UT graduate student Omid Kokabee is scheduled to face espionage charges Tuesday in his native Iran. Kokabee, who had been studying optics as a first-year graduate student in the UT physics department, stands accused of leaking Iranian nuclear secrets to the American government. The UT community shamefully has remained silent on Kokabee’s ordeal, and this silence has serious implications for international students throughout the United States.
The 29-year-old Kokabee traveled to Iran during winter break. After failing to return and not responding to e-mails, many of Kokabee’s faculty members became worried about him. Word eventually leaked out that Kokabee was arrested by Iranian authorities upon landing at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, and he was transferred to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison sometime in early February.
Since his incarceration, Kokabee has been charged by the Iranian government of “communicating with a hostile government” and “illegitimate/illegal earnings.” According to the ScienceInsider magazine, the government has accused Kokabee of selling off intelligence on Iran’s nuclear technology and actively colluding with the CIA. Under Iran’s penal code, charges related to espionage can carry the death penalty.
These allegations against our fellow Longhorn would be laughably ludicrous if Kokabee’s situation weren’t so grave. The American Physical Society, our nation’s largest organization of physicists, recently published a letter calling for his release that said, “Mr. Kokabee has no training in nuclear physics, is not politically active and is not associated with any political movement in Iran. Rather, his primary concerns were his science studies in the field of optics. This area of physics has essentially no overlap with nuclear technology.”
Our campus certainly attracts top-notch students from around the globe, but our departments aren’t geared for recruiting and cultivating potential spies on foreign nuclear programs. Moreover, Kokabee’s extensive research on optics both in his previous academic career and here at UT lacks even a tangential relationship to nuclear physics. His UT webpage lists impressive research, conferences and educational background in optical laser technology.
There are some theories abound as to why Kokabee was arrested. Iran’s theocratic Shiite government may have sought to suppress ethnic and religious minorities from entering the ranks of the academic elite, as Kokabee is from the mostly Sunni Turkmen ethnic group. More likely, Tehran may have sought to try Kokabee as a warning to its diaspora and students abroad as a chilling effect on pro-democracy advocacy against the regime.
In any case, UT’s failure to generate public awareness of Kokabee’s condition will embolden other authoritarian regimes to muzzle their international students. If UT administrators can’t advocate for the release of a strictly non-political Iranian student, could we really expect them to defend a UT student arrested in China or Burma or Belarus?
It could be argued that since Kokabee isn’t American, he doesn’t deserve the support of UT. But the University’s non-discrimination policy states our students should be treated equally regardless of citizenship. UT student groups can similarly find comfort in espousing generalities on supporting international justice and human rights, but Kokabee gives us a face of a fellow member of our community in need of our open support.
Iran’s government has a storied history of arresting both its own citizens as well as foreigners on trumped-up charges of espionage. Freelance journalist Roxana Saberi was arrested for espionage in 2009, and three American hikers who accidentally wandered into Iran from the Iraqi border were convicted of the same charge two years ago. In each case, the respective detainees were freed after widespread international attention and strong pressure from foreign governments for their release.
But sadly, Kokabee’s case has garnered very little media attention. To their credit, the American Physical Society has joined the international optics society SPIE, the Optical Society of America, the European Optical Society and other reputable scientific organizations in writing open letters to Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, imploring his release.
Ironically, Khamenei himself personally honored Kokabee for the latter’s academic achievements. The two met years earlier at a meeting of Iran’s National Elite Foundation, and Kokabee had demonstrated his intellectual and academic prowess by ranking as 29th in that country’s nationwide entrance exams.
UT administrators, faculty and students alike need to break the silence on Kokabee’s condition. Denied of a fair trial, and forced to confess under interrogation, a UT student risks becoming a symbol of selective injustice worldwide. As his trial gets underway, UT needs to raise awareness and activism for his freedom.
Quazi is a nursing graduate student.