Passport Robbery, Daily Interrogations and Arrest of a Prominent Scholar:
The Crackdown Continues!
Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, the 67-year old Director of the Middle East Program at the Smitshonian Museum’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was arrested on Tuesday and transferred to Evin Prison in Tehran. Dr. Esfandiari is in need of medical attention due to undisclosed health conditions. Iranian authorities have not issued a statement about her arrest.
Woodrow Center President and Director Lee H. Hamilton, and Esfandiari's husband have confirmed her arrest. Over the past two days, the arrest of this researcher and former lecturer of Princeton University, who for the past few years has written many books and articles about changes in Iran, has had wide coverage internationally. Esfandiari who holds dual citizenship has emotional ties to Iran through her mother who lives in Tehran alone, and has traveled to Tehran several times over the past few years. When she traveled to Tehran last December, in a staged “robbery,” her passport and other possessions were stolen; but in order to hold on to her chances of visiting with her 93-year-old mother, she kept the news from the media, all the while attending interrogation sessions by security forces in Tehran. She had been under house arrest since December.
Sean McCormack, a State Department Spokesman, has condemned Esfandiari’s arrest and making a reference to Parnaz Azima, a reporter based in Praque for U.S.-funded Radio Farda, whose passport has been confiscated by security forces in Iran, “We want to see them returned back to their families,” said McCormack. “These two women are an academic on the one hand, a journalist on the other. …I am not sure what it is the Iranian government has to fear from these ladies.” he said. He added “It is an insight into the nature of this regime.”
Passport Robbery and Daily Interrogation
In a report covering Esfandiari’s arrest, Washington Post says that last December, as she left her mother’s house in a taxi for Mehrabad Airport, he was stopped by several men who stole her passport and other possessions. Since then, he has continually been called to Ministry of Information to provide explanations about her activities over the past several years, people with whom she has been in contact, organizations working on Iranian affairs in the US, and similar questions. Esfandiari’s specialty is women’s issues, development of democracy in the Middle East and Iran affairs. She was a university professor in Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution. She earned her Ph.D. in Austria.
Over the past several years, academics and authors who travel to the US have been subjects of suspicion by security authorities in Iran. Some of the suspects have been summoned to security organizations after their trips to US, facing interrogation and arrest. After the US announced that $75 million was allocated to “reach out to Iranian people,” these encounters have intensified. Iranian Government has subsequently announced that a budget has been allocated to “neutralizing” US plans in this regard.
The Woodrow Wilson Center is a reputable organization in the US, active in foreign affairs, hosting many researchers from all over the world annually to share their opinions and analysis on different issues. As Middle East issues have gained elevated importance over the past few years, several individuals from the region, including Iran, have been invited to the Center to exchange ideas.
During the past several months, Esfandiari has been repeatedly called to appear at the Ministry of Information to answer questions regarding her professional activities and her relations with other individuals. Parnaz Azima, a Radio Farda reporter has also faced similar problems over the recent months, unable to reclaim her passport. There might be other individuals in this group who are not publicizing their difficulties with the Iranian authorities in order to avoid future problems in traveling to Iran.
Iranian authorities have not made any statements pertaining to Esfandiari’s arrest. She had asked her family and close friends not to disclose information pertaining to her summons and interrogation to the press.
Arrest of Academics to Neutralize US Conspiracies
Security authorities have tried hard to find the trail of US’ budget for applying pressure on the Iranian regime by arresting Iranian journalists, intellectuals and academics in recent years. Even through Ministry of Information and other organizations’ continued arrests and long detentions, however, these authorities have been unable to find evidence of the trail, and have had to release the detainees in the end.
Victims of this suspicious policy have included Dariush Zahedi, a prominent lecturer at University of California at Berkeley, Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian intellectual and a researcher for many international organizations, and several journalists including Ali Farahbakhsh who is serving a three-year jail term for receiving $2,300 in travel expenses to a seminar abroad.
During this time, after their arrests security authorities have attempted to put pressure on the detainees, forcing them to “confess.” Even so, they have been unsuccessful in receiving those confessions. In the case of Ramin Jahanbegloo, after announcing that his confession would be imminently released, after widespread national and international objections to his arrest and false confession, the whole issue was abandoned. After facing charges of espionage and cooperation with outside security organizations, he was released on a heavy bail and has returned to his activities. It is clear that if his charges were proven, he would have had to serve years in prison.
