A leading Iranian-American scholar is in prison in Tehran, charged with plotting to topple the Iranian government.  Both U.S. officials and professional colleagues say Haleh Esfandiari is only a scholar and categorically deny that she is part of any U.S. effort against Iran.  But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports from Washington, even benign actions by Americans are likely to be viewed with deep suspicion in the power centers of Iran.

The United States has budgeted $75 million for what the Bush administration calls "democracy promotion."  Officials in Iran see the program as a plot to topple their government.

Ken Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the arrest of Haleh Esfandiari and other Iranian-Americans is designed to warn Iranians not to accept U.S. money or help, no matter how harmless the purpose.

"It's open money, it's all transparent, it's done through publicly solicited contracts," he noted.  "But the regime sees this as a U.S. overthrow effort.  And I think the regime is trying to put a brake on anybody accepting any of these funds, any Iranians or now, even Iranian-Americans or even Americans going anywhere near any of these funds."

But neither Esfandiari nor her employer, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, has received any of those funds.  The Center director, former Democratic U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton says Esfandiari and the Center have nothing whatsoever to do with fomenting any kind of regime change in Iran.

"Haleh's work at the Wilson Center has been characterized as part of a U.S.-backed plot to foment soft revolution in Iran," he said.  "There is, of course, not a shred, not a scintilla of the truth to the allegations against her. Iran is trying to turn a scholar into a spy. Haleh is a scholar.  She has never been a spy."

As the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, one of many non-governmental academic centers, Esfandiari has been a leading scholarly analyst of regional affairs, particularly those of Iran.  Esfandiari, 67, was in Iran to visit her family when she was prevented from leaving the country in December.  After months of interrogation and house arrest, she was thrown into prison May 8th. 

The Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to see regime change in Tehran, even though that term has slipped out of official pronouncements of late.  The funds for "democracy promotion" are to go to a variety of efforts, including increased radio and television broadcasting to Iran.

Bill Samii, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis, says even overt, non-military U.S. actions are viewed as sinister in the corridors of power in Tehran.

"These are things that we see as fairly benign - you know, holding a conference, or having someone come and give a talk about developments in Iran," he said.  "That's pretty mild stuff.  But from the Iranian perspective, when they hear about so-called 'velvet revolutions' and so on, they'll latch on to anything that might be associated with that."

Ken Katzman was to go to Iran for a conference this week, but found his visa suddenly revoked.  He believes Iran may also be trying to use Esfandiari and the other detained Iranian-Americans as bargaining chips for Iranians captured by U.S. forces in Iraq.  The United States says the Iranians went to Iraq to arm and assist insurgents there.

The United States and Iran are scheduled to hold talks Monday on stabilizing the situation in Iraq.  But analysts say the arrest of Haleh Esfandiari and other Iranian-Americans will cast a cloud over the talks.