In Defence of Caspian Makan

Caspian Makan, fiancé of the murdered Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan, has been the target of a lot of criticism and outright hostility. Much of it followed his trip earlier this year to Israel — something he told me he did to show Israelis only Iran’s government wants war, and to break the Islamic Republic’s ultimate taboo by visiting its favourite scapegoat.

Iason Athanasiadis, whose criticism is not based on Makan’s Israel trip, is particularly scornful, and was cited by readers who commented on my story in this week’s magazine. Athanasiadis was the first reporter to interview Makan last November, after Makan fled Iran for Turkey. Then, Athanasiadis described their interview as “moving” and didn’t question Makan’s credibility. Now he says Makan is an effete and narcissistic liar.

It’s curious why Athanasiadis didn’t pass on these observations in November, when he had his international scoop. He already would have heard at least one of Makan’s stories that caused Athanasiadis to consider him untrustworthy — that Makan viewed and took photos of Iranian security forces shooting protesters from helicopters. Athanasiadis also says Makan claimed the border between Iran and Turkey was rife with conflict between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels when he was smuggled across it, and that he, Athanasiadis, investigated and found this was not the case. And Athanasiadis disputes the very nature of Makan’s relationship with Neda Agha-Soltan, reporting that she had left him at the time of her death.

Makan did not make the same claims about helicopter-borne gunmen or crossing the border in the midst of firefights to me. As for Makan and Agha-Soltan’s relationship, Agha-Soltan’s mother told the BBC’s Persian language service that the two would have been married if her daughter hadn’t been murdered. Much of Athanasiadis’s attack on Makan, however, is not about his credibility, but his character. Athanasiadis objects to the suits Makan wears; his habit of exaggerating his ability to speak English; even the photos Makan posts of himself on Facebook.

It’s hard to see why this should matter. But for what it’s worth, my impression of Makan does not match that of Athanasiadis — or at least the revised impression Athanasiadis formed five months after meeting and writing positively about him. Makan and I did not conduct our interview in a “gleaming TV studio,” but in a mutual acquaintance’s office. Makan drove a long way to get there. He did not seem “smug as a bug in a rug” to me. He looked sad. The dark circles under his eyes that were visible in the first television interview he gave upon fleeing Iran are still there.

What no one can dispute is that Makan condemned the Iranian government for murdering Agha-Soltan when it would have been safer to stay silent. He was jailed as a result. Many of those close to Agha-Soltan came under enormous pressure to deny what they saw with their own eyes and absolve the government of responsibility for Agha-Soltan’s death. At least one man, her friend and music teacher Hamid Panahi, who was at her side when she died, broke and did so. Makan did not. He took a stand against a regime whose agents shoot dead innocent civilians in the street. He has suffered more than he has gained as a result.

UPDATE: Since publishing this post, I have had several fruitful exchanges, by telephone and online, with Iason Athanasiadis. Athanasiadis stands by his assessment of Caspian Makan; I stand by mine.

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