Iran Charges Iranian-American Academic With Trying to Topple Tehran Regime

Iran on Monday charged detained Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari with allegedly seeking to topple the ruling Islamic establishment, state-run television reported.

Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, has been held at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since early May.

Fast Facts: Haleh Esfandiari Timeline

State TV, quoting an Iranian Intelligence Ministry statement, said she and the Wilson Center were conspiring together to topple the government by setting up a network "against the sovereignty of the country. This is an American designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country."

Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, cautioned that the information he received from an Intelligence Ministry statement did not indicate that his wife had been formally charged. He also denied the allegations.

"Any implication that my wife was involved in a plan in a revolution — soft or otherwise — is totally without foundation," he said in a telephone interview from his home in the U.S. state of Maryland. A spokeswoman for the Center also called the claims untrue.

The state TV broadcast, quoting the Intelligence Ministry, was the first time Iran has detailed its allegations against Esfandiari, and by doing so, it effectively charged her with the severe security crime. It was not immediately clear when Esfandiari will stand trial or if the trial will be public.

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."

The Intelligence Ministry also accused the New York-based Soros Foundation of being involved in the network, and Iran's secret services claimed other, unidentified American institutions were working with U.S. intelligence agencies to target other countries, state TV said. It did not elaborate.

A telephone message left with the Soros Foundation was not immediately returned.

Esfandiari, who has been living in the U.S. since 1980, has for years brought prominent Iranians to Washington to talk about the situation in Iran, some of whom have been detained and subsequently questioned back home.

Her defenders in the U.S. say some of those she brought to the U.S. were supporters of the Iranian government who sought to explain Tehran's stance to Americans.

Esfandiari came to Iran in December to visit her 93-year-old mother, but later that month was prevented from leaving the country when three masked men with knives stole her luggage and passport as she headed to the airport to leave, according to the Wilson Center. In the weeks before her arrest earlier this month, she was called in for questioning daily on her activities, the center says.

Her arrest came amid increasing restrictions on domestic non-governmental organizations — particularly women's rights groups — and other critics by the hard-line government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iranian authorities have stepped up their warnings that the United States aims to use internal critics to destabilize the Iranian government amid the mounting tensions between the two countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said Esfandiari "ought to be released and she ought to be released immediately."

Other Iranian-Americans have also been prohibited from leaving Iran in recent months, including journalist Parnaz Azima, who works for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda. Another American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, disappeared in March after going to Iran's resort island of Kish, and his whereabouts are unknown.

The Wilson Center is a nonpartisan institution established by Congress in 1968 and funded through private and public funds, according to its Web site. Its Middle East program focuses on several areas, including "analysis of internal domestic and social developments in Iran; the aspiration of the younger generation for reform and expansion of individual liberties," according to the site.