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Iran's Crackdown on Visiting Iranian-Americans Raises More Questions About Tehran's Agenda

The news that a fourth Iranian-American may have been arrested in Iran for alleged espionage has heightened questions about the Tehran government's seemingly contradictory behavior. Iranian and U.S. officials have just completed their first publicly acknowledged high-level meeting to discuss stabilizing Iraq. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the arrests may be a sign of divisions within Iran's leadership.

The crackdown on Iranian-Americans visiting their native land is both puzzling and ominous to Western-based analysts of the Iranian political landscape.

Karim Sadjapour was living and working in Tehran for the International Crisis Group until recently. He says the atmosphere there has changed markedly in recent months.

"The mood in Iran in terms of the crackdown on political speech and societal openness is as bad as it's been since the early days of the revolution," he said.

The government has accused at least three visiting Iranian-Americans of espionage, including Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the non-governmental Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington. Also charged are Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with George Soros' Open Society Institute, and Parnaz Azima, a journalist with the U.S. government-funded Radio Farda.

U.S. officials have emphatically denied that they were engaged in any espionage activity, with White House spokesman Tony Snow Wednesday labeling the allegations "preposterous."

Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, who teaches modern Middle Eastern and Iranian history at George Mason University, says he is as perplexed as anyone else about the matter.

"After all, my wife, as the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, has merely organized conferences, meetings, and talks," he said. "She has brought Iranians, respected Iranian academics and scholars and analysts, to the Wilson Center. The Iranian government does exactly the same thing in reverse. Its own research centers invite scholars and academics and the like from the United States, from Europe, from others, to conferences in Iran."

However, some American scholars planning to visit Iran recently for such a conference found their visas suddenly revoked.

Bill Samii, an Iran specialist at the Center for Naval Analysis, says U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq and the crackdown in Tehran underscore divisions within the secretive circle of Iran's leadership.

"We always get back to this argument about this sort of bifurcated nature of the Iranian governmental system in which you have various factions and various leaderships or various centers of power pursuing different agendas," he said. "And I think that that's what we're seeing in this case."

Karim Sadjapour, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says there is what he calls "schizophrenia" in Iran's ruling circles. He says there are entrenched hardline elements who have vested political and financial interests in maintaining the hostile relationship between Iran and the West.

"So any time you see a movement toward a dialogue with the U.S. or a warming of ties between Iran and the West, you have these hardline elements that aim to scuttle this dialogue," he explained. "So this is why we may see these things simultaneously: at the same time the Iranian government is talking to the U.S. about Iraq, you see the hardliners behind the imprisonment of people like Haleh and Kian to try to torpedo these talks from going forward."

Sadjapour adds that he is sad that it is now too dangerous for him, as an Iranian-American, to go back to Iran. But he says he now has to be less circumspect in his analysis of Iranian affairs.

"I've resigned myself to the fact that Iran is no longer a safe place to live and work for those of us who are dual nationals and those of us who work on issues of U.S.-Iran relations and Iranian internal politics," he added. "And in some ways, it's liberating to know that I can't go back. I feel upset that I am unable to go back. I still have family. But in some ways we can be more honest in our analysis because we have to, I think, be very clear in pointing out that the behavior of the Iranian government, and at this moment, is simply unacceptable."

It is not clear when, or even if, any of the accused will face trial. Bill Samii points out that espionage cases are held before Revolutionary Courts, which have great flexibility and discretion.