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Academia Sees "Chilling Message" in Iran's Detention of Scholar

Haleh Esfandiari’s colleagues reject accusations and advocate her release

  Haleh Esfandiari

Washington -- Academic colleagues of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, detained in Iran’s Evin Prison since May 8, decry her arrest and treatment, saying they send “a chilling message to scholars throughout the world.”

Organizations ranging from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where Esfandiari was a resident scholar, to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), a nonpolitical association that promotes the study of the Middle East, have contacted the Iranian leadership and rejected the charges against her, condemned her arrest and urged her immediate release.

MESA President Zachary Lockman wrote that the Iranian government is violating its own laws, which provide free entry and exit to Iranians and other nationals, and the principles of free speech and opinion, which the country’s constitution is supposed to guarantee.  Iran also has refused to allow Esfandiari access to legal representation, despite a request from Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to represent her.

“Harassment and detention of scholars is always cause for grave concern, but in this case it should be noted that the scholar in question is widely respected both for her knowledge and ability to provide clear and dispassionate analysis,” Lockman wrote.

MESA Executive Director Amy Newhall told USINFO that Esfandiari’s case has led to “a mobilization of intellectuals and people interested in human rights in general and the academic community.”

“If somebody as benign as Esfandiari can be thrown into ‘the clink,’ anybody can be,” she said, referring to the scholar’s detention. 

According to a May 21 statement from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, Esfandiari is accused of seeking to overthrow Iran’s ruling system with the backing of “the famous American Soros center," a reference to philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI).

A second American scholar, Kian Tajbaksh, who works as a consultant for OSI, was detained in Iran on or about May 11, according to a May 23 statement issued by the organization.

OSI, which lists its mission as promoting democratic governance, human rights, and economic, legal and social reform, was created in 1993 and has undertaken projects in more than 60 countries, including the United States.  Its activities in Iran “have focused on humanitarian relief, public health, and arts and culture” and have been taken “with the knowledge of the Iranian government,” according to a May 22 statement.

OSI added that it provided emergency humanitarian relief to survivors of the 2003 earthquake in Bam at the request of the Iranian government, and that no OSI activities in Iran have been funded or initiated by the U.S. government. Instead, its charitable efforts “are intended to benefit the Iranian people and to promote dialogue between them and the international community.” 

MESA’s Amy Newhall said the effect of Iran’s actions is to curtail academic discourse in the country on topics such as democracy, which OSI champions.  Newhall said academics look at both the positive and problematic parts of democracy, while the Iranian government is trying “to censor any discussion whatsoever.”

In his online Weblog, Global Americana Institute President Juan Cole wrote May 18 that Esfandiari’s arrest should provoke universal outrage and “should be an issue for everyone who believes in human rights, in academic freedom, and in women's rights.”

Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, said that he had planned prior to Esfandiari’s arrest to attend a July academic conference in Iran, but “I have cancelled in protest against this detention of my friend. I don't see how normal intellectual life can go on when a scholar at the Wilson Center can't safely visit Iran.”

Cole also posted comments from Columbia University’s Gary Sick on May 22.  Sick responded to Iranian charges that OSI was seeking to “lure influential [Iranian] elements and link them to decisionmaking centers in America,” arguing that this is precisely the purpose of all academic institutions who conduct exchanges.

The Institute for Policy and International Studies (IPIS), a policy research organization run by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, routinely “tries to attract the most engaged and influential Americans, with the very clear purpose of getting them to know Iran better and to give Iranians a perspective into American thinking,” Sick wrote.

“That is what exchanges are about. It does not in any way imply that IPIS is trying to overthrow the U.S. government; and the suggestion that the Wilson Center, by organizing conferences and providing a forum where leading Iranian scholars and thinkers could be heard by a U.S. audience, was trying to overthrow the government of Iran is simply absurd,” he said.

The Bush administration also has condemned Esfandiari’s detention.  State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said May 22 that the charges against her are “utter nonsense,” and that the 67-year-old scholar is someone “interested in building bridges between the American and the Iranian people.”

McCormack also cited the case of Parnaz Azima, a dual citizen of the United States and Iran who works as a correspondent for Radio Farda.  Azima has been denied access to her passport and ability to travel despite being forced to pay a substantial bail bond on charges that her employer “spreads propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” according to Iranian prosecutors.

However, McCormack said “any sort of hint or statement that these individuals were a threat to the Iranian government is just really poppycock.”

Additional information on Esfandiari’s case is available on a Web site for a campaign on her behalf initiated by the American Islamic Congress.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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