CAIRO, Egypt — Iran confirmed Sunday that it has arrested a prominent Iranian-American academic, and a hardline newspaper accused her of spying for the United States and Israel and trying to start a revolution inside Iran.
Haleh Esfandiari’s arrest, part of a spate of recent crackdowns against Iranian activists, appears to reflect President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government’s growing fear that the United States is using pro-democracy advocates to promote regime change, analysts say.
Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, went to Iran on a personal visit to see her ailing mother last year. She had been prohibited from leaving for four months, then was sent Tuesday to Iran’s notorious Evin prison after arriving at the Intelligence Ministry for questioning, the institute said.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed her arrest for the first time Sunday, saying it was “based on law” and that the 67-year-old Esfandiari would be treated like other Iranian nationals. It gave no reason for the arrest.
The day before, however, the hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan accused Esfandiari of spying for the U.S. and Israel and of attempting to launch a revolution inside Iran.
“She has been one of the main elements of Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) in driving a velvet revolution strategy in Iran,” the newspaper wrote. “She formed two networks, including Iranian activists, in the U.S and Dubai for toppling down (the Islamic government).”
Academic's associates, husband deny claims
Esfandiari’s group and her husband strongly deny such activities, saying she was an advocate for diplomacy who often brought Iranians sympathetic to their government to talk to Washington officials.
In an e-mail sent to The Associated Press on Sunday, Shaul Bakhash, Esfandiari’s husband and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, denied the accusations made in the article.
“These accusations are fantasies and are untrue. They are all the Kayhan writer’s shameful fabrications ... It is regretful that Kayhan, one of Iran’s two oldest newspapers still being published and with a long and distinguished history, should allow so much untruth to appear on its pages,” wrote Bakhash.
“By detaining her, 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,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Iranian security officials often warn that domestic critics or Iranians living abroad are being used by Iran’s enemies to pressure the government. Their suspicions were further raised after Congress last year approved $85 million to promote democratic institutions in Iran.
“The government is suspicious of consultancy groups, think tanks. There is a fear that these groups are mobilizing inside and outside the country for dissent,” said Mahan Abedin from the London-based Center for the Study of Terrorism. “Arrests such as this one are a heavy-handed, sledgehammer approach to remove the threat.”
Concerns of those who hope to return
Hadi Ghaemi, an Iran expert for the New York-based Human Right Watch, said prominent Iranian activists living abroad are now worried about making trips to their homeland because they could also be arrested and accused of spying.
He said he has been “receiving questions and concerns from several scholars, filmmakers, and researchers who are re-evaluating the wisdom of their imminent trips to Iran.”
Every year, thousands of Iranians living abroad, including many in the United States, easily travel back to Iran, where dual citizenship is not legal but tolerated. But Iran does not allow citizens the government has exiled from the country to return legally.
Ghaemi has not been to Iran for three years because the government refuses entry to Human Rights Watch.
Esfandiari, who has been living in the U.S. since 1980, had been trapped in Iran since December when masked men stole her luggage and passports as she tried to leave. Since then, she was repeatedly interrogated by authorities for up to eight hours a day — mainly on the activities of the Wilson Center, the group said.
Other Iranian-Americans have also been prohibited from leaving Iran in recent months, including Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda. Another American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, disappeared in March after going to Iran’s resort island of Kish.
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