The Wilson Center held hostage

Outrage is building over the affair of Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. In December, she went to Tehran to visit her 93-year-old mother, a trip she’d made in the past. This time, she was detained and interrogated, and on May 8 she was thrown into the notorious Evin prison. Esfandiari has been pulled down into the Kafkaesque realm that lies just beneath the surface of Iran–a realm so remote from us that it might as well exist in another dimension.

My own vantage point on this story isn’t remote. I’ve done two stretches at the Wilson Center, the first as a fellow, the second as a public policy scholar. I know Esfandiari, and I’ve known her husband, Shaul Bakhash, even longer–from my graduate student days, when he came out of Khomeini’s Iran and landed in Princeton. I’ve participated in Wilson Center events organized by Esfandiari, and in the fall I wrote a piece for the latest issue of her newsletter, devoted to last summer’s Lebanon war. The issue is a typical Esfandiari product, bringing together an Israeli, an Iranian, a Lebanese, a Syrian, a Turk, and an American. Disclaimer for what follows: the people and the institution are dear to me.

There’s been considerable speculation as to why the Iranian regime decided to turn Esfandiari into a hostage. Well, why not? Let’s remember who we’re dealing with: a clique of messianic-minded, nuke-bent, Holocaust-denying conspiracy theorists who’ve embedded themselves in positions of power, from which they occasionally extend a black hand to haul someone down into their depths. It’s the very nature of the regime, and it would be surprising if it didn’t claim an innocent victim from time to time, to feed the mania.

The only surprise is the choice of Esfandiari. She’s not a dissident campaigner, and she hasn’t made a career of challenging or provoking the regime. But it turns out she’s a very convenient proxy hostage. Her tormentors are using her to humiliate the Wilson Center and, through it, the United States Congress and the U.S. government, which are the mainstays of the Center.

In the campaign to free Esfandiari, there’s been a tendency to obscure this truth, by keeping the focus solely on her, or making inaccurate assertions about the Wilson Center. For example, the Voice of America, in reporting the affair, described the Wilson Center as a “non-governmental academic Center.” It’s a misleading description for an institution established by an act of Congress (PL 90-637, 1968) as the nation’s official memorial to Woodrow Wilson. The President of the United States appoints its board of trustees, Congress provides a third of its budget, and the Center is housed in a wing of the Ronald Reagan Building, a federal complex.

It’s because the Wilson Center inhabits this liminal space between academe and government that it’s a perfect focus for Iranian conspiracy theories. These are on dramatic display in the May 21 statement on Esfandiari issued by the Iranian intelligence ministry. “Certain U.S. institutes, foundations, and organizations [are] aimed at influencing the developments in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the statement asserts. Behind these façades, an “unseen key role [is] played by certain intelligence agents and undercover officials in pushing forth the objectives of such projects.” In particular, the Wilson Center, “whose budget is allocated by the U.S. Congress…. is the connection ring between the Iranians and the U.S. organizations and foundations whose main objective is fortifying the social trends that act in line with the interests of the aliens…. The ultimate goal of those foundations… is aimed at soft overthrowing of the system.”

When the Wilson Center went public with Esfandiari’s case, it revealed that her interrogation focused on its activities, not on anything Esfandiari had said or written.

The [Iranian] questioning [of Esfandiari] focused almost entirely on the activities and programs of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. Dr. Esfandiari answered all questions fully; when she understandably could not remember details of programs stretching back five and even eight years, the staff at the Wilson Center provided her all the information requested…. Repeatedly during the interrogation, Dr. Esfandiari was pressured to make a false confession or to falsely implicate the Wilson Center in activities in which it had no part.

The Wilson Center’s statement then summarized a letter sent by Center president and director Lee Hamilton to Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad on February 20. In it, Hamilton went to extraordinary lengths to portray the Wilson Center as a simple podium:

[Hamilton] pointed out the obvious: that the Wilson Center’s mission is to provide a forum for the exchange of views; that the Wilson Center does not take positions on issues; and that it does not try to influence or to determine specific policies or directions of the Iranian Government or any government in the Middle East. He pointed out that there is no “agenda” behind Wilson Center programs on the Middle East, including Iran; that he would not allow it; nor would Dr. Esfandiari.

