Iran holds three U.S. 'soft hostages'

By Other Views: Washington Post
Published May 20, 2007

If Iran wants the world's respect, as its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claims, its Intelligence Ministry should immediately free Iranian American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Esfandiari, 67, the respected director of the Middle East Program at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, traveled to Iran to visit her sick 93-year-old mother last year. On her way to the airport to return to Washington in December, she was robbed at knifepoint and stripped of her Iranian and American passports. Since then she has been interrogated for 50 hours, according to her husband. The Intelligence Ministry's purpose in interrogating her is unclear, because the answers to most of its questions are available online at the Wilson Center Web site, said the center's director, Lee Hamilton. Interrogators have tried to coerce her into false confessions about her activities and the activities of the Wilson Center, which they seem to believe is driving U.S. policy against Iran. Finally, on Tuesday, she was locked up in Tehran's Evin Prison.

Esfandiari, who holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, is one of three Americans being held as "soft hostages" in Iran. Among them is a journalist for Radio Farda who also was arrested while visiting her ailing mother. Human Rights Watch puts the number of political dissidents imprisoned in Tehran at around 50, and in the past week at least 16 others have been arrested around the country for political activities.

Even within the context of these human rights abuses, Esfandiari's imprisonment is particularly poignant because she has been advocating dialogue and a restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran. Her arrest only tends to strengthen those who argue that the Ahmadinejad regime is too cruel and irrational to make an attempt at dialogue worthwhile.

Some scholars believe Esfandiari may be a pawn in the infighting in the Iranian government, with Ahmadinejad trying to create "enemies" to strengthen his position. But Esfandiari is no enemy of Iran, and her efforts to promote understanding are not causing the world to lose respect for Iran. Her imprisonment is.