- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The husband of an Iranian-American scholar being held at a prison in Iran says his wife is a victim of “careless talk” in Washington about regime change in Tehran.

Shaul Bakhash’s wife, Haleh Esfandiari, has languished at Evin prison since May 8 on charges of espionage and “endangering national security through propaganda against the system.”

Mrs. Esfandiari, who lives in Potomac, is the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“I do believe careless talk by the Bush administration about regime change and the use of money for the advancement of democracy has fed a paranoia in Iran … and my wife and I are victims of that paranoia,” Mr. Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University, told The Washington Times.

A so-called Iran-Syria Policy and Operations Group within the Bush administration was disbanded in April, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The group was purportedly considering recommending covert aid to opposition groups in Iran.

The report notes that providing “overt or covert support to anti-regime organizations, in the view of many experts, would not make them materially more viable or attractive to Iranians.”

Press reports from Iran indicate pro-democracy activists are being arrested on charges of accepting U.S. “democracy promotion funds … others have refused to participate in U.S.-funded programs, fearing arrest,” the report said.

Besides Mrs. Esfandiari, three other Iranian-Americans — scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, California peace activist Ali Shakeri and journalist Parnaz Azima — are being held in Iran on security-related charges.

President Bush has “strongly” condemned their detention and in a statement on June 1 said, “They should be freed immediately and unconditionally.”

Mrs. Esfandiari traveled to Iran on Dec. 21 to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother. On Dec. 30, on her way to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington, her taxi was stopped by three masked men who robbed her of her belongings, including her Iranian and U.S. passports.

When she went to apply for replacement travel documents, Mrs. Esfandiari, 67, was subjected to interrogations that stretched over a month.

On May 8, when she arrived for an appointment at the Ministry of Intelligence, she was taken to Evin prison. To date, she has been denied access to her legal defense team, headed by Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Mrs. Ebadi has been told by Iranian officials that the Mrs. Esfandiari does not need her counsel, Reuters news agency reported yesterday from Tehran.

Noting interrogation techniques used at the prison are harsh, Mr. Bakhash worries about his wife’s safety.

Wilson Center Director Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, said there is “not a scintilla of truth to the allegations against Haleh. She is a scholar, not a spy. She is committed to open dialogue, not activities to undermine the Iranian government.”

He added: “The Wilson Center receives zero funding from the U.S. government’s fund to promote democracy in Iran.”

Last Tuesday, the House passed a resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Mrs. Esfandiari. A similar resolution was passed by the Senate.

Mr. Bakhash, meanwhile, desperately searches for “glimmers of hope” in cryptic statements issued by the Iranians.

Since her detention, Mrs. Esfandiari has only been allowed “one or two minute” phone calls to her mother. Mr. Bakhash listens intently as his mother-in-law relays these interactions to him from Iran. “We get nothing of substance from these conversations other than an exchange of hellos,” he said, adding, “Our assumption is that there is a minder standing by.” Mrs. Esfandiari’s cousin has made at least five requests to visit her in prison, the last of which was rejected on Wednesday.

The United States, which cut diplomatic ties with Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979, is working through the Swiss government to secure the Americans’ release.

Mohammad Javad Larijani, a influential politician, cleric and the Iranian judiciary’s chief adviser on international affairs and human rights, told Fox News over the weekend that the charges against Mrs. Esfandiari were serious but that he expected the scholar to be released in “one or two weeks”

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