By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Iran yesterday formally charged three Americans with espionage and endangering national security, the government's judicial spokesman said, signaling a widening clampdown against U.S. citizens in Iran.
The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda. Iran announced over the weekend that it had uncovered U.S. spy networks and protested to the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the charges a "perversion of the rule of law," while a State Department spokesman yesterday said that the charges are "absurd" and appealed to Tehran to immediately free the Americans.
"These are individuals who are private citizens. They are not party to any of the policy disputes between the government of the United States and the government of Iran. It's absolutely absurd to think that they, in any way, shape or form, pose a threat to the Iranian regime, and we continue to urge the Iranian government to let them go," spokesman Tom Casey said.
En route to Europe, Rice said she did not see a link between the charges against the three Americans and the fate of five Iranian Revolutionary Guard members detained by U.S. troops in January in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. Iran has acted against two other dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, including California businessman Ali Shakeri. The fifth American has not been named.
"These are not people who are engaged in espionage," Rice said. "These are . . . dual citizens of the United States and Iran, and it would have been a good thing if Iran were able to welcome people who want to improve life for Iranians and improve freedoms in Iran. So the two are just simply not linked."
The charges came one day after landmark talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad over the future of Iraq. The talks ended a 28-year diplomatic freeze.
Human Rights Watch criticized Iran's actions. "The charges announced by the judiciary are politically motivated, and the only evidence they have are professional activities, such as organizing or attending international conferences. This is truly a witch hunt," said Hadi Ghaemi, Iran analyst of Human Rights Watch.
Iran's intelligence ministry and state-controlled television reported last week that Esfandiari, a Potomac resident and director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was charged with "crimes against national security." But the new charges are more specific and serious. Spying is a capital crime in Iran.
"Esfandiari has been formally charged with endangering national security through propaganda against the system and espionage for foreigners," Iranian judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi said. He did not announce a trial date and said the investigation is ongoing.
The Wilson Center said it is "extremely disheartened" over the news from Iran. "Haleh is a scholar," said Lee H. Hamilton, Wilson Center president and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "The work she does at the Wilson Center is open, nonpartisan, and includes a broad range of views. At the Wilson Center, we do not take positions on issues, but rather, we bring all sides of an issue together for dialogue."
Esfandiari had been under virtual house arrest since December, during which she was interrogated about $75 million in U.S. government funding for pro-democracy programs in Iran. But Hamilton said the think tank receives no U.S. government funds to promote democracy.
In Potomac, Esfandiari's husband, professor Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University, said the charges against his wife are unfounded. "There is not a scintilla of evidence to support any of them," he said.
Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh have both been in solitary confinement in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since the second week of May. Azima, whose passport was confiscated in January, is free in Tehran on bond, her family said.
In New York, a spokeswoman for the Open Society Institute -- established by philanthropist George Soros -- said the charges against Tajbakhsh are "without merit. We are very concerned for Dr. Tajbakhsh's safety and urge the Iranian authorities to release him immediately," said Laura Silber.
A Radio Farda spokesman said Parnaz's attorney believes she has not been charged with espionage but with spreading anti-government propaganda.
Shakeri, a fourth Iranian American, was arrested on May 8 at an airport on his way back to the United States, according to friends and colleagues. Iran's judiciary denied yesterday that he has been arrested or charged.