Wrong Move in Iran

Friday, May 11, 2007

IF IRAN wants the world's respect, as its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claims, its Intelligence Ministry should immediately free Iranian American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Ms. Esfandiari, 67, the respected director of the Middle East Program at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, traveled to Iran to visit her sick 93-year-old mother last year. On her way to the airport to return to Washington in December, she was robbed at knifepoint and stripped of her Iranian and American passports. Since then she has been interrogated for 50 hours, according to her husband. The Intelligence Ministry's purpose in interrogating her is unclear, because the answers to most of its questions are available online at the Wilson Center Web site, said the center's director, Lee H. Hamilton. Interrogators have tried to coerce her into false confessions about her activities and the activities of the Wilson Center, which they seem to believe is driving U.S. policy against Iran. Finally, on Tuesday, she was locked up in Tehran's Evin Prison. Officials turned her mother away when she tried to visit.

Ms. Esfandiari, who holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, is one of three Americans who are being held as "soft hostages" in Iran. Among them is a journalist for Radio Farda who also was arrested while visiting her ailing mother. Human Rights Watch places the total number of political dissidents currently imprisoned in Tehran under state security laws at around 50, and in the past week at least 16 others have been arrested around the country for various political activities.

Even within the context of these human rights abuses, Ms. Esfandiari's imprisonment is particularly poignant because she has been advocating dialogue and a restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran. Some Iranian Americans accuse her of being too "soft" on Tehran. Her arrest only tends to strengthen those who argue that the Ahmadinejad regime is too cruel and irrational to make an attempt at dialogue worthwhile.

Some scholars believe Ms. Esfandiari may be a pawn in the infighting in the Iranian government, too, with Mr. Ahmadinejad trying to create "enemies" to strengthen his position. But Ms. Esfandiari is no enemy of Iran, and her efforts to promote understanding are not causing the world to lose respect for Iran. Her imprisonment is.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company