The U.S. State Department said Tuesday charges from Tehran that an Iranian-American academic has sought to topple Iran's Islamic government are "absolutely absurd." Officials say scholar Haleh Esfandiari had no link with any U.S. government programs on Iran and should be released as soon as possible. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Officials here say it is unclear whether an Iranian government statement Monday accusing Esfandiari of subversion amounts to a formal charge against her, but they say they are operating under the assumption that she is now accused of criminal activity.
The 67-year-old Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has been jailed for two weeks after having been barred from leaving the country since late last year. She had been visiting her ailing mother.
Esfandiari, who holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenship, left Iran after that country's 1979 Islamic revolution but has traveled there frequently to visit her mother, who is 93 years old.
In a statement read on state television Monday, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry said she is accused of setting up a network acting against the sovereignty of Iran and trying to bring about a "soft revolution" in that country, an apparent allusion to activism that brought down autocratic governments in recent years in Ukraine and Georgia.
The Wilson Center has already rejected the charges against Esfandiari. In a talk with reporters, State Department Deputy spokesman Tom Casey said it is "incredible" to think that Esfandiari's work, which involved trying to increase mutual understanding between the two peoples, could pose a threat to the Iranian government.
News reports have suggested that Iran's move against Esfandiari and others may reflect Iranian anger over a $75 million Bush administration program announced late last year to boost Iranian civil society and U.S. broadcasting to that country. Casey said Esfandiari's work was not connected in any way to that initiative.
"Maybe if Ms. Esfandiari had any association with any of those programs, you might be able to make a claim like but," Casey says. "But she doesn't, and I think it's been very clear. And again, she's been back and forth to Iran for many, many years. She's an Iranian-American. She has substantial family ties back there. Go ask the Iranians why they think stuff that she has been doing for years and years and years without any problems, suddenly now represents a threat to their government. It's not something that's understandable in any practical terms to us."
Former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, director of the Wilson Center, said Esfandiari was not involved in activities to undermine any government, and that there is "not one scintilla of evidence" to support what he termed the outrageous claims against her.
Hamilton and former Secretary of State James Baker co-chaired the bipartisan commission which in December recommended greater U.S. engagement with Iran as part of a new strategy on the Iraq war.
Spokesman Casey said the State Department has been in close contact with Esfandiari's family and has raised her case with the Swiss government, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of diplomatic relations.
There have been similar inquiries in the case of another Iranian-American, Radio Farda journalist Parnaz Azima, who has been barred from leaving Iran since January, and on Robert Levinson, a former U.S. FBI agent who went missing in Iran in March.
Despite the problems, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, is due to meet Iranian diplomats there May 27 for a discussion of Iraqi security issues. Casey said Tuesday Crocker has not yet been told who the Iranian participants in the dialogue will be.