- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The United States kept efforts to free detained Iranian-American academics being held in Iran low-key yesterday by not raising the issue at a rare meeting with officials from the Islamic Republic.

The unusual and tense face-to-face meeting, which took place in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s offices in Baghdad, instead focused on Tehran’s role in Iraq’s security situation, the Associated Press reported.

The husband of one of the four detainees, Haleh Esfandiari, told The Washington Times that yesterday he was worried for his wife’s health but declined to comment on the U.S. approach.

“I am not going to comment on American policy,” Shaul Bakhash said by telephone from his home in Potomac. “They don’t have [diplomatic] relations with Iran, so what they can do is really limited.”

Mr. Bakhash said he was concerned about his wife’s physical and mental condition after 78 days in solitary confinement. He dismissed a broadcast videotape of Mrs. Esfandiari as a “KGB-type tape in an artificial setting.”

“These cells are very tiny,” said Mr. Bakhash, citing reports from other prisoners once held in the special Ward 209 wing of the notorious Evin Prison, where he believes his wife is being held.

“They are small rooms, and they can’t look out, they are let out maybe as little as once a week, so of course we are worried about her. She was in good health before they arrested her, [but] she is 67 years old,” he said.

Mrs. Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, and another Iranian-American, Kian Tajbakhsh — who works for George Soros’ Open Society Institute — were picked up by Iranian security forces on accusations of spying and working to overthrow the Iranian government.

The United States detained five Iranians in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January, accusing them of working with Iran’s al-Quds Force, which Washington has said is training and arming murderous Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

In a news conference after the talks in Baghdad yesterday, Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi said his delegation had demanded the release of the five Iranians, who the Iranians say were diplomats legally in Iraq, the Associated Press reported.

Mrs. Esfandiari was detained on Dec. 30, 2006, on her way to the airport after visiting her 93-year-old mother. She was sent to Tehran’s Evin Prison on May 8 after months of questioning while under house arrest.

Her husband dismissed the accusations against her as “a total falsification.”

Mr. Tajbakhsh was arrested on May 11 and is believed to be in solitary confinement in the same prison.

The other two detainees are journalist Parnaz Azima and peace activist Ali Shakeri, who are also being held on national security charges, according to the AP.

Last week, Mrs. Esfandiari and Mr. Tajbakhsh were shown on Iranian state television in a 50-minute program that interspersed statements from the two with footage of anti-government demonstrations in the former Soviet Union.

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