By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Iran yesterday detained prominent American academic Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, according to center president and director Lee H. Hamilton and Esfandiari's husband.
Esfandiari, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who has lived in the United States for more than a quarter-century, has been under virtual house arrest since December, when the government refused to allow her to leave Iran after visiting her 93-year-old mother. Since then, she has been summoned repeatedly for interrogations by intelligence officials about U.S. programs on Iran. In particular, she was questioned about Iran programs at the Wilson Center, one of Washington's most prominent foreign policy think tanks.
Esfandiari was summoned by the intelligence ministry again yesterday but was then taken to Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, the sources said.
Esfandiari is one of three "soft hostages," all dual U.S.-Iranian nationals, whose passports have been confiscated by the Iranian government, rendering them unable to leave the country.
The United States has not faced such tension over Americans held in Iran since the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days. Until Esfandiari' s detention yesterday, the Wilson Center and her family had sought to avoid publicity in hopes that she would be granted a new passport.
Esfandiari and the other soft hostages appear caught up in an Iranian reaction to the Bush administration's $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran, which was unveiled last year. Tehran has since cracked down on human rights advocates, labor groups and women's rights campaigners, according to human rights activists.
"The government's justification for these actions is usually couched as a response to the State Department's announcement to provide financial support to Iranian civil society and nongovernment organizations," said Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch. "This has fueled a perception among the Iranian politicians that the U.S. is committed to instigating a 'velvet revolution' in Iran. Ironically, the Iranian Americans who travel to Iran mostly stay away from politics and are not by any means part of the 'regime change' advocates. But they have become pawns in the hands of Iranian government as it charts its strategy in engaging with the U.S."
During her interrogations, Esfandiari was pressured to make false confessions or to falsely implicate the Wilson Center in activities in which it had no role, Hamilton said. Esfandiari was contacted again a few days ago and asked to "cooperate" with intelligence ministry officials, which she refused. On Monday she was told to report to the Ministry of Intelligence again. When she arrived yesterday, she was taken to Evin Prison. It is unclear whether she has been formally charged with any offense.
Hamilton, a former congressman and Iraq Study Group co-chairman, wrote Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Feb. 20 appealing for Esfandiari to be allowed to leave. "I said the Wilson Center did not receive any money from the U.S. government for the purpose of trying to influence or to determine specific policies or direction of the Iranian government," Hamilton said in an interview yesterday. "We've been very transparent about our dealings. . . . We have offered a wide array of viewpoints. That's our role."
In a subsequent conference call with reporters, he added, "The interrogators could have gotten all the information with a few clicks on the Wilson Center Web site."
Hamilton's Iraq Study Group report in December urged the Bush administration to deal with Tehran on the issue of Iraq. "It is our view that in diplomacy, a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences," the report said. "Diplomatic talks should be extensive and substantive." The Wilson Center did not receive a response from the Iranian president's office.
Esfandiari has brought in many scholars and analysts from Tehran to speak at the Wilson Center, one of the few places in Washington to offer a robust range of opinions on Iran. "The irony is, in Washington she faced criticism for bringing in people who were sympathetic to the Iranian government," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "By detaining her the Iranian government only eliminates an advocate for diplomacy and strengthens the voices of those in Washington who say the regime is cruel and should not be engaged."
The ordeal for Esfandiari, a Potomac resident married to George Mason University professor Shaul Bakhash, began Dec. 30 when she was on her way to the airport to return to Washington and her taxi was stopped by three men with knives who threatened to kill her. They took her belongings, including her Iranian and U.S. passports. When she tried to get a replacement passport, she was "invited" to an interview with a man from Iran's Ministry of Intelligence. Interrogations continued almost daily for six weeks, up to eight hours a day. She was allowed to return to her mother's home at night.
Iran confiscated the passport of Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima when she arrived in Tehran in January, also to see an ailing mother. She, too, has undergone interrogations and was asked to collaborate with intelligence, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Jeffrey Gedmin. Azima's attorney was told last month that she would have to stay in Iran "two or three years." The third, who does not want to be identified, was refused her passport and right to leave the country for six months.
A fourth American, former FBI agent Robert A. Levinson, disappeared after he flew to Iran's Kish Island in March. Tehran has denied any knowledge of Levinson's location.