A group of 13 American scholars working in Iran from institutions such as Yale, Tufts and the University of Pennsylvania were mysteriously pulled out of Tehran on Aug. 25, 10 days ahead of their scheduled departure date, and the U.S. government is offering no explanation.

According to a member of the group, the Swiss ambassador in the Iranian capital--where the United States has no embassy and Switzerland handles U.S. interests--alerted the students by telling them: "My orders are to get you out as soon as possible, and that's what I am going to do." Two professors supervising the program, which involved two months of intensive language training and individual research projects, soon gathered the group members and told them to "leave on the first plane available, and this comes from the highest authorities in Washington," said the source, who spoke on background Wednesday. The scholars were instructed not to discuss their travel plans with Iranian friends, contact anyone to cancel appointments, send e-mail or call home from Iran.

The group had arrived in Tehran on July 11, on the eve of student riots that shook the country. Its members included historians, experts on Iranian literature and poetry, and Iran scholars delving into post-revolutionary economics and the status of Iranian women. They spent the previous summer in Iran as well. All speak Farsi, with varying degrees of proficiency.

The program is partially funded by the Iranian government and sponsored by the American Institute for Iranian Studies, which is supported by U.S. government funding, according to academics and members of the group.

Was the academics' abrupt departure designed to exert subtle U.S. pressure on Iran's Islamic regime ahead of the planned espionage trials of 13 Iranian Jews? Or was it a precaution, taken to avoid giving Iranian hard-liners an opportunity to torpedo the delicate and fragile process of goodwill between Iranian and U.S. leaders? No one's saying.

U.S. officials who handle Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs said Wednesday that they could not comment because the situation is, as one put it, "very sensitive." Both of the professors who run the program, one of whom is retired, met with State Department officials this week upon their return, a group member said.

One of the professors reached yesterday refused to discuss the issue--or broader subjects such as prospects for Iranian-U.S. relations--saying that "this is serious enough of a subject" not to be entrusted to journalists, and that he "would have to be a secretary of state" to do that.

Islamic hard-liners and reformists have been performing a 1-year-long duet, sounding alternative choruses suggesting which path the 20-year-old Islamic revolution should follow. At the heart of the matter is Iran's stance toward the United States, and the American visitors, who were being carefully monitored and treated with a high level of interest by the Iranian government, could perhaps have become an easy target for hard-liners opposed to a resumption of U.S.-Iranian ties if a breakthrough was imminent.

The latest signals come from the reformist newspaper Neshat, which addressed Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh in a front-page story headlined: "We should leave open the examination of Iran-America relations." It led with a bold quote from Aminzadeh, which said: "The slogan 'Death to America' has lost its utility." On the other side of the divide, hard-line organs are still insisting that ties with America should be banned.

In the midst of this debate, the secretary general of the hard-line Society of Islamic Coalition has said that if the United States accepts the Islamic revolution and the Tehran regime and returns frozen Iranian assets, "conditions for establishing relations will be provided."

A Taste for Salt

Burundi's Washington ambassador, Thomas Ndikumana, said yesterday that a moratorium on international aid to his country was counterproductive to the peace process in a country wracked by periodic violence between its ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority for decades.

"You don't talk peace and reconciliation to an empty stomach. People have no salt," he said, noting that in Burundi, salt is a cultural index of poverty. If someone wants to let you know he is badly off, he will say, "I could not even get salt to mix with my food."

When Pierre Buyoya seized power in a bloodless coup in 1996, Burundi was hit with broad international sanctions. Now, says Ndikumana, Buyoya's government is pursuing ethnic peace in domestic forums and in talks sponsored by neighboring Tanzania. But while the sanctions have been lifted, international assistance remains cut off. Burundi's struggling economy lacks foreign currency, and that means no salt.