Haleh Esfandiari: “Soft Hostage”

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Hillary Clinton is the latest to speak out against the troubling and unexplained imprisonment in Iran of Haleh Esfandiari, the 67-year-old director of Middle East programs at the Woodrow Wilson Center. (The website also links to an online petition for her release, as well as separate campaigns being run by Amnesty International and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.) This editorial last week from the Los Angeles Times explains the background:

TEHRAN’S DECISION this week to throw one of the United States’ leading Iran specialists into a notorious Iranian jail is disgraceful and self-defeating. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is one of three Iranian Americans with dual citizenship being held as “soft hostages” by Iran.

Esfandiari, ironically, is the last Washingtonian whom Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should want locked up. In a town where hard-liners on Iran appear to have President Bush’s ear, Esfandiari ran a program that was studiously balanced — so much so that some Capitol Hill conservatives groused about her bringing Ahmadinejad-friendly types to the U.S. for exchanges. Moreover, Esfandiari’s boss is former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and one of the leading U.S. voices in favor of diplomatic engagement with Iran. If Tehran wanted to discourage American moderates and embolden the hawks on Iran, it could hardly have chosen a better target for illegal detention.

Esfandiari was stopped by masked gunmen in December on her way to the Tehran airport after having visited her 93-year-old mother. She was stripped of her U.S. passport at knifepoint. Iranian authorities then barred her from leaving the country and interrogated her repeatedly.

Though the Iranian government has yet to issue a statement, Esfandiari was hauled off Tuesday to Evin prison, where a Canadian Iranian photographer was beaten to death in 2003.