The Islamic Republic of Iran yesterday accused a prominent American academic it imprisoned two weeks ago of conspiring to foment a velvet revolution there.
A statement from the Intelligence Ministry that was reported on state television said that Haleh Esfandiari and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., along with similar institutions like the Soros Foundation, had been trying to establish a network that would work "against the sovereignty of the country."
"This is an American-designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country," the statement said.
Ms. Esfandiari, 67, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, went to Iran five months ago on one of her twice-annual visits to her ailing 93-year-old mother. She was prevented from leaving the country last December, then jailed in the notorious Evin prison on May 8.
While under virtual house arrest before being jailed, she had been interrogated repeatedly, and the Intelligence Ministry statement said she had confirmed that the Wilson Center "invited Iranians to attend conferences, offered them research projects, scholarships ... and tried to lure influential elements and link them to decision-making centers in America."
The Wilson Center, which provided the quotations from the statement, called the charges both disturbing and far-fetched.
"Haleh has not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government," said Lee H. Hamilton, the Wilson Center's director. "Nor does the Wilson Center engage in such activities. There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims."
Shaul Bakhash, Ms. Esfandiari's husband and a professor of Middle East history at George Mason University in Virginia, said, "Any implication that my wife, Haleh, was involved in a plan for a soft overthrow of the Iranian government is totally without foundation."
Mr. Bakhash said his wife had been able to make brief, one- or two-minute phone calls to her mother almost every evening since her imprisonment, with just enough time to say she was all right and to ask about her family.
The family asked Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and an Iranian human rights lawyer, to represent her. But when representatives for Ms. Ebadi, who is currently traveling in the United States, tried to visit Ms. Esfandiari, the prosecutor denied them access and refused to recognize them as representing her. Her mother has also not been allowed to see her.
Iran analysts said the charges would be laughable were it not that Ms. Esfandiari had been imprisoned. The idea that a 67-year-old academic is being identified as a major threat to the Islamic Republic shows that the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is either paranoid, the analysts said, or more likely, that some hard-line elements within it are determined to ruin high-level talks between Iran and the United States about security in Iraq that are scheduled to occur in Baghdad on May 27.
In the long history of tense relations between the countries since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, whenever there seemed to be a rapprochement in the offing, Iranian hard-liners who believed that confronting Washington was a cornerstone of the revolution have sought to derail it.
Another possible situation, noted Gary Sick, a professor of Middle East politics at Columbia University and a one-time National Security Council adviser on Iran, is that Tehran may be seeking a swap. The American military arrested five Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Iraqi city of Erbil on Jan. 11 and has held them incommunicado ever since.
Both developments came after Ms. Esfandiari's initial detention, however, so some analysts lend more weight to the idea that the Iranian government is worried about the $75 million that the United States government budgeted to support development of civil society in Iran. The "soft revolution" referred to is the overthrow of repressive governments in Eastern Europe by broad-based civic movements, so the mullahs are trying to intimidate interested Iranians.
Ms. Esfandiari, who holds both Iranian and American citizenship, had organized conferences in Washington on issues like Iran's nuclear program and the political opposition, but she had also invited members of the Iranian government itself and provided them with a platform to air Tehran's viewpoint.
"I think a very small percentage of Iran's political elite actually believe the country's national security is enhanced by imprisoning a 67-year-old grandmother," said Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who follows Iranian issues. "What is undeniably clear is that the government in Tehran has only increased the ranks of those in Washington who argue that this regime in Iran is too cruel to be engaged."
Indeed, there has been an outpouring of criticism from American academics ranging from Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the American Association of University Professors, which issued a statement on Monday calling on Iran to respect academic freedom and release Ms. Esfandiari.
The Middle East Studies Association of North America issued a similar statement and its past president, Professor Juan Cole at the University of Michigan, announced on his widely read blog, Informed Comment, on Friday that he would not attend a Tehran conference organized by French academics in June. He also called for public protests.
"They risk returning Iran to the kind of intellectual and cultural isolation that it suffered in the Khomeini period," Mr. Cole said in an interview.
Another dual national, Parnaz Azima, a reporter for Radio Farda, a Persian language station financed by the United States, has been refused permission to leave Iran since January.