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Iran: Washington Assails Tehran Over Detainees

Haleh Esfandiari (left) and Parnaz Azima (RFE/RL) June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department has expressed dismay over the detention or perceived harassment of U.S.-Iranian citizens over what it regards as "groundless charges."

The United States has once again called on Iran to release the detained Iranian-Americans, saying they pose no threat to Iran's leadership.

Tehran has dismissed similar previous appeals as "interference" in its internal affairs and said the detainees are being investigated for security crimes and espionage. Iran does not recognize dual citizenship and says the detainees will be treated according to Iranian law.

'Bridges' Between Cultures

At the center of this war of words are two women and two men with dual Iranian-American citizenship.

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi argued in a commentary in the May 30 issue of the "International Herald Tribune" that the U.S. democracy-promotion funds are a major factor in the arrests.

Three of them -- Haleh Esfandiari, who heads the Middle East program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant with the Open Society Institute; and Ali Shakeri, a peace activist in California -- are being held in jail. All three were reportedly detained in May.

Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima is the fourth Iranian-American who has seen her freedom restricted. Azima has been prevented from leaving Iran since her passport was confiscated in late January. She is free on bail and has been accused of working for a "counterrevolutionary" radio station.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean MC Cormack said in a June 7 statement that several of these Iranian-Americans have served for years as "bridges" between the two cultures -- working to enhance mutual understanding. He urged Iranian authorities to let them go.

But Tehran appears determined to continue the investigation into what it considers a state affair.

Earlier this week, Iranian media quoted Tehran deputy prosecutor Hassan Hadad as saying that Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh have admitted to "carrying out activities." But Hadad added that they said their intention was to help Iran. Haddad also said that several individuals have been identified in Tehran in connection with the case.

The comments could signal that more arrests are on the way.

Today, Iran's student news agency (ISNA) published an unsourced report that suggested Shakeri is being investigated on suspicion of security-related wrongdoing.

A Result Of U.S. Democracy Promotion?

Goudarz Eghtedari is a U.S.-based political analyst and a colleague of Shakeri's. He told Radio Farda that he thinks the detention of Iranian-Americans -- including Shakeri -- is connected to a February 2006 decision by the U.S. Congress to allocate a $75 million budget to promote democracy in Iran.

"As far as we know, people and groups inside Iran have not received that aid -- and neither Esfandiari's group nor Shakeri's group has received this aid," Eghtedari said. "Iran's Intelligence Ministry is in fact fishing. They arrest anybody to see what they can get out of it. As Americans say, it's a fishing expedition. That means they make arrests to see later whether they can obtain any proof."

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi argued in a commentary in the May 30 issue of the "International Herald Tribune" that the U.S. democracy-promotion funds are a major factor in the arrests.

She wrote that this U.S. policy has backfired, and added that the lack of transparency in distributing the $75 million has created "immense problems" for Iranian democratic groups and rights activists.

But a U.S. government official who did not want to be named told RFE/RL that there is no evidence that any of the recent detentions of dual-citizenship native Iranians is linked to anything other than the Iran's government's "repressive nature."

Calls To Make Funding Transparent

Ebadi and other prominent rights activists have urged the United States to declare which organizations or groups have received funds.

They argue that the spending has resulted in a growing fear of a "velvet revolution" among Iranian hard-liners who are actively preventing civil-society activists, intellectuals, and academics from having contacts with the outside world.

The U.S. government official told RFE/RL said Washington doesn't say how much U.S. government money goes to pro-democracy groups and individuals in Iran, or even whether any of it does.

The United States has said that current funding supports programs to assist defenders of civil liberties, women's rights, press freedom, and greater political openness.

He acknowledged that some critics think the United States should spend no money at all on such efforts to avoid accusations that leave all dissidents under a cloud of suspicion.

Meanwhile, there is growing concern over the fate of the detained Iranian-Americans, who are reportedly being held in a prison with virtually no access to the outside world.

Last week, four international rights groups called on Iran to release detained Iranian-Americans immediately and lift the effective travel ban on Azima and Mehrnoush Solouki, a French-Iranian journalism student.

(RFE/RL Washington correspondent Andrew Tully contributed to this report.)

Radio Farda's Parnaz Azima

Radio Farda's Parnaz Azima
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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.