Bad Times For Iranian-Americans In Iran

It is not a particularly opportune moment, it appears, for Iranian-Americans to be visiting Iran.

In recent months, four Iranian-Americans are known to have been detained by Iran's security services. Three have been accused of endangering Iran's security and of espionage--allegations that they, their families, and their employers have denied. A fourth Iranian-American has been detained and is said to be under investigation on security-related issues.

The detention of the four appears to be a byproduct of worsening U.S.-Iranian tensions, though officials in Tehran have said the legal issues are not linked to anything other than alleged misdeeds. The Iranian government does not recognize dual citizenship, and after President Bush recently called for the quartet to be freed "immediately and unconditionally," Tehran in essence told Washington to butt out.

The Bush administration says the four are not spies or U.S. government employees. But there is an indisputable sense of vulnerability: On a typical day, there are thousands of Iranian-Americans visiting Iran.

Lurking in the background of this new trouble between Washington and Tehran is a $75 million U.S. fund to promote democracy in the Islamic republic. As a routine, U.S. officials do not identify which individuals or groups receive the money, but the Iranians apparently suspect that at least some of the four are among them.

The Americans being detained are Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Parnaz Azima, a journalist with U.S.-funded Radio Farda; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning specialist affiliated with George Soros's Open Society Institute; and an American who apparently has not yet been formally charged, Ali Shakeri, who helped found the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California-Irvine.

A fifth American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, disappeared on a private business trip to Iran in March. Iranian officials have not disclosed his status.

Iran--and particularly its hard-line officials--have eyed the fund as part of a Washington strategy to engineer a "soft revolution" akin to the Orange Revolution that toppled an authoritarian government in Ukraine more than two years ago. Critics of the administration democracy program predicted last year, when it was launched, that dissidents would feel the wrath of the Iranian government in response.

And the arrests of the Americans are taking place amid a broader, domestic crackdown waged by the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The targets of late include women said to be wearing insufficient head coverings, opposition student groups, labor unions, and even banks.

Says a State Department official of the campaign: "They're beating, harassing, and torturing activists who are just Iranian--not Iranian-Americans. They have the most appalling human rights record imaginable."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with the Associated Press, indicated that the arrests of the Americans would not derail a recent decision to engage Iranian officials on the issue of stabilizing Iraq or change the U.S. position of seeking multilateral talks with Iran over its nuclear program, if it first suspends producing nuclear fuel. Rice's stances did not sit well with Iran watchers who advocate elevating human-rights concerns in the pantheon of U.S.-Iranian issues.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, called Rice's comment "a shameful moment in American diplomacy."

Rice herself, however, said of the pattern of arrests: "It just shows again what kind of regime this is."

The Bush administration has asked two unnamed countries with diplomatic relations with Tehran to urge the Iranians to release the Americans, U.S. News has learned. The efforts of those two come in addition to those of Switzerland, whose embassy in Tehran houses a U.S. interests section.

Some analysts are concerned that the Americans are being held to create bargaining chips for five Iranian officials who were captured by the U.S. military in Iraq. Those five are accused of serving in Iran's Revolutionary Guards and assisting militias that are attacking U.S. troops with explosives and other weapons.

Another theory is that hard-line officials in Iran's security agencies, watching the heavy U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf and U.S. efforts to target alleged Iranian supply networks for Iraqi militias, are responding with their own pressure tactics. Washington is embarking on another round of lobbying at the United Nations Security Council for deeper sanctions against Iran for its refusal to stop making nuclear fuel, which the West fears will find its way to nuclear weapons.

Iranian elites, goes the thinking, are nervous that their society, with U.S. help, could turn on them. "It [Iran's government] thinks that a 67-year-old grandmother [Esfandiari] is going to bring down the regime," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A third line of speculation on the Iranian arrests is that they reflect a struggle for influence between hard-liners and moderates, who favor direct talks with the United States about Iraq and Iran's nuclear program.

U.S. officials are puzzling over Iranian motives. "It's difficult to divine the thinking behind Iranian actions sometimes," says the State Department official. "The United States has always been the third rail of Iranian politics since the revolution."

By Thomas Omestad