Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American academic who is prominent in Washington, was imprisoned yesterday in the Iranian capital of Tehran after being barred from leaving the country four months ago, said the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Ms. Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Wilson center, in Washington, D.C., had endured repeated interrogations since December about her work there and was taken to Evin prison yesterday, where she was allowed one call to inform relatives that she had been jailed.
"Whatever they think my wife did seems to be in their imagination; she hasn't done anything wrong," said Shaul Bakhash, her husband, a well-known Iran expert who is a professor of Middle East history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "I hope they realize that they made this mistake and let her return to her family."
Ms. Esfandiari, who left Iran at the time of the 1979 Islamic revolution, had returned twice annually over the past decade to visit her mother, an ailing 93-year-old widow, Mr. Bakhash said.
He would not comment further about her arrest, but other Iranian-American academics said there were two possible reasons for Ms. Esfandiari's predicament.
First, they say, the Iranian government has grown increasingly suspicious of academic institutions as possible driving forces behind efforts to change the government in Iran. The Wilson center does not take partisan positions, but its Web site lists a number of conferences that Ms. Esfandiari helped organize. They include one about the future of the reform movement in Iran and another about its nuclear program. Around Washington, she is known as the go-to Iran expert.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian-Iranian academic arrested in Iran last year, was accused of aiding the enemy by speaking at similar conferences. He was released in August after confessing that foreign agents might have exploited his expertise.
Second, the academics say, Ms. Esfandiari might be a pawn in the increasingly nasty rivalry that has erupted in the fractious Iranian government between supporters of the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the more moderate former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
A Rafsanjani ally, Mohammad Moussavian, was arrested on April 30 and accused of aiding the enemy. Ms. Esfandiari is known for being close to Faizah Hashemi, Mr. Rafsanjani's daughter, also a politician.
Evin prison has a history of treating prisoners poorly, including foreigners. A Canadian-Iranian photographer was beaten to death there in July 2003; a judicial inquiry later claimed that she had died from injuries sustained in a fall.
Lee H. Hamilton, the director of the Wilson Center and a former congressman, wrote to Mr. Ahmadinejad in February asking that Ms. Esfandiari be allowed to leave Iran. He did not receive a reply.
Ms. Esfandiari's ordeal began on Dec. 30, when she was en route to the airport to return to Washington, according to the Wilson Center. Three masked gunmen waylaid her taxi and stole her luggage, including her Iranian and American passports.
The Intelligence Ministry is notorious for staging such crimes.
When Ms. Esfandiari went to replace her passport, she was sent to the ministry for interrogation, the Wilson center's statement said. Ms. Esfandiari said that most questions focused on her work and that the answers were public information. The center said she refused to make any false statements about its work.
A few days ago, Ms. Esfandiari received another call from the ministry suggesting she "cooperate," a euphemism for confessing. She demurred and was summoned once again, but this time she was put in a car and whisked to prison.