A Travesty in Tehran

I’ve been out of the office for a bit, but coming back I see that the Government of Iran has now charged Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari with trying to foment a “velvet revolution” in Iran. It is awful news for several reasons.

First, the charges that Esfandiari was plotting to overthrow the Tehran government seem ridiculous. The notion is entirely at odds with the body of Esfandiari’s scholarly work at the Wilson Center, not exactly a hotbed of ideological bomb-throwing. (The Wilson Center chief, Lee Hamilton, tried quietly approaching President Ahmadinejad starting in February, keeping the matter out of the headlines. He has as yet received no response.) It is also worth mentioning that Esfandiari had come under some criticism from neocons and right-wingers in Washington for being too sympathetic to Tehran’s position in the bilateral relationship. The notion that she is a U.S. or Israeli spy strains credulity.

Second, her arrest gives hardliners in Washington grounds to wag their fingers in the faces of those of us (including people like Esfandiari) who favor dialogue and reduced tensions. Reuel Marc Gerecht immediately charged to the pages of the New York Times to argue that the event made clear that his view of the Islamic Republic, “suspicious, cynical, hawkish and religiously oriented,” offered the most plausible explanation. In part as a result of the Esfandiari case, it is an argument with more momentum than this analyst would like.

Third, it greatly jeopardizes U.S.-Iran relations at a time when the Bush administration is seen (grading on a curve, admittedly) as taking small steps away from confrontation with Iran and toward conciliation. Whether Esfandiari’s detention and arrest were an attempt by hardliners in Iran to scuttle rapprochement or not, the events have an effect of putting a damper on pushes from Washington to get to the negotiating table and avert a catastrophe.

But all of the political implications pale by comparison to the fact that a human being–and one who has worked tirelessly to produce outcomes that would benefit the citizens of both Iran and the United States–has been imprisoned unjustly and without even the pretense of due process. One can only hope that the leadership in Iran will come to its senses, whether out of recognition of its error or out of the realization that this sort of confrontation serves no one’s interests: the regime’s, the Iranian people’s, or the world’s.

The American Islamic Congress has set up a “Free Haleh” website here, and for further back story, read the op-ed from Esfandiari’s husband, GMU professor Shaul Bakhash.