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Iran Detains Iranian-American Scholar

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Iran Detains Iranian-American Scholar

Middle East

Iran Detains Iranian-American Scholar

Iran Detains Iranian-American Scholar

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The director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center has been detained by officials in Tehran. No charges have yet been issued against Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian American. Robert Siegel talks with Karim Sadjadpour, Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. She is an Iranian-American and she is being detained by Iranian officials in Tehran. She had gone back to Iran to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother some months ago. According to the Wilson Center, Dr. Esfandiari was on her way to the airport on December 30th when three masked men with knives threatened to kill her and took her baggage and passports - both U.S. and Iranian. Haleh Esfandiari's husband, professor Shaul Bakhash told The Associated Press, I never expected they would jail a 67-year-old woman for no reason whatsoever.

Well, Karim Sadjadpour follows Iranian issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and joins us. And, Karim, what do you make of the reason for refusing to let a 67-year-old expatriate, a scholar leave and then putting her in jail?

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Iran Expert, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Well, it's very disconcerting, Robert. And I think it's part of this broader antagonistic relationship between the U.S. and Iran. I think the Iranians are trying to send a signal to Washington that if you want to embark on democracy promotion efforts in Iran, there's going to be serious repercussions. But I think, in characteristic fashion, the Iranians confuse short-term tactics with long-term vision. Meaning, that they feel like they've sent a stern message to Washington. But, in fact, what they've done is they've eliminated the voice of moderation.

Haleh Esfandiari was really a bridge between the United States and Iran, someone who's really an advocate for diplomacy, for dialogue; and, therefore, amplify those voices in Washington who are saying that this regime in Tehran is beyond redemption. It's too cruel and we shouldn't engage it.

SIEGEL: An Iranian news report of this today makes much of the fact that Dr. Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, is Jewish. It says that she converted to Judaism and that after the Islamic Revolution, they lived for a time in Israel. And this particular dispatch practically makes an Israeli lobbyist out of her.


SIEGEL: What do you make of this?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Well, in typical fashion I think these Iranian news reports are dubious. They're bogus, a lot of misinformation, a lot of anti-Semitic undertones. And I think this is very representative of this current strand of people who are in power in Iran, President Ahmadinejad's cohorts. I think there's a minority within the power structure within Iran. But, unfortunately, right now they feel very emboldened by confrontation and they realize that if Iran opens up to the world - whenever there is a hope of improved ties with the West, you see these more confrontationist voices in Iran trying to torpedo efforts.

SIEGEL: Would Dr. Esfandiari have had an expectation from recent years that she could go to Iran, visit for a while and then come back to the U.S.?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: You know, during the Hashemi era, during the previous president, Mohammad Hashemi, Haleh was traveling to Iran very frequently. She would go almost every four to six months to visit her ailing mother. But suddenly now, under President Ahmadinejad, there's been a crackdown on people like Haleh, people like Ramin Jahanbegloo, the Canadian-Iranian philosopher who was in solitary confinement four months last year.

SIEGEL: What do we know of where Dr. Esfandiari is now and how long she has been in detained?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Well, as far as we know, she's in Evin Prison right now. She has been detained since yesterday morning, Tehran time. So we're nearing almost 48 hours right now. And Evin Prison is a very harrowing place. Usually, these detainees are kept in solitary confinement. There's not physical torture anymore like the early days of the revolution, but there is a good deal of psychological torture.

SIEGEL: And Lee Hamilton, the former congressman from Indiana, who's now the head of the Wilson Center, has appealed for her release. I gather a great many scholars have and will do so.

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Absolutely. As I have mentioned both Haleh Esfandiari and her husband, Shaul Bakhash, are very well respected in the Middle East studies and the Iranian community and those who know Haleh know how absolutely bogus these charges are against her. So I think that there's a tremendous amount of sympathy within both Washington and Tehran for Haleh and Shaul.

SIEGEL: That very hard-line news dispatch...


SIEGEL: ...I cited says it describes her as a Zionist agent, who's been detained. But, in fact, there are no charges against her.

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Exactly and Iran - usually the justice system, especially under Ahmadinejad is operating in a way that first they detain people, and then they issue charges, second. And there is a lot of talk that maybe they will issue charges of espionage against her or cavorting with Zionists. But, really, there's nothing there. And they're going to have to manufacture things. And the definition of espionage to Ahmadinejad's government is extremely broad. It's anyone who has any contact with foreigners. And by that definition all Iranians who travel abroad are potentially guilty of espionage.

SIEGEL: Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you very much once again.

Mr. SADJADPOUR: It's a pleasure, Robert. Thank you.

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