Iran's latest hostage

May 25, 2007

When Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari remarked that the choice would improve Iran's image across the globe. The Islamic Republic, she said, "has been seen as this rogue state, a hostage taker. Now people will see the other side."

Ms. Esfandiari was right on both counts, only now she is the hostage, held in a notorious Tehran prison on trumped-up charges, and Ms. Ebadi is preparing to fight for her release. Iran picked the wrong person to accuse of spying and trying to topple the government.

Ms. Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is a well-known and respected academic who has worked tirelessly over the years to air different perspectives and viewpoints on Iran, hosting conferences on its elections, the role of women, its politics and its people. Colleagues here and abroad are protesting her detention loudly.

Ms. Esfandiari, a petite, 67-year-old grandmother from Potomac who has dual citizenship, has been held against her will for six months. Initially, three masked men stopped her cab as she was en route to the Tehran airport in December after visiting her ailing mother. They robbed her of all her belongings, including her two passports, a too-convenient setup for what followed:

When she went to get a new passport, she was "invited" to speak to officials at the Ministry of Intelligence, where she underwent the first of what became weeks of interrogations about the nonpartisan Wilson Center.

Ms. Esfandiari was not allowed to leave the country, but she was allowed to stay with her mother until May 8, when ministry officials whisked her to the infamous Evin Prison, an alarming turn that raises the stakes on her release.

Wilson Center President Lee H. Hamilton says Ms. Esfandiari isn't a spy and neither she nor the center has sought to undermine the Iranian regime. Ms. Esfandiari's boss, in case Iranian intelligence agents have forgotten, has been promoting U.S.-Iranian dialogue as a chairman of the Iraq Study Group.

Tehran should release Ms. Esfandiari - there can be no gain at home or abroad in trying her on bogus espionage charges. She is not the enemy, and convening some kind of kangaroo court would simply reaffirm Iran's rogue reputation in the eyes of the civilized world.

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