It’s clear, then, that the Wilson Center itself is at issue, and I confess that I stirred uneasily when I read this statement. For while it’s absolutely true that Wilson Center programs have no “agenda,” the Wilson Center does have a mission, and it goes beyond serving as a “forum for the exchange of views.” Hamilton may have found it politic to blur or omit the rest of this mission in his appeal to Ahmadinejad, but Iran’s thugs shouldn’t be allowed to presume, even for a moment, that their act of intimidation has compromised it in any way.

The Wilson Center’s mission statement is explicit: “The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars aims to unite the world of ideas to the world of policy by supporting pre-eminent scholarship and linking that scholarship to issues of concern to officials in Washington.” The Wilson Center seeks “to bridge the gap between the world of ideas and the world of policy, bringing them into creative contact, enriching the work of both, and enabling each to learn from the other.” The Center is “not an advocacy think tank developing specific policy recommendations,” but neither is it just a talk shop: “The Center’s outreach emphasizes contacts between scholars and public officials in Congress and the Executive Branch.”

The Wilson Center didn’t always have this clear mandate to engage government. I have a brochure published exactly twenty years ago, defining the mission in a much more diffuse way. There was no explicit mention of contacts between scholars and U.S. officials back then. The Center’s role was to promote “fundamental studies which will illuminate our understanding of past and present.” During my first fellowship, in 1989, the Center had the feel of an academic humanities center transplanted from a campus. (It even had a campus ambience: back then, it still resided in the Smithsonian Castle, and I spent the year way up in the clock tower–truly the closest thing to an ivory tower in Washington.) The director in those days, Charles Blitzer, a man of vast erudition who’d specialized in seventeenth-century English political theory, previously headed the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, and he ran the Wilson Center in the same spirit. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1990 portrayed the Center as a “haven” from “Washington’s seductions,” and noted that Blitzer had “tried to increase the emphasis on pure scholarship–provoking some controversy in the process.”

That controversy nearly wrecked the Center. In the mid-1990s, the Center came under assault by Republicans in Congress, and especially Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who chaired the subcommittee overseeing the Center’s budget. “I don’t see much in the way of tangible benefit [of the Wilson Center] to the people or to the government,” Regula said, in proposing its phase-out. “Many of the members [of Congress] I’ve talked to don’t even know what it is.” At one hearing, Regula contemptuously read out a list of some of the more arcane research projects the Wilson Center had sponsored. At about the same time, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) issued a report criticizing the Center for not contributing to policy debates in Washington. Democrats in Congress had to work hard to save the Center from extinction, and Blitzer (for whom I had a great affection) chose to step down.

The reinvention of the Wilson Center began in 1999, when Lee Hamilton took over. Coming straight from 35 years in Congress, he knew how to manage the critics on the Hill. But more important, he came with a vision of a different kind of Center, one closely attuned to informing foreign policy debates. When I returned to the Wilson Center as a public policy scholar in 2000, the Hamilton era was well underway. The Center had moved into spanking new quarters, and every program had been realigned with the mission of policy relevance. Personally, I liked the change, and it suited me while I wrote about a third of my book Ivory Towers on Sand–to be precise, the chapters on the policy irrelevance of Middle Eastern studies.

The Wilson Center today is a privileged conduit between government and academe, and it’s now urgent to defend that space against its enemies, foreign and domestic. Abroad, there are Middle Eastern governments like Iran’s, which cannot imagine an institution like the Wilson Center as anything but a front for espionage and subversion. But the academic left in America is as doctrinaire as Iran’s fanatics in shunning the United States government as though it were the Great Satan incarnate.

An example is Ervand Abrahamian, an Iran specialist at the City University of New York, who said this in response to Esfandiari’s arrest: “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.” Abrahamian is right about Esfandiari–she hasn’t been an advocate of regime change–but he’s utterly ignorant of the Wilson Center’s mission, which is to engage policy makