Academic from U.S. center arrested in Iran

WASHINGTON Wed May 9, 2007 3:10pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Washington-based academic with dual Iranian and U.S. citizenship has been arrested in Tehran after meeting with officials at the Ministry of Intelligence, her U.S. institution said on Wednesday.

Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the U.S. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Middle East program, was arrested on Tuesday and taken to Tehran's Evin prison, according to a statement issued by the center and her family.

The statement also said she needed medical attention but did not say why. She was allowed one phone call from the prison, it said. Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the arrest and said Esfandiari was among a number of U.S.-Iranians being detained by Tehran.

Iran has also confiscated the passport of Parnaz Azima, a reporter based in Prague for U.S.-funded Radio Farda, which broadcasts programs about Iran. Azima went to visit her ailing mother in Iran in January and has been prevented from leaving.

"We want to see them returned back to their families," said McCormack. "These two women are an academic on the one hand, a journalist on the other. They are both grandmothers and so I am not sure what it is the Iranian government has to fear from these ladies," he added.

Esfandiari flew to Tehran in December to visit her mother. As she drove to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington she was robbed of her belongings, including her U.S. and Iranian passports, the statement said.

INTERROGATION

She applied for replacement Iranian travel documents and was interviewed by a representative of Iran's intelligence ministry, which was then followed by weeks of interrogations focusing on her work for the center, it said.

The center's president, former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, sent a letter in February to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad explaining the work of the organization and seeking his help in securing Esfandiari's return to the United States.

"The president has yet to acknowledge or reply to it," the center said. "Attempts to resolve this issue through various channels and without publicity were also not successful."

Hamilton was the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group which last year issued recommendations for ending the violence in Iraq, including engaging with longtime U.S. foe Iran.

The center's Middle East program focuses on the political, social and economic developments in the region and examines U.S. interests in the region and the threat of terrorism.

U.S. officials also believe Tehran may also be holding former FBI official Robert Levinson, who went missing early in March while on a visit to the Iranian island of Kish. Iran has denied it is holding him.

Levinson's wife, Christine, made a public appeal on Wednesday for help in locating her husband on a Web site her family set up, www.helpboblevinson.com, and met with State Department officials in Washington for more information.

"I've reached out to the U.S. government and the Iranian government, but nothing has changed," she said, adding that she was unsure if a letter she sent two weeks ago to the Iranian president had been received.

McCormack said Washington had not heard from the Iranian government, to which it had made five separate inquiries about the former FBI agent, or from three other countries that had offered to assist in tracking him down.

"We're doing everything that we possibly can that we think is effective in trying to determine his whereabouts and to get him back safely here with his family as soon as possible," he said.

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