Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center in Washington, had undergone periodic interrogations by Iranian intelligence officials for four months before being taken to Tehran's Evin prison on May 8, according to center President and Director Lee Hamilton.
Wilson Center Details The Case
Iranian officials have not commented on Esfandiari's reported arrest, and it is unclear whether she has been formally charged with any offense.
Hamilton told reporters that Esfandiari, a dual Iranian-U.S. citizen who has lived in the United States for more than 25 years, had called her 93-year-old mother after being detained by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry.
Esfandiari had been under virtual house arrest since December 30, when, according to the Wilson Center, three masked gunmen ambushed her taxi and stole her luggage -- including her Iranian and U.S. passports -- while she was heading to Tehran airport for her departure to Washington.
Esfandiari was sent to the ministry for interrogation when she applied for a new Iranian passport, according to the Wilson Center's statement.
"Esfandiari said that most questions focused on her work and that the answers were public information," the statement said.
She was then repeatedly summoned for interrogation by intelligence officials about U.S. plans relating to Iran. Upon reporting to the Intelligence Ministry again on May 8, Esfandiari was reportedly taken to Evin prison.
Hamilton, who served more than three decades as a Democratic Congressman, said that during her interrogations, Esfandiari was pressured to make false confessions or to falsely implicate the Wilson Center in activities in which it had no role. He said Esfandiari was contacted again several days ago and asked to "cooperate" with Intelligence Ministry officials, a request that she refused.
Crackdown Prompted By U.S. Actions?
Esfandiari's imprisonment is the latest detention of an Iranian intellectual or journalist with dual nationality. Some observers blame such arrests on Iranian government fears that the United States is seeking to encourage "soft subversion" to undermine the government in Tehran. In 2006, the Bush administration approved a $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran.
Iran has subsequently cracked down on nongovernmental groups, human rights activists, trade unions, and women's rights advocates. Iranian officials have accused some such groups of planning to kick-start a "velvet revolution."
Efforts by Iranian authorities to intimidate scholars and intellectuals appear to be part of the government in Tehran's response to the perceived pressure.
In January, Iranian security officials seized the passport of Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima upon her arrival in Tehran to visit her ailing mother in the hospital. Azima, also a dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, has been under virtual arrest since then. No charges have been filed against Azima, according to her attorney, Mohammad Hossein Aghassi.
Ramin Jahanbegloo , an Iranian-Canadian philosopher, was arrested by Iranian officials in 2006 on charges of "acting against national security." He was released in August after issuing a confession in which he says his participation in international conferences might have served the interests of the "enemy."
In 2003, Dariush Zahedi, an Iranian-American lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, was detained in Iran for nearly four months on charges of spying for the United States. He was eventually released on bail of approximately $250,000.
Military Option On The Table
Esfandiari's detention comes against a backdrop of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on May 8 that President George W. Bush would keep a military option on the table as he sought a diplomatic solution to a lingering standoff with Iran.
Rice told Al-Arabiya television that Bush "will not abandon the military option," adding that she "believe[s] that we do not want him to do so."
The UN Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran in its effort to convince Tehran to halt uranium enrichment. Iranian officials have rejected such pressure, saying their country's nuclear program is its "right" and is aimed solely at producing electricity.
U.S. officials have also accused Iran of funding and arming insurgent groups in Iraq, a charge that Iran has dismissed.