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Iran/U.S.: Washington Denies Iran's Accusations Against U.S.-Based Scholar

(RFE/RL) May 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has dismissed Iranian accusations that a detained American-Iranian scholar was trying to undermine the Islamic state.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Institute's Middle East program (and who is not related to the author of this report), was detained in Tehran on May 8 and has been accused of security crimes.

Washington's reaction followed a May 21 statement by Iran's Intelligence Ministry that accused Esfandiari of links to a U.S.-funded drive to topple Iran's Islamic establishment.

The ministry said the Wilson Institute's Iran-related activities are supported by the Soros Foundation, which it said had played a "key role" in the so-called color revolutions in former Soviet states.

The ministry also claimed that the 67-year-old Esfandiari has said in preliminary interrogations that the Soros Foundation has established an unofficial network in Iran whose main objective is "overthrowing" the Iranian government.

'Utter Nonsense'

On May 22, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed the Iranian accusations against Esfandiari. He also said she is no threat to the Iranian government.

"Whether or not the Iranian government actually follows through with these charges or not, they're just utter nonsense," McCormack said.

The Woodrow Wilson Institute has also denied Iranian suggestions that Esfandiari has been involved in efforts to promote a "soft revolution" in Iran.

Also on May 22, Wilson Center Director Lee Hamilton called on Iran to release the Iranian-American scholar.

"The Wilson Center's plea to the Iranian government is simple: Let Haleh go. Let her return to her husband, her family, and her work," Hamilton said.

Iran has said that the United States should not meddle in the detention of Esfandiari.

Iranian officials have said that the scholar -- who holds Iranian and U.S. citizenship -- will be treated based on Iranian laws. Iran does not recognize dual citizenship.

Nearly Incommunicado

Haleh Esfandiari

Iranian officials have also prevented Esfandiari's relatives and chosen lawyers from meeting her. She has reportedly only been allowed to make brief evening phone calls to her 93-year-old mother in Iran.

Abdolfatah Soltani -- a member of the legal team that intends along with Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to defend Esfandiari -- told Radio Farda that judiciary authorities have so far denied them access.

"[The judge] told us, 'I've spoken to her, she didn't say she wanted a lawyer,'" Soltani said. "But we said that she had called her 93-year-old mother and told her she wants to have a lawyer. It was clear that, despite the laws, they aren't allowing Haleh Esfandiari to have a lawyer. We have practically no information about [Esfandiari's] fate."

Bizarre Circumstances

Esfandiari had been visiting her mother -- as she had done in previous years -- when her nightmare began.

When she was about to leave Iran in December, her American and Iranian passports were stolen. Authorities did not issue her a new passport, and instead a series of lengthy interrogations by security officials began. Finally she was taken to Evin prison, where she has been jailed for the past two weeks.

Several U.S. politicians, academics, and rights groups have called for her release. Many have praised her work and described her as a voice for tolerance and peace and an advocate for equal rights for women. They have also said that she has been active in promoting mutual understanding.

About 100 Middle East scholars and experts on Iran have, in a joint statement, described her arrest as the latest "distressing episode" in an ongoing crackdown by Iran's government against those who strive to bolster the foundations of civil society and promote human rights in Iran.

Other Cases

Esfandiari's arrest comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States. It also comes as human rights advocates and activists in Iran face an apparent crackdown.

Esfandiari is not the only Iranian-American to have been prevented from leaving Iran in recent months. Iranian authorities have confiscated the passport of Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima and refused to return it even though Azima and her family have posted a bail bond worth approximately $440,000.

"The Washington Post" today reports that Iran has also imprisoned a consultant for philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Institute programs.

According to the report, Kian Tajbakhsh was picked up around May 11. He had reportedly worked with the Open Society Institute in Iran since 2004 and has also done some work for the World Bank.

On his website, decentralization, democracy, and urban local governance in Iran are listed among his key research areas.

It is unclear whether there is any alleged connection between Tajbakhsh's and Esfandiari's cases, on one hand, and the Intelligence Ministry's recent statement accusing the Soros Foundation of involvement in attempts to topple the Iranian government.

The Iranian Intelligence Ministry said in its May 21 statement that the head and representative of the U.S.-based Soros Foundation in Iran has been identified and will be prosecuted.

The Soros Foundation's network is run through the billionaire's Open Society Institute, which is active in many countries. "The Washington Post" reports that the institute has said that its activities in Iran are centered only on humanitarian relief, public health, and culture.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.