Tufts-New England Medical Center and other medical-related sites with a group of other Iranian doctors. However, the Globe reports that such ties "touched a nerve with the Iranian regime, raising questions about whether Iran is willing to tolerate meaningful interaction between its citizens and the West."
Maziar Bahari, a London-based Iranian filmmaker who made a BBC documentary in 2004 featuring the brothers' work against HIV/AIDS said, "The Iranian government is paranoid about any contract with foreigners." Bahari added that the paranoia was sometimes understandable considering the U.S. government's stance on Iran but that "these brothers should not be in prison. They were not trying to overthrow the government." Goli Ameri, U.S. assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs who oversees exchanges with 165 countries, said the "whole idea behind the exchanges is creating a bridge between the American people and the Iranian people." Ameri added that the physicians' disturbing imprisonment could further isolate "the Iranian people who have shown time and time again that they are sophisticated and interested in being connected to the world."
An Iranian official said that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad supports "people-based exchanges," but the official added that he had no details on whether the country would welcome more Americans to the capital of Tehran. "It is complicated and no one wants to comment on it right now," the official said. The Globe also reports that the official had no details on the Alaei brothers, although he said that HIV/AIDS work in Iran is "shameful." According to the Globe, the brothers worked to eradicate stigma related to disease in the country, where HIV/AIDS has spread in part because of high rates of heroin use -- one of the highest in the world.
In June, Kamiar was enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the State University of New York-Albany and home in Iran for summer break. He had moved to Boston in 2006 to obtain a master's degree in public health at Harvard. Arash was living in Iran and planning to attend the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City that took place in early August.
Clinton Henry Trout, a former classmate of Kamiar's, said, "In all my time with Kamiar and Arash, they never criticized the [Iranian] government," adding that the brothers believed they had the support of their country. However, Bahari said that Arash had been "harassed by different parts of the Iranian intelligence apparatus for the past two years" (Stockman, Boston Globe, 9/9).