Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

IRAN: Charges Against Visiting Scholar Widely Condemned

Ellen Massey

WASHINGTON, May 23 2007 (IPS) - The Islamic Republic of Iran on Monday formally charged Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari with conspiring to undermine the regime in Iran.

Haleh Esfandiari (left) Credit: Woodrow Wilson Centre

Haleh Esfandiari (left) Credit: Woodrow Wilson Centre

At 67 years old, Esfandiari&#39s crime seems to be the promotion of dialogue between her native Iran and the United States. She is the director of the Middle East Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars based in Washington.

According to the Woodrow Wilson Centre, a statement from the Iranian Intelligence Ministry said that Esfandiari, the Centre and other organisations like the New York-based Soros Foundation were conspiring to establish a network that would work "against the sovereignty" of Iran. A consultant for Soros was also reportedly detained this month.

Esfandiari holds dual Iranian-U.S. citizenship and has been a strong proponent of U.S.-Iran dialogue in her work at the Woodrow Wilson Centre. Esfandiari helped to run a programme that brought diverse perspectives on Iran to Washington.

Esfandiari left Iran during the revolution and has lived in the U.S. since, but returns frequently to visit the country in which she grew up. She has been in Iran since December when she traveled there to visit her 93-year-old mother. The Woodrow Wilson Centre, the U.S. State Department and Esfandiari&#39s family have said the charges against her are without foundation.

Arrested on May 8 after four months under house arrest, Esfandiari faced interrogations by the Ministry of Intelligence before being transferred to Evin Prison, north of Tehran. The prison is notorious for its political prisoners&#39 wing and the abuse that has been documented there by organisations like New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Critics of the government say her arrest is in violation of Iran&#39s constitution, which protects the rights of individuals to freedom of thought, opinion, and speech, as well as violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory.

Many fellow academics are raising their voices to call for Esfandiari&#39s release. The Middle East Studies Association of North America sent a letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, telling him that her treatment "sends a chilling message to scholars throughout the world," and calling on the president to allow her access to legal counsel and family members.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan resolution demanding that Esfandiari be released.

Esfandiari&#39s relatives have enlisted Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to represent her, but so far the Iranian government has denied Ebadi and her legal team access to their client. Ebadi is a well-known human rights lawyer who has been jailed by the Iranian government for her own advocacy work.

Individual scholars have added their voices to the protest of Esfandiari&#39s arrest as well, including Professors Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole and Gary Sick, the latter of whom was also a former National Security Council member under three U.S. presidents. More than 70 academics signed their names to a letter that was sent to Ahmadinejad on Monday.

Cole has also cancelled plans to attend a conference in Iran this summer in Iran because of Esfandiari&#39s arrest. He has called for other academics to do the same and has called for international public protests of her detention. "I don&#39t see how normal intellectual life can go on when a scholar at the Wilson Centre can&#39t safely visit Iran," Cole wrote on his blog last week.

However, the effects of an academic boycott are unclear. "As things stand, an academic boycott will simply strengthen those in both countries who would like to see no exchanges between Iranian institutions and individuals and their counterparts in the United States," said Farideh Farhi, a faculty member at University of Hawaii at Manoa who has lived in Iran and writes frequently on contemporary Iranian issues.

Academics have sited several potential reasons for Esfandiari&#39s arrest and the charges against her. One is that the Iranian government suspects that academic institutions are behind Washington&#39s efforts at "regime change". It has also been suggested that Esfandiari is simply a pawn in the internal politics between the hard-line Ahmadinejad and his more moderate political opponent and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Esfandiari is known to be friends with Rafsandjani&#39s daughter, Faiza Hashemi.

Prof. Sick of Columbia University has suggested the possibility that Tehran is interested in a prisoner swap with the United States for the five Iranian Revolutionary Guards who were arrested by the U.S. military in Iraq on Jan. 11.

A more popular theory is the inclusion of 75 million dollars in the State Department&#39s budget for "democracy promotion" in Iran. When she unveiled the initiative last February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the money would be used to "support the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people," and counter the influence of Tehran&#39s hard-line regime.

According to Farhi, the original allegations leveled at Esfandiari intentionally did not include a reference to the State Department&#39s programme because the Iranian government knows that the Woodrow Wilson Centre has not taken any of the 75 million dollars.

"However, the accusations tie her to the broader issue of external attempts to promote civil society activism as a means to bring about eventual regime change in Iran," Farhi told IPS.

Since the programme was announced, Tehran has cracked down on women&#39s groups, student activists, labour groups and human rights advocates. Esfandiari&#39s arrest two weeks ago came amidst a string of arrests of women&#39s rights activists and student leaders.

Next week, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, is scheduled to hold talks with Iranian diplomats. But it is unlikely that Esfandiari&#39s case or the two other Iranian-Americans being held as "soft hostages" will be discussed. The George W. Bush administration has stated that those talks will be exclusively about Iraq.

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