Academics May Boycott Iran Over Scholar's Detainment

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

Momentum is building behind an academic boycott of Iran to pressure the government to free imprisoned American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, who was jailed in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison on May 8 after more than four months under house arrest.

The Middle East Studies Association of North America, which has 2,700 members worldwide, has written to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warning that the detention of scholars has triggered "grave concern" and that Esfandiari's imprisonment has sent a "chilling message to scholars throughout the world." Esfandiari is director of Middle East programs at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"Harassment and detention of scholars is always cause for grave concern, but in this case it should be noted that the scholar in question is widely respected both for her knowledge and ability to provide clear and dispassionate analysis," the letter added. It also charged that Iran's action against the 67-year-old grandmother, who was visiting Iran to help her ailing mother, 93, violates the republic's constitution because she has been denied legal counsel.

MIT professor Noam Chomsky also issued a statement yesterday calling Esfandiari's detention "deplorable" and warned that the action by Iran's intelligence ministry was "a gift" to American policymakers trying to organize support for military action against Iran. "Now is a time for diplomacy, negotiations, and relaxation of tensions, in accordance with the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans and Iranians, as recent polls reveal," Chomsky said. "The intolerable treatment of this highly respected scholar and human rights activist severely undermines the efforts of those who are seeking peace, justice and freedom in the region and the world."

In his popular blog, University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole said that he canceled plans to attend a conference this summer in Iran because of Tehran's imprisonment of Esfandiari and called on other academics to do the same. "Everyone should be outraged about this story. Her arrest should be an issue for everyone who believes in human rights, in academic freedom, and in women's rights," he wrote. Cole also suggested that academics and others protest in front of Iranian diplomatic missions.

Although the United States broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, American academics have been frequent visitors to conferences in Iran.

"Academics may now feel they are put at risk, but if you have a fellow academic who is highly respected and is being held prisoner for promoting the very contact that Iran has been seeking, that is perfectly good grounds for not going to a conference there," said Gary Sick of Columbia University and a former member of the National Security Council under presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Iranian prison authorities allowed Esfandiari a one-minute telephone call to her mother yesterday, according to her husband, George Mason University professor Shaul Bakhash. Esfandiari could say only that she was waiting for clarification of her situation.

Iran's judiciary said last week that she was being investigated for "crimes against national security."

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