Iran detains two on accusations of plotting 'velvet revolution'

US official labels Iranian claims against US scholar and philanthropist 'absolutely absurd,' as calls mount for release.

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The arrests of two Iranian-Americans in Iran on suspicion of trying to instigate a "velvet revolution" there have prompted strong rebukes from the academic and philanthropic agencies they represent, as well as from US government officials.

The Associated Press reports that Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American and director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, was detained on May 8 and charged Monday with conspiring to set up a network designed to topple the Iranian government. The charges were leveled in by an Iranian Information Ministry statement read on state television.

"This is an American designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country," the ministry said....
The broadcast said Esfandiari confirmed during interrogations that her center "invited Iranians to attend conferences, offered them research projects, scholarships ... and tried to lure influential elements and link them to decision-making centers in America."
It was not immediately clear when Esfandiari will stand trial or if the trial will be public.

Agence France-Presse reports that the Iranian ministry's statement also alleged that Ms. Esfandiari admitted in interrogations that the Soros Foundation, which partially funds the Woodrow Wilson Center, was "trying to create in Iran an official network and was trying to expand it to carry out an overthrow." AFP also writes that the ministry said that with Esfandiari's "cooperation," a Soros Foundation "representative" in Iran was being hunted by the police.

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The Financial Times writes that Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American social scientist, was also recently detained in Iran. Mr. Tajbakhsh is tied to the Open Society Institute, which is part of businessman-philanthropist George Soros' foundation, which an associate described to the Financial Times as involved with earthquake relief, health, and cultural exchanges.

The detentions have fuelled a climate of fear among colleagues in Iran. Reformists, journalists and non-governmental organisations suspect the fundamentalist government of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of trying to clamp down on opposition in the name of national unity in the face of a US military build-up and United Nations sanctions against its nuclear programme.

Reuters reports that US State Department spokesman Tom Casey dismissed Iran's charges against Esfandiari, saying: "It's absolutely absurd to claim that this researcher ... poses a threat to the Iranian regime."

Casey described Esfandiari, a researcher with dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, as a scholar whose work aimed to help Iranians and Americans better understand each other.
"She's a researcher. She's also a grandmother and a child of a very elderly parent back in Tehran and, you know, I hardly think of such stuff are revolutions made," Casey said.

The Washington Post reports that Wilson Center director Lee H. Hamilton also denied the allegations against Esfandiari, saying: "Haleh was not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government. Nor does the Wilson Center engage in such activities.... There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims."

Those wishing to meet with Esfandiari in Iran's Evim prison have been turned away, writes The New York Times. Lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian-American who is seeking to defend Esfandiari against the charges, hasn't been given access to speak with her, nor have Swiss diplomats who represent US interests in Iran because there is no diplomatic relationship between the two countries.

Bloomberg writes that the arrests come as the US and Iranian ambassadors prepare to meet in Baghdad on May 28 to discuss the future of Iraq. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he doesn't expect the US ambassador to bring up Esfandiari's case during the meetings. However, the AP writes that some think the US should use the talks in Baghdad to raise the issue of Esfandiari's detention with Iran.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "It is sort of mind-boggling to me that we can have discussions that mean more to Iranians than to us while there is a hostage crisis going on."
"And we are not even going to mention the hostage," Takeyh said in an interview. "If I were in charge of the U.S. government I would say to them privately we are going to review that meeting so long as she is being held."
Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional programs at the Nixon Center, said in a separate interview, "There is nothing inconsistent in holding bilateral talks with Iran on mutual interests in Iraq while at the same time putting maximum moral and diplomatic pressure on Iran to release a completely innocent scholar who has done much to improve U.S.-Iranian relations."

The Guardian notes that the arrests aren't the only ones recently that have targeted Iranians with western connections: Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator and ambassador to Germany, was arrested on spying charges, while journalist Parnaz Azima has been prevented from leaving Iran since January. The Guardian writes that such accusations against democracy advocates have become more common in Iran as tensions with the West have increased.

The Washington Post writes about Iran's possible motivations for the latest detentions.

According to accounts of her six weeks of interrogation while under house arrest, the main issue in Esfandiari's imprisonment appears to be the same as it was when American hostages were seized in 1979 -- anger over U.S. attempts to influence Iran. Tehran's theocrats have been increasingly suspicious about a $75 million program unveiled last year by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to promote democracy in Iran. Over half the money goes to broadcasting into Iran. The Wilson Center receives no funding from that program, according to Deputy Director Mike Van Dusen.
The hard-liners' broader goal, say analysts, is to reverse a trend during the previous two presidencies -- of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami -- to gradually open up to the outside world. Ahmadinejad is undermining Rafsanjani's decision to allow people with dual citizenship who fled after the revolution to return home, as well as Khatami's attempt to improve relations between East and West, says Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Post also notes that over the past two weeks, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden have all demanded Esfandiari's release, the Senate and House are preparing resolutions calling for the same, and a website has been set up by Egypt's pro-democracy Ibn Khaldun Center and the American Islamic Congress to help the cause.

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