The arrest of a prominent Iranian-American academic in Iran has led to widespread protests by American scholars and fears that the move could lead to the isolation of intellectuals in the Islamic Republic.
On May 8, Haleh Esfandiari, 67, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was taken to Evin Prison, notorious as a place for political prisoners both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She had been under virtual house arrest since shortly after arriving in Tehran in December to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother.
In a statement reported by Iranian state television last week, the country's Intelligence Ministry accused Ms. Esfandiari, who holds dual citizenship, of seeking to promote a "soft" revolution against the Islamic government. The statement said the scholar had confirmed during interrogations 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."
On May 23, The Washington Post reported that Iran had detained Kian Tajbakhsh, another scholar and dual citizen of Iran and the United States. Mr. Tajbakhsh worked as a consultant for the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit grantmaking agency founded by the philanthropist George Soros.
An appeal signed by about 100 Iranian-American academics and other leading scholars of the Middle East called the case "the latest distressing episode in an ongoing crackdown" on civil society. The appeal added that "Dr. Esfandiari has been a staunch advocate of peaceful dialogue between Tehran and Washington."
ln a letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, the 2,600-member Middle East Studies Association said Ms. Esfandiari's treatment "sends a chilling message to scholars throughout the world." It was a theme repeated in other statements of protest.
Juan R.I. Cole, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said that he had canceled plans to attend a conference in Tehran in June organized by French scholars. "I know Haleh, and I couldn't stand being in a hotel room while Haleh is in Evin Prison."
Mr. Cole, a former president of the Middle East Studies Association, added that he was not calling for an academic boycott of Iran, except for conferences sponsored by the government.
But he warned that the arrest of Ms. Esfandiari would cut channels of communication at a time of rising tensions. "The impact will certainly be to isolate Iran from the U.S. intellectual community," said Mr. Cole. People like Ms. Esfandiari have been blunting the attacks of American conservatives against the Islamic Republic, he said. Pushing them away "is very dangerous for Iran because the hawks in the United States are gunning for Iran."
The sentiment was shared by Noam Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist and an ardent critic of U.S. foreign policy. In a written statement he called the arrest of the Iranian-American scholar "deplorable...and also a gift to Western hard-liners who are trying to organize support for military action against Iran."
Mr. Cole said the accusations against the scholar were part of attempts by the hard-line government of President Ahmadinejad to consolidate power over officials appointed by the previous president, Mohammad Khatami, who was much more favorable to dialogue with the West.