Friday, May 25, 2007

Why is Haleh Esfandiari in Evin Prison? (Trudy Rubin)

It seems clear that at least part of what lies behind the jailing of the prominent Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari is that she is being used as a pawn in power struggles within the Iranian ruling circles. Her arrest is part of a recent pattern in which several academics and journalists with dual Iranian and foreign citizenship--and possibly an Iranian-American businessman as well--have been arrested by Iran's security services. But Esfandiari's imprisonment is the most high-profile case so far, and it was almost certainly intended to be conspicuous, provocative, and intimidating.

As usual, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Middle East columnist Trudy Rubin gives a penetrating and convincing account of what's probably going on. Some highlights:
Last week I wrote about a 67-year-old Iranian American scholar of renown named Haleh Esfandiari who was imprisoned May 8 in Tehran [see here].

This drama has become more bizarre since Monday, when Iranian television announced she had been charged with "seeking to topple the ruling Islamic establishment."

These charges are laugh-out-loud ludicrous to anyone who knows Esfandiari - a petite, soft-spoken grandmother who went on her biannual visit to an ailing 93-year-old mother. As head of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, Esfandiari was known as an apolitical expert devoted to promoting U.S.-Iranian dialogue.

The malice behind the charges points in a more political direction - an effort by hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his KGB-like intelligence sector to push back against more pragmatic Iranian leaders. The pragmatists are open to direct talks with the United States and more exchanges between countries. Groundbreaking U.S.-Iran talks are set for Monday over stabilizing Iraq. [....]

Down this road lies an end to hopes of greater people-to-people dialogue. "If Iran decides any Iranian who meets with Americans is a spy and if they refuse visas, you can't have exchanges," says Columbia University Iran expert Gary Sick.

Perhaps the arrest of Esfandiari is meant by Ahmadinejad's circle to scare those who hope for a more open Iran. Perhaps it's meant to warn that U.S.-Iranian talks on security issues won't bring domestic reforms. Maybe Haleh will be released once the point has been made.

But I believe her plight is part of a fight by Ahmadinejad's circle against threats to his power. Under sharp criticism for failed economic policies, he faces new political alignments that could advance the date of presidential elections - which he would probably lose. What better way to distract attention than to stress security threats (helped by U.S. saber-rattling against Iran)?

Iranian security also recently arrested Hossein Mousavian, deputy head of a think-tank close to the powerful ex-president (and pragmatist) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mousavian, with powerful protectors, got out after eight days, but the message was clear: Be careful. The question is when and whether the pragmatists will strike back.

Esfandiari does not have such powerful protectors. But her jailing flies in the face of common interests shared by sane people in the United States and Iran. So it is crucial that academics and prominent figures around the world tell Ahmadinejad he must release her. If you want to follow the efforts to free her, go to www.freehaleh.org.
Read the whole thing (below)--and also Rasool Nafisi's hard-hitting analysis of what this case means, "Iran's cultural prison" (in openDemocracy).

--Jeff Weintraub
=========================
Philadelphia Inquirer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Is Iran jailing a ploy to retain power?
By Trudy Rubin

Last week I wrote about a 67-year-old Iranian American scholar of renown named Haleh Esfandiari who was imprisoned May 8 in Tehran.

This drama has become more bizarre since Monday, when Iranian television announced she had been charged with "seeking to topple the ruling Islamic establishment."

These charges are laugh-out-loud ludicrous to anyone who knows Esfandiari - a petite, soft-spoken grandmother who went on her biannual visit to an ailing 93-year-old mother. As head of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, Esfandiari was known as an apolitical expert devoted to promoting U.S.-Iranian dialogue.

The malice behind the charges points in a more political direction - an effort by hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his KGB-like intelligence sector to push back against more pragmatic Iranian leaders. The pragmatists are open to direct talks with the United States and more exchanges between countries. Groundbreaking U.S.-Iran talks are set for Monday over stabilizing Iraq.

The charges against Esfandiari are purportedly linked to the $75 million in democracy-promotion money the Bush administration budgeted for Iran. Most of this money goes to Iranian-language broadcasts, but some is supposed to go to unnamed civil-society groups inside Iran.

Iranian officials are sensitive to the internal political upheavals that took place in Ukraine and Georgia - with some help from Western organizations. Esfandiari was charged with conspiring with the Wilson Center against Iranian sovereignty.

"This is an American-designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country," Iran's state TV said.

But neither Esfandiari nor the Wilson Center has ever taken a penny of the Iran democracy-promotion funds.

"These are totally trumped-up charges," says Wilson Center president Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group that called for a U.S. diplomatic offensive toward Iran.

One intent of the charges against Esfandiari seems to be to head off more academic and civic exchanges between the United States and Iran by frightening off potential participants. Already, her case is casting a chill.

Many Iranian American scholars are now nervous about visiting their native country, and Iranian scholars will also think twice about traveling to the United States. Some noted U.S. Mideast experts have called for a boycott of Iranian government-sponsored meetings until Esfandiari is freed. University of Michigan professor Juan Cole told me, "I would find it difficult to sit in a conference when Haleh is in Evin Prison."

After media stories appeared this weekend about possible U.S. boycotts, Iranian officials have already retaliated. A noted Tehran think-tank, the Ravand Institute for Economic and International Studies, was instructed to disinvite Americans from a conference this weekend on Iran's economic and security role, and to tell them their visas were revoked. (I was invited, but hadn't yet received a visa.)

Down this road lies an end to hopes of greater people-to-people dialogue. "If Iran decides any Iranian who meets with Americans is a spy and if they refuse visas, you can't have exchanges," says Columbia University Iran expert Gary Sick.

Perhaps the arrest of Esfandiari is meant by Ahmadinejad's circle to scare those who hope for a more open Iran. Perhaps it's meant to warn that U.S.-Iranian talks on security issues won't bring domestic reforms. Maybe Haleh will be released once the point has been made.

But I believe her plight is part of a fight by Ahmadinejad's circle against threats to his power. Under sharp criticism for failed economic policies, he faces new political alignments that could advance the date of presidential elections - which he would probably lose. What better way to distract attention than to stress security threats (helped by U.S. saber-rattling against Iran)?

Iranian security also recently arrested Hossein Mousavian, deputy head of a think-tank close to the powerful ex-president (and pragmatist) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mousavian, with powerful protectors, got out after eight days, but the message was clear: Be careful. The question is when and whether the pragmatists will strike back.

Esfandiari does not have such powerful protectors. But her jailing flies in the face of common interests shared by sane people in the United States and Iran. So it is crucial that academics and prominent figures around the world tell Ahmadinejad he must release her. If you want to follow the efforts to free her, go to www.freehaleh.org.
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Contact columnist Trudy Rubin at 215-854-5823 or trubin@phillynews.com

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