- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

We regularly hear that the Bush administration has “missed” opportunities for engagement with Iran, as though Tehran is waiting in the wings to talk. If that were true, Iran would not be imprisoning, forcing false confessions from and otherwise seriously mistreating Iranian American activists, scholars and engagement advocates, all for political effect.

The jailing of Haleh Esfandiari, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, on trumped-up espionage charges, should be a wake-up call for the “engagement” crowd — and the same goes for similar charges leveled against three other American citizens in Iran. If Tehran is willing to imprison even congenial, pro-dialogue Westerners, then the message it intends is that it has zero interest in engagement. The Bush administration has not “missed” chances for dialogue.

The 67-year-old Mrs. Esfandiari had been visiting her elderly mother when she was arrested three weeks ago by Iranian authorities. In a formal announcement, Iran acknowledged that it is holding Mrs. Esfandiari, reportedly in the notorious Evin prison, which is awful even by Iranian standards. The statement was timed to coincide with this week’s unprecedented U.S.-Iranian bilateral talks on the security situation in Iraq. The charges against Mrs. Esfandiari allege a plot to destabilize the Islamic republic and otherwise harm Iranian national security.

Iran is also holding Kian Tajbakhsh, a scholar at the New School for Social Research in New York City who has worked for the World Bank and for George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Mr. Tajbakhsh has consulted previously on development and urban planning projects with multiple arms of the Iranian government, including Tehran’s social-security research center, its housing and urban development ministry and the municipality of Tehran.

The third to be arrested is Parnaz Azima, a journalist for Radio Farda, the U.S. government’s Persian-language radio service based in Prague and Washington. She has reportedly been interrogated, asked to collaborate with Iranian intelligence and has been told she cannot leave the country for two to three years. Also being held is mortgage-company businessowner Ali Shakeri, 59, a peace activist affiliated with the University of California-Irvine. Mr. Shakeri went to Iran to visit his ailing mother. Kayhan, the newspaper that speaks on behalf of Iran’s clerical rulers, reportedly accused Mr. Shakeri of being a “CIA agent who has officially supported overthrowing the Islamic republic in interviews with opposition media and seeking to implement a secular state in Iran.”

All of the charges are spurious on their face. Each of the accused is a friend of the Iranian people, and all hold dual Iranian-U.S. citizenship. Mrs. Esfandiari is one of Washington’s most visible engagement advocates — the kind of person whom the regime would encourage if it were seeking accommodation and dialogue. Instead, it has placed her in its most notorious prison for enemies of the regime.

It should now be obvious to even the most relentless engagement advocates that Tehran simply does not want engagement. Its history of hostage-taking is the record of a hostile regime, one whose character is unchanged over the years in its contempt for the West — including its own defenders. That it would throw these congenial people in jail as a sideshow during the U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq is a telling indicator of that fact.

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