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American Academic Accused of Plotting Revolution in Iran

A prominent Iranian-American academic, imprisoned two weeks ago in Iran, has been accused by Iran's Intelligence Ministry of plotting a revolution. Haleh Esfandiari has been barred from leaving Iran since December when she visited the country to see her aging mother. Cache Seel has details from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

A televised statement from the Iranian Intelligence Ministry accused the Iranian-American academic of "setting up a network to overthrow the Islamic establishment." Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. She has lived in the United States since the 1979 Islamic revolution and has dual Iranian and American nationality. Over the last decade she has traveled frequently to Iran to visit her 93-year-old mother.

Lee Hamilton, the Wilson Center's director, called the charges unfounded and outrageous. Other American scholars say the charges appear unreasonable since Esfandiari, 67, has invited Iranian officials to conferences she has organized in Washington. She has called for a dialogue between the United States and Iran and the normalization of relations, severed in 1980.

Iran's nuclear program and alleged support of Shi'ite militias in Iraq have further strained relations with the United States.

The accusations against Esfandiari come less than a week before high level talks are scheduled between Iranian and American officials. The talks, on how to stabilize Iraq, are to take place in Baghdad.

The timing of the incident has fueled speculation that Iran's government may be seeking to sabotage the talks before they even begin. But, Alireza Nourizadeh, a senior researcher at the London based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies, says he does not believe the arrest is a coordinated Iranian effort to derail the talks.

"Those who are even talking to the Americans are the same people who are ordering the arrest of Ms. Haleh Esfandiari," he noted.

Another theory is that Esfandiari was arrested to set the stage for a prisoner swap. American forces in Iraq are holding five Iranians who they say were funneling arms to insurgents. Iran says they are diplomats. Some analysts are speculating that Iran will offer to trade Esfandiari for the five men.

Nourizadeh also doubts this theory. He says Washington has promised to release the Iranians. He adds that Esfandiari's status as an academic makes her an unlikely trade for five diplomats. In his opinion, Iran wants to send a message to the Iranian expatriate community.

"The Iranian leadership, they do not want any expatriate, any Iranian who has kind of position whether with the international institution in Western universities, Western media, they don't want them, they want them out of Iran and when they use loophole in Iranian law and manage to get inside the country, they want to make sure that when they left they going to deliver the message to the others do not go back to your motherland," he said. "It's not your place, if you go back you are either going to be killed or have an accident or be put in Evin Prison."

Esfandiari is being held in Evin Prison where human rights groups say a Canadian-Iranian photographer was beaten to death in 2003. An Iranian inquiry concluded the death was due to injuries sustained in a fall.

Esfandiari is reported to have been denied access to legal counsel and visits by family members. It is not clear if she has been officially charged or what will happen if she is.

Another Iranian-American, Parnaz Azima, a journalist working for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, has been barred from leaving Iran since January. And a former FBI agent disappeared in March from an Iranian resort on Kish Island.