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Worldview | Mideast scholar's unjust detention

Her jailing in Tehran serves only those opposed to better relations between the U.S. and Iran.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Last week, she was thrown in Tehran's Evin Prison and is being investigated for "security" crimes.
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Last week, she was thrown in Tehran's Evin Prison and is being investigated for "security" crimes.Read more

Just when the United States and Iran are set to hold their first bilateral talks in decades, a leading Iranian-American advocate of dialogue has been jailed in Tehran.

Last week, Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, was thrown in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. She had gone to Iran late last year to visit her 93-year-old mother, but was prevented from leaving Iran in December and interrogated for weeks by intelligence officials before her arrest. Yesterday, Iran's judiciary announced she was under investigation for "security" crimes.

Anyone familiar with this soft-spoken, 67-year-old academic can only scoff at such charges. The highly respected Esfandiari is well-known for efforts to bring Iranian scholars of all outlooks to the center, including supporters of the Tehran government. Her unjustified arrest serves the interests of no one - except those opposed to better relations between America and Iran.

Some believe Esfandiari has been caught up in Iran's reaction to the Bush administration's $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran. Fearful that the United States is trying to stir up a "velvet revolution," Iranian officials have been cracking down on groups promoting the rights of women, students and workers.

Esfandiari was interrogated repeatedly about the Wilson Center's programs on Iran. Far from promoting regime change, however, she encouraged exchanges to help scholars of both societies understand one another better. Her program receives none of the Iran democracy program monies. Moreover, as Lee Hamilton, the president of the Wilson Center, wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Feb. 20, the Wilson Center doesn't take political positions.

Ahmadinejad hasn't bothered to answer the letter. How ironic, since Hamilton is coauthor of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, which advocates broader U.S. engagement with Iran. President Bush rebuffed the report; now Ahmadinejad has rebuffed its coauthor.

Indeed, Esfandiari may have become a pawn in Iran's internal political struggle between those who want more normal relations with the West and those who want to maintain an atmosphere of revolutionary struggle. Ahmadinejad, an advocate of the latter position, controls the interior ministry and intelligence services, and has appointed hard-liners to key positions. Perhaps that explains why Esfandiari is still being held.

But her arrest and imprisonment fly in the face of the Iranian president's professed willingness for dialogue. Even if he isn't serious, her plight undercuts the interests of other powerful Iranian factions who want to open the country and its economy wider to the world.

"By detaining her," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "the Iranian government only eliminates an advocate for diplomacy and strengthens the voices of those in Washington who say the regime is too cruel to be engaged."

Her arrest comes at a critical moment for the prospects of increased dialogue and exchanges between the two countries. Despite the recent saber-rattling by Vice President Cheney and Ahmadinejad, bilateral talks on Iraq are set to start in Baghdad this month between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart. This could be an important development.

A series of artistic and cultural exchanges with Iran has recently begun. At least 10 Iranian deputies just signed a document proposing an Iranian-U.S. friendship committee in their parliament. This might lead to exchanges between Iranian legislators and the U.S. Congress, something that has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

So this is a strange time to be holding Esfandiari in Evin (and turning back her mother's gutsy attempts to see her). Unless, of course, the aim is to undermine any potential U.S.-Iranian thaw.

"The notion that Haleh is a threat to Iranian national security is beyond preposterous," says Sadjadpour. "The regime feels it's sending a message to the U.S. government that there are repercussions for its democracy-promotion efforts in Iran. But [by holding Haleh] they've increased the ranks of those in Washington who argue that the Iranian government is made up of radicals and that engaging them would be a mistake."

Is this the message Iranian officials really want to send?