Several sources have confirmed that Haleh Esfandiari, as is the case with all those detained and interrogated on a daily basis, has been under immense pressure to confess. The same scenario has also been true for Ali Farahbakhsh, though neither one has confessed. The usual method of operation of security organizations is to achieve these confessions through promising the prisoners that if they agree to write their confessions, the interrogations will end and they will be released and they may even leave the country, notwithstanding the heavy bails set for their freedom. If the prisoners refuse to confess, they will face long-term imprisonment and denied travel rights.
Hamilton’s Letter to Ahmadinejad
It is interesting to note that Lee H. Hamilton, a member of the famous Iraq Study Group which produced the Hamilton-Baker Report, is Director of Woodrow Wilson Center who has repeatedly criticized Washington for its policies to isolate Iran in the region. He told the Washington Post that he sent a letter for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on February 20th, asking him to allow Ms. Esfandiari to leave Iran for US. He has never received a response to his letter.
Hamilton has been one of the few people advising the US to negotiate with Iran and Syria in order to solve their problems in Iraq. Esfandiari, who is the Middle East Director of the Center, has tried hard to bring realism to the thinking of American intellectuals, politicians, and decision-makers about changes within the Iranian society. As a result of such efforts, the policy for negotiations with Iran to solve the regional issues through recognition of Iran’s significance in the region has emerged as a serious option.
In his letter to Ahmadinejad, Hamilton writes: “…the Wilson Center did not receive any money from the U.S. government for the purpose of trying to influence or to determine specific policies or direction of the Iranian government," he said in an interview yesterday. "We've been very transparent about our dealings. . . . We have offered a wide array of viewpoints. That's our role."
In a press conference he stated, "The interrogators could have gotten all the information with a few clicks on the Wilson Center Web site."
Ahmadinejad’s cabinet officials, who have always insisted that the two governments must negotiate, ignore the letter sent by Hamilton, a staunch supporter of US-Iran dialogue. Over the past several days Iranian authorities have repeatedly expressed an interest in negotiations with US, yet they won’t reply to the letter of one of the few supporters of talks with Iran amidst Bush’s war propaganda machine. Hamilton has stated in this press conference that US-Iran talks will have to be real and far reaching.
As a researcher whose voluminous papers about changes in Iran have been published, despite all limitations imposed on Iranian researchers’ travel to US, Esfandiari has tried over the past few years to invite these analysts to the Center to present papers and lectures, hoping to create a platform for voicing Iran’s real issues. Ramin Jahanbegloo was one of the individuals presenting lectures in the Wilson Center. The timing and proximity of the two cases appears of interest. Haleh Esfandiari’s husband, Shaul Bakhash, is a faculty member at George Mason University.
Jahanbegloo and Reja News
Reja News, a super conservative website which has been active over the past few days in attacks against Hossein Moussavian, a senior Iranian diplomat recently arrested in Tehran, published a report in which Haleh Esfandiari was named the Zionists’ agent in Iran. A part of Ramin Jahanbegloo’s confessions in which his relations with this Iranian researcher has been called “of a political/security nature” has been quoted in the report, declaring “I met a woman named Haleh Esfandiari in Canada (who is an anti-Revolutionary Iranian, married to a Jewish man), and through her I established contact with certain organizations in the US, and I received a scholarship in the US to research intellectuality in Iran.” The wording resembles the literature of forced confessions.
The report then describes Dr. Esfandiari’s activities in Ayandegan Newspaper, saying: “She is an effective member of the pre-Revolution Zionist Lobby in the Pahlavi court, who along with her husband founded the Zionist Ayandegan Newspaper in Tehran. The interesting point is that Haleh Esfandiari remained in Iran for a time after the Revolution, but with the ban on Ayandegan Newspaper, she fled Iran in August of 1979 for Israel.”
Reja News which withholds its source continues: “It is said that she was the architect of AIPAC’s conference two years ago, which met under the slogan of ‘Now Is The Time to Stop Iran,’ suggesting a review of all avenues to confront Iran’s nuclear programs. This conference’s motto, ‘Iran, the Point of Understanding Between US and Israel,’ tried to review ways for coordinating Israel and US efforts to apply pressure on Islamic Republic of Iran. George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Cinton, John Bolton, Ihud Ulmert and Amir Perez were some of the speakers in this conference. It is said that the decision of war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah was reached in this conference.”