Iran’s latest hostages

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.


Iran is also detaining correspondent Parnaz Azima of Radio Farda, the U.S.-backed Persian-language news service, and a third person who does not wish to be identified, according to the Washington Post. Tehran is apparently worried that Iranian American intellectuals are trying to foment a revolution with support from the $75-million program the Bush administration launched last year to promote democracy in Iran.

Ahmadinejad purports to want international respect. But by locking up U.S. citizens on bogus charges and continuing a nasty domestic crackdown, the Iranian president not only looks like a paranoiac increasingly prone to dangerous miscalculation, he plays into the hands of U.S. hawks eager for a confrontation. Unless that’s really his goal, he should at least set the soft hostages free.