Thursday, May 17, 2007

Trudy Rubin on the jailing of Haleh Esfandiari

This piece by Trudy Rubin, the Philadelphia Inquirer's international affairs columnist and Middle East analyst, makes two central points.

The first is that the charges used to justify detaining and then imprisoning the Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari (espionage, political subversion, etc.) are absurd.

The second point is captured in the subtitle of the article: "Her jailing in Tehran serves only those opposed to better relations between the U.S. and Iran." For Rubin, who has been arguing that constructive negotiations between Iran and the US are both possible and desperately necessary--not least to support any possible solution in Iraq--this is a bad sign.
Just when the United States and Iran are set to hold their first bilateral talks in decades, a leading Iranian-American advocate of dialogue has been jailed in Tehran.

Last week, Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, was thrown in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. She had gone to Iran late last year to visit her 93-year-old mother, but was prevented from leaving Iran in December and interrogated for weeks by intelligence officials before her arrest. Yesterday, Iran's judiciary announced she was under investigation for "security" crimes.

Anyone familiar with this soft-spoken, 67-year-old academic can only scoff at such charges. The highly respected Esfandiari is well-known for efforts to bring Iranian scholars of all outlooks to the center, including supporters of the Tehran government. Her unjustified arrest serves the interests of no one - except those opposed to better relations between America and Iran. [....]
This effect is probably not accidental.
Indeed, Esfandiari may have become a pawn in Iran's internal political struggle between those who want more normal relations with the West and those who want to maintain an atmosphere of revolutionary struggle. Ahmadinejad, an advocate of the latter position, controls the interior ministry and intelligence services, and has appointed hard-liners to key positions. Perhaps that explains why Esfandiari is still being held.

But her arrest and imprisonment fly in the face of the Iranian president's professed willingness for dialogue. Even if he isn't serious, her plight undercuts the interests of other powerful Iranian factions who want to open the country and its economy wider to the world.
Precisely. For Ahmadinejad and tendencies aligned with him, that would be a major bonus--and a strong motivation for doing this in the first place.

That's not the only possible motive for Esfandiari's arrest, which also coincides with stepped-up repression against intellectuals and other opposition forces within Iran. And given the heavily factionalized character of the Iranian security services, it's always possible that the timing of particular incident is explained by localized initiatives (as seems to have been the case with the original seizure of the British sailors in March, for example).

However, based on what we know about how political infighting within the Iranian ruling circles works, it is safe to assume that at the very least this factor played a significant role in the background of this incident and will help to shape the way it is resolved. Did the people responsible for this conspicuously provocative act carry it out with the intention of helping complicate the possibilities for US-Iranian negotiations and undermining the position of more "pragmatist" elements within the ruling elite? It's quite possible that this was part of their motivation, and they will certainly try to use it that way if they can.

The big question now is how other elements in the Iranian regime, some of which have a less reckless approach toward courting international confrontation, will respond.
"By detaining her," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "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."

Her arrest comes at a critical moment for the prospects of increased dialogue and exchanges between the two countries. Despite the recent saber-rattling by Vice President Cheney and Ahmadinejad, bilateral talks on Iraq are set to start in Baghdad this month between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart. This could be an important development. [....]

So this is a strange time to be holding Esfandiari in Evin (and turning back her mother's gutsy attempts to see her). Unless, of course, the aim is to undermine any potential U.S.-Iranian thaw.

"The notion that Haleh is a threat to Iranian national security is beyond preposterous," says Sadjadpour. "The regime feels it's sending a message to the U.S. government that there are repercussions for its democracy-promotion efforts in Iran. But [by holding Haleh] they've increased the ranks of those in Washington who argue that the Iranian government is made up of radicals and that engaging them would be a mistake."

Is this the message Iranian officials really want to send?
For some of them, undoubtedly, the answer is yes.

Others probably feel that sending this message is tactically unwise. Esfandiari's fate probably depends on how much weight they carry, and whether they conclude that the diplomatic and public-relations costs of keeping her in prison are heavy enough that they should take steps to get her released. If the reaction from other governments and from international public opinion makes it clear to the Iranian government that continued persecution of Esfandiari will be embarrassing for them, that raises the likelihood that cooler heads within the Iranian regime will find some way to let her go.

One more good reason to send them that message.

--Jeff Weintraub

=========================
Philadelphia Inquirer
Mideast scholar's unjust detention
Her jailing in Tehran serves only those opposed to better relations between the U.S. and Iran.

By Trudy Rubin

Just when the United States and Iran are set to hold their first bilateral talks in decades, a leading Iranian-American advocate of dialogue has been jailed in Tehran.

Last week, Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, was thrown in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. She had gone to Iran late last year to visit her 93-year-old mother, but was prevented from leaving Iran in December and interrogated for weeks by intelligence officials before her arrest. Yesterday, Iran's judiciary announced she was under investigation for "security" crimes.

Anyone familiar with this soft-spoken, 67-year-old academic can only scoff at such charges. The highly respected Esfandiari is well-known for efforts to bring Iranian scholars of all outlooks to the center, including supporters of the Tehran government. Her unjustified arrest serves the interests of no one - except those opposed to better relations between America and Iran.

Some believe Esfandiari has been caught up in Iran's reaction to the Bush administration's $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran. Fearful that the United States is trying to stir up a "velvet revolution," Iranian officials have been cracking down on groups promoting the rights of women, students and workers.

Esfandiari was interrogated repeatedly about the Wilson Center's programs on Iran. Far from promoting regime change, however, she encouraged exchanges to help scholars of both societies understand one another better. Her program receives none of the Iran democracy program monies. Moreover, as Lee Hamilton, the president of the Wilson Center, wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Feb. 20, the Wilson Center doesn't take political positions.

Ahmadinejad hasn't bothered to answer the letter. How ironic, since Hamilton is coauthor of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, which advocates broader U.S. engagement with Iran. President Bush rebuffed the report; now Ahmadinejad has rebuffed its coauthor.

Indeed, Esfandiari may have become a pawn in Iran's internal political struggle between those who want more normal relations with the West and those who want to maintain an atmosphere of revolutionary struggle. Ahmadinejad, an advocate of the latter position, controls the interior ministry and intelligence services, and has appointed hard-liners to key positions. Perhaps that explains why Esfandiari is still being held.

But her arrest and imprisonment fly in the face of the Iranian president's professed willingness for dialogue. Even if he isn't serious, her plight undercuts the interests of other powerful Iranian factions who want to open the country and its economy wider to the world.

"By detaining her," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "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."

Her arrest comes at a critical moment for the prospects of increased dialogue and exchanges between the two countries. Despite the recent saber-rattling by Vice President Cheney and Ahmadinejad, bilateral talks on Iraq are set to start in Baghdad this month between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart. This could be an important development.

A series of artistic and cultural exchanges with Iran has recently begun. At least 10 Iranian deputies just signed a document proposing an Iranian-U.S. friendship committee in their parliament. This might lead to exchanges between Iranian legislators and the U.S. Congress, something that has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

So this is a strange time to be holding Esfandiari in Evin (and turning back her mother's gutsy attempts to see her). Unless, of course, the aim is to undermine any potential U.S.-Iranian thaw.

"The notion that Haleh is a threat to Iranian national security is beyond preposterous," says Sadjadpour. "The regime feels it's sending a message to the U.S. government that there are repercussions for its democracy-promotion efforts in Iran. But [by holding Haleh] they've increased the ranks of those in Washington who argue that the Iranian government is made up of radicals and that engaging them would be a mistake."

Is this the message Iranian officials really want to send?

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