Bradford link stirred PM to press Shah to free academic detainee

January 5, 2007

Huw Richards learns of Wilson's part in the return of a student to UK

When Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced his retirement in March 1976, he promised not to "accept the headship or any other office in any place of learning apart from my present relationship with the University of Bradford".

It was an unusual statement because he had not only worked in academe, at both the London School of Economics and Oxford University as an economist, but he had also enjoyed a close relationship with Bradford, of which he was chancellor.

Papers released last week under the 30-year rule reveal how the university used its connections with the Prime Minister to try to help free one of its doctoral students, Mofrad Sadeq Zibakalam, who had been imprisoned in Iran.

Ted Edwards, Bradford's vice-chancellor - nicknamed "red Ted" for his left-wing views and empathy with student radicalism - raised the student's plight with the Prime Minister in March 1975, explaining that he had not returned to continue his studies in chemical engineering the previous autumn.

"It seems virtually certain from information reaching us that he was arrested," Dr Edwards wrote.

Mr Zibakalam's only non-scientific activity was as president-elect of the university Islamic Society, described as "a non-political but religious society".

The PM asked the Foreign Office to investigate. A month later, Downing Street started getting inquiries from Bradford newspapers and received a telegram of protest from the university student union.

Dr Edwards wrote again to Mr Wilson, enclosing a cutting from the Bradford Telegraph and Argus reporting fears for Mr Zibakalam, a petition signed by 87 academics and relaying the claims of 250 Iranian students in the city that the Shah's secret service Savak was active among them.

In May, news emerged from the British Embassy in Tehran. Mr Zibakalam had been arrested on returning from Bradford in August 1974, questioned about his connections with Mujahedin-E-Khalq - described by the embassy as "Islamic Marxists: a known sabotage organisation" - tried and imprisoned for three years.

The Foreign Office warned the Prime Minister that Britain had "no locus standi in the case of an Iranian citizen tried and sentenced under Iranian law in Iran" and that any attempt by him to help Mr Zibakalam might be counterproductive.

Informed of this, Dr Edwards wrote back that he was glad to know at least that Mr Zibakalam was alive and that contact had been made with the Iranian Embassy about the possibility of helping him to study in prison.

Mr Wilson was further worried by complaints he heard while visiting the university in July 1975 about Savak activity on campus. He suggested that he raise Mr Zibakalam's plight with the Shah.

The Foreign Office warned Mr Wilson against doing anything directly himself, but Lord Rothschild, former head of the Policy Review Staff, managed to obtain "from a high authority" assurances that Mr Zibakalam was not being ill-treated.

The story has a happy ending. Mr Zibakalam returned to Bradford in 1984, not as an engineer but as a doctoral student in peace studies, researching the Islamic revolution in Iran.

His supervisor, Tom Gallagher, said: "He is hard to dislike and moderate in views and temperament. He was treated harshly in prison, but my impression is that his dignity and humour melted some of the harshness of the warders."

Today, Professor Zibakalam works in Tehran University's department of political science and commentates on Iranian events. He is a frequent voice on Radio 4's World at One and on the BBC World Service. In a recent Doha Debate, monthly events hosted by the Qatar Government to discuss issues affecting Arab and Islamic societies, he won over a highly sceptical audience to the proposition that Iran is entitled to a nuclear programme.

Professor Gallagher said: "He is a devout Muslim, but regards it as a private matter rather than the basis for a political system." He recalls that Professor Zibakalam's broadcasting career began when he explained Muslim views of the Salman Rushdie affair to BBC interviewers in the 1980s.

  • Harold Wilson took a proprietorial pride in the Open University, set up under his previous administration, and habitually tried to interest foreign statesmen in it, on one occasion regaling Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin with its virtues during an interval at the Bolshoi Ballet.

    The newly released papers show how his attempts in 1975 to interest Saudi Arabia, initiated at a dinner for Prince Fahd, failed because the OU had no resources for foreign development and the Overseas Development Ministry was reluctant to fund work in a rich country.

ALSO IN 1976

  • The formation of Natfhe
  • The temporary closure of City of New York University due to the city's cash crisis
  • The NUS launching its South Africa disinvestment campaign
  • Milton Friedman's Nobel Prize in Economics
  • The Times Higher cover price rose from 15p to 18p.

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