American Scholar Is Charged in Iran

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Noted American scholar and Potomac resident Haleh Esfandiari has been charged with "seeking to topple the ruling Islamic establishment," Tehran's state-controlled television reported yesterday.

Esfandiari was charged with setting up a network that was working "against the sovereignty" of Iran, the government outlet said. "This is an American-designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country," state television reported, according to the Associated Press.

In a separate statement, Iran's intelligence ministry alleged that the 67-year-old grandmother, director of the Middle East program at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was involved in activities trying to foment a soft revolution.

The Wilson Center denied the allegations. "Haleh was not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government. Nor does the Wilson Center engage in such activities. . . . There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims," said Lee H. Hamilton, Wilson Center director and co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, which in December urged U.S. engagement with Iran.

The case comes at a sensitive juncture, with U.S. and Iranian diplomats set to hold their first bilateral talks Monday in Baghdad. The Bush administration increasingly needs Iran's cooperation to stabilize war-ravaged Iraq.

Iran's state television, which speaks for the government and is often the first to report such charges, said Esfandiari confessed in interrogations that the Wilson Center had "invited Iranians to attend conferences, offered them research projects, scholarships . . . and tried to lure influential elements and link them to decision-making centers in America."

It offered no details on the next steps in the case or a possible trial. Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, said that he is waiting to hear formal charges from Iran's judiciary but also countered that the description of his wife's activities are "totally unfounded."

Esfandiari, a dual U.S.-Iranian national, was imprisoned on May 8 after more than four months under house arrest and weeks of interrogations.

In a statement, the intelligence ministry said she had identified the representative in Iran who had set up a network for philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Institute. "The long-term and final goal of such centers is to try to enable this network . . . to confront the ruling powers. This model designed by the Americans . . . is following the 'soft revolution' in the country," the statement said, according to Iran's ISNA news agency.

Wilson Center deputy director Mike Van Dusen said that Esfandiari had received money from the Open Society Institute and other foundations to bring experts to conferences. But the foundation also gave money to Iran after the Bam earthquake in 2003, he noted.

The Iranian foreign ministry's think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies, also sponsors exchanges with U.S. scholars at conferences in Tehran, said Gary Sick of Columbia University. "That is what exchanges are about. It does not in any way imply that IPIS is trying to overthrow the U.S. government," he said.

"The effort by Iran's security services to transform serious and legitimate scholars into spies is so transparently ludicrous," he added.

Although charges of trying to overthrow the government can be liable to capital punishment, many such cases have eventually been dismissed, said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company