A Scholar Detained

Prominent researcher's imprisonment in Iran sparks vocal protests by Middle Eastern studies scholars -- but no boycott, yet.
May 22, 2007

When news broke that Iran had incarcerated Haleh Esfandiari in a notoriously brutal prison in northern Tehran on May 8, politicians, including the presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, spoke out for the Iranian-American scholar's release. So did a coalition of faculty members, with a letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And just as academics began stepping up their public criticisms of the Iranian government's actions on Monday with an additional flurry of letters and petitions, reports surfaced that Esfandiari -- director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington -- had been charged with "seeking to topple the ruling Islamic establishment." Despite the escalations and some calls for an academic boycott, no serious plans for the latter seem to be in the works so far.

Politicians have also taken renewed notice of the incident, which has raised the question of whether the incarceration would become another wedge in the contentious U.S.-Iranian feud that has colored American foreign affairs on several fronts in recent months.

"This is an American-designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country," Iranian state-run television said in reference to Esfandiari, according to the Associated Press. She had been in Iran since December visiting her 93-year-old mother.

The Wilson Center said it doesn't know if the charges are formal. "This is very disturbing," Lee H. Hamilton, the institution's president and director, said in a statement. "Haleh has not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government. Nor does the Wilson Center engage in any such activities. The charges are totally unfounded, and without any substance whatsoever. There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims." The center, though partially funded by the federal government and nominally a part of the Smithsonian Institution, is nonpartisan and widely considered independent.

The allegations that Esfandiari was somehow backing an American agenda to attack the Iranian government from within also raise academic freedom concerns. Even a presumption that a scholar's work is not independent and part of a national agenda could undermine academics' work on the Middle East, suggested Jonathan Knight, who directs the program in academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors, which released a letter to Ahmadinejad on Monday urging Esfandiari's release.

"Now that view" -- that someone is "doing the bidding of the American administration" -- "should be very worrying to any scholar who writes an article or affiliates with a project that can be interpreted by Iranian authorities as hostile to them," Knight said.

Esfandiari, an Iran expert who studies women's issues and democratic developments in the Middle East, was on her way to catch a flight back to the United States on December 30 when her taxi was intercepted by masked men wielding knives, according to an account from the Wilson Center based on interviews with her family. They confiscated both her Iranian and American passports, effectively stranding her in the country, and she was subjected to at least six weeks of constant interrogations and forced confessions.

After a 10-week silence from her interrogators, Esfandiari was allegedly summoned to make false statements about her activities in Iran and, refusing to comply, was finally taken to Evin Prison, where she remains despite health concerns and limited contact with her mother.

Scholars concerned about Esfandiari's incarceration, as well as with the potential encroachment on the academic freedom of other academics to study the Middle East, on Monday released a major petition, which was organized by Ali Banuazizi, professor of cultural psychology and co-director of the Program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Boston College.

The petition includes some big names in its list of electronic signatures, such as Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, several past presidents of the International Society for Iranian Studies and an overall "who's who of Middle Eastern studies," Banuazizi said. The open statement, which is not addressed to any particular leader in Iran or the United States, says that the arrest "is the latest distressing episode in an ongoing crackdown by the Islamic Republic against those who, directly or indirectly, strive to bolster the foundations of civil society and promote human rights in Iran."

It continues: "We believe that, despite certain internal disagreements among members of its ruling elite, the Islamic Republic of Iran -- as any other member of the United Nations -- should be held fully accountable for its actions. Only through a clear and united stand against the many breaches of human rights and civil liberties in Iran can one hope to encourage those elements within the Islamic Republic who recognize the importance of human rights for Iran's standing within the international community."

Banuazizi added that if there are any plans for an academic boycott on Iran -- of which there has only been limited talk -- he would not support them. Nor would the AAUP, which came out against the tactic during last year's controversial attempt by British scholars to boycott most Israeli universities and professors.

"That's a very blanket sort of guilt-by-association type of tactic which I think undermines the very spirit of free exchange and inquiry," Banuazizi said. "In other words, there may be many entirely innocent Iranian scholars and academics who would be boycotted if a universal boycott were to be imposed. They would be prevented from taking part in conferences and in various other ways, their activities would be unjustifiably curtailed."

But even while there is some hesitation to impose a full boycott on an entire nation's academics, Banuazizi said many scholars may now think twice about going to Iran. "Scholars may be both reluctant now, as well as ... apprehensive about traveling to Iran, and obviously this is going to have a very great negative impact on Iran itself, because they have been trying to encourage scholarly exchanges and visits, and this is clearly counter ... to that policy," he said.

Laurie A. Brand, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California, agreed. "I am sure many scholars, those of Iranian origin and others, who were considering traveling to Iran are likely to reassess," she said in an e-mail. "Those of Iranian origin probably have good reason themselves to worry about similar treatment to that of Dr. Esfandiari should they return under present conditions."

And beyond the effects of Esfandiari's incarceration, there is always the question of whether it will play out on the global stage as well. Although more than a few members of Congress have now weighed in, the Bush administration and the Republican candidates for president have remained silent so far, as has the Democratic-controlled Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

"I doubt that this would have any impact on U.S.-Iranian relations because they are at their nadir right now, so there is not that much distance to travel on that dimension," Banuazizi said. "But it may well have an impact on academics in other countries, European countries, Japan, India and elsewhere, and this is what may well result from all these statements that are being issued."

Cole, in an e-mail, said the move can only further isolate Iran from the international community. "President Mohammad Khatami had called for people-to-people diplomacy between Americans and Iranians, and some of that had been being done. I think this move by Ahmadinejad against a very well known Iranian-American academic may well spell the end of Khatami's initiative and lead to a renewed international isolation of Iran with regard to academic life and culture."

In addition to the petition, politicians and scholars are making several other efforts to bring attention to Esfandiari's cause:

  • The Middle East Studies Association of North America's Committee on Academic Freedom wrote a letter on May 11 addressed to Ahmadinejad, reminding him that the detention violated Iran's own constitution. "Harassment and detention of scholars is always cause for grave concern, but in this case it should be noted that the scholar in question is widely respected both for her knowledge and ability to provide clear and dispassionate analysis," it said. "Her treatment sends a chilling message to scholars throughout the world." Ahmadinejad has not responded to this or any of the other letters sent to him, including one from the Wilson Center in February.
  • Cole, the Michigan historian, backed out of a conference in Tehran he was scheduled to attend in July, "in protest against this detention of my friend. I don't see how normal intellectual life can go on when a scholar at the Wilson Center can't safely visit Iran." Cole described the prison as "Iran's Abu Ghraib" and sought help to coordinate protests outside of Iranian embassies. Brand said in an e-mail of Cole's decision not to attend the conference, "Those like Professor Cole [are] doing so out of principle and protest."
  • All 16 female U.S. senators jointly signed a letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday expressing "deep concern" for the detention of both Esfandiari and Iranian-American journalist Parnaz Azima, who works for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Persian-language radio network, Radio Farda, which is affiliated with the U.S.-backed Voice of America.
  • Various letter-writing campaigns and fundraising activities are also under way.

Despite all the issues Esfandiari's incarceration raises -- from academic freedom to geopolitics -- at least one scholar believes the problem is more fundamental. Rather than worry about Iran drawing a false connection between American foreign policy and scholars' independent work, said Ervand Abrahamian, a distinguished professor of history at the City University of New York's Baruch College, the United States should back off from its activities in Iran.

"I think the real problem is the U.S. funding of the opposition," he said. "It has to be stressed that scholars such as Haleh have nothing to do with U.S. policy of 'regime change.' We academics need to distance ourselves from policy makers in D.C."


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