Omid Memarian

Huffington Post vp-on-the-arrest-of_b_208465.html
May 28 2009

"IREX never imagined that anyone could construe our program in Iran
to be inconsistent with any interest of the Iranian government,"
said Paige Alexander Vice President of the U.S.-based non-profit
regarding the arrest and imprisonment of the organization's employee,
Silva Haratonian, last year in Iran.

Silva Harotonian, an Iranian citizen of Armenian descent, held a
modest position with the International Research & Exchanges Board
(IREX), which focuses on international education, academic research,
professional training and technical assistance.

Her work and life were interrupted on June 26, 2008 when she was
detained by Iranian authorities and charged with participating in
an effort to overthrow the Iranian government through a "velvet
revolution." On January 19, 2009, she was sentenced to three years
in jail.

In an interview with me for the Huffington Post, Paige Alexander
explains the details of IREX's activities in Iran, the organization's
efforts to have Haratonian released and IREX work in the Middle East.

What was Silva's position in your organization? For how long?

Silva was hired in December 2007 to work for IREX on a Maternal and
Child Health Education Exchange programs called the MCHEEP program
(see She responded to
an open advertisement in the Yerevan papers and was chosen as the
administrative person to work on this project. She began her work
in December and has remained employed with us while she sits in the
Iranian jail.

What have you done to support Silva so far? Legal support? Sending
letters to the Iranian authorities?

IREX has been working closely with the family and has taken
responsibility for and supported all elements of Silva's legal and
outreach efforts. We have coordinated with a number of different
lawyers on this case and we have been working tirelessly to
bring attention to Silva's plight through the formulation of the website, press outreach and other public, private,
religious and diplomatic efforts. Unfortunately, to date, no responses
have been received from any of our letters sent over the last 9 months
to authorities in Iran but we remain hopeful that one of the avenues
we have all worked to open might be able to deliver our requests.

What is the cause of such misunderstanding, in your opinion?

It is very difficult to say. By way of background, IREX (International
Research & Exchanges Board) is a non-governmental not for profit
organization with a 40-year history of international and academic
people-to-people exchange programs. Our work has been highlighted by
successes in Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Kosovo,
Lebanon and Morocco. These programs included close cooperation with
appropriate authorities in those countries to the mutual benefit of
the United States and people of the participating countries. Having
had IREX attend meetings in Iran at the government's request before,
we believed that this modest program was a proper vehicle to start
reaching out to Iran in a non-controversial way. IREX never imagined
that anyone could construe this program to be inconsistent with any
interest of the Iranian government. In fact, since the purpose of
the program was to have Iranian and American participants enhance
their knowledge of best practices in this field, IREX believed
this was completely consistent with Iran's national interest. Top
Iranian government officials have expressed support for increased
contacts between Iranians and the American people as a "useful step
for better understanding between the two nations", as stated this
summer by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. IREX attempted to
model the MCHEEP program on other programs, which we believed had
been sanctioned by the Iranian Government.

What are your projects in Iran and how did you get permission to work
there? I mean by Ministry Of Interior (MOI) or Ministry Of Foreign
Affairs (MOFA)?

IREX had numerous academic programs with Iran over the years -
mainly centering on issues such as the Caspian Sea and other
geopolitical issues, which affected the region and it's relations
with the former Soviet sphere. Most recently, IREX was invited by the
Iranian Government to attend a tour with leading American university
administrators to look at the university system and discuss ways to
cooperate more closely. IREX was then invited back to deliver a paper
in 2004 on Central Asia on related energy issues with the region. This
conference was through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For this
reason, as well as other promising overtures, IREX had no reason to
believe the program Silva was working on would have been construed
in any negative fashion by the authorities.

How did you find out about her arrest and what was your organization's
reaction to it?

We found out about her arrest when our Yerevan office got a call from
a friend of hers who said she had been picked up. Silva had been set
to come back to Yerevan and asked to stay for a few extra days to
see some friends. She was allegedly picked up while having tea with
this friend in her apartment. IREX staff are heartbroken about this
and deeply concerned for Silva's well being. We immediately reached
out to the family and have been in daily communication with them to
try and bring the world's attention to this matter.