Thursday, May 17, 2007

Free Haleh Esfandiari!

Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is a scholar with expertise on various subjects related to the Middle East. She holds dual American-Iranian citizenship having lived in the United States since 1980. She left Iran at the time of the Iranian Revolution.

Dr. Esfandiari has a 93-year-old mother in Tehran whom she visits regularly. In December she was robbed while in Iran. Both her U.S. and Iranian passports were stolen and she was not permitted to leave the country. She was placed under house arrest and interrogated a number of times. Then, she was taken into custody last week and detained at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison where she remains today. A report by the BBC states she has been accused of spying for the United States and Israel and trying to incite a democratic revolution in the country.

According to Jeff Weintraub, “The Iranian government's treatment of Esfandiari is, indeed, unpleasantly reminiscent of its imprisonment of Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran's most prominent scholars and democratic intellectuals, in 2006. However, since Esfandiari is an American citizen (according to the BBC News report, she holds both US and Iranian citizenship), this action looks deliberately provocative as well as repressive.” Deliberate provocation appears the likely explanation. As the United States and Iran prepare for talks at the end of the month regarding the security situation in Iraq, there are politicians in both countries that thrive on crisis. Many nations are quite concerned about drive by the Ahmadinejad government for a nuclear program and some in Bush administration have engaged in saber rattling.

Unfortunately, Dr. Esfandiari has become a pawn who, ironically, has been an advocate of dialogue between the two countries. Of course, maybe it’s not a coincidence.

The paranoia of the conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming out as the government is cracking down on activists throughout the country. Human Rights Watch has pointed out, “Iran’s decision to increase its pressure on Esfandiari by detaining her comes at a time when the authorities have also escalated repressive campaigns against Iranian women’s right activists and student leaders.”

A FREE HALEH web site has been set up to follow developments in her case.

Here is commentary on the subject by Trudy Rubin in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Last week, Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, was thrown in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. She had gone to Iran late last year to visit her 93-year-old mother, but was prevented from leaving Iran in December and interrogated for weeks by intelligence officials before her arrest. Yesterday, Iran's judiciary announced she was under investigation for "security" crimes.

Anyone familiar with this soft-spoken, 67-year-old academic can only scoff at such charges. The highly respected Esfandiari is well-known for efforts to bring Iranian scholars of all outlooks to the center, including supporters of the Tehran government. Her unjustified arrest serves the interests of no one - except those opposed to better relations between America and Iran.

Some believe Esfandiari has been caught up in Iran's reaction to the Bush administration's $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran. Fearful that the United States is trying to stir up a "velvet revolution," Iranian officials have been cracking down on groups promoting the rights of women, students and workers.

Esfandiari was interrogated repeatedly about the Wilson Center's programs on Iran. Far from promoting regime change, however, she encouraged exchanges to help scholars of both societies understand one another better. Her program receives none of the Iran democracy program monies. Moreover, as Lee Hamilton, the president of the Wilson Center, wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Feb. 20, the Wilson Center doesn't take political positions.

Ahmadinejad hasn't bothered to answer the letter. How ironic, since Hamilton is coauthor of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, which advocates broader U.S. engagement with Iran. President Bush rebuffed the report; now Ahmadinejad has rebuffed its coauthor.

Indeed, Esfandiari may have become a pawn in Iran's internal political struggle between those who want more normal relations with the West and those who want to maintain an atmosphere of revolutionary struggle. Ahmadinejad, an advocate of the latter position, controls the interior ministry and intelligence services, and has appointed hard-liners to key positions. Perhaps that explains why Esfandiari is still being held.

But her arrest and imprisonment fly in the face of the Iranian president's professed willingness for dialogue. Even if he isn't serious, her plight undercuts the interests of other powerful Iranian factions who want to open the country and its economy wider to the world.

"By detaining her," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "the Iranian government only eliminates an advocate for diplomacy and strengthens the voices of those in Washington who say the regime is too cruel to be engaged."

Her arrest comes at a critical moment for the prospects of increased dialogue and exchanges between the two countries. Despite the recent saber-rattling by Vice President Cheney and Ahmadinejad, bilateral talks on Iraq are set to start in Baghdad this month between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart. This could be an important development.

A series of artistic and cultural exchanges with Iran has recently begun. At least 10 Iranian deputies just signed a document proposing an Iranian-U.S. friendship committee in their parliament. This might lead to exchanges between Iranian legislators and the U.S. Congress, something that has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

So this is a strange time to be holding Esfandiari in Evin (and turning back her mother's gutsy attempts to see her). Unless, of course, the aim is to undermine any potential U.S.-Iranian thaw.

"The notion that Haleh is a threat to Iranian national security is beyond preposterous," says Sadjadpour. "The regime feels it's sending a message to the U.S. government that there are repercussions for its democracy-promotion efforts in Iran. But [by holding Haleh] they've increased the ranks of those in Washington who argue that the Iranian government is made up of radicals and that engaging them would be a mistake."

Is this the message Iranian officials really want to send?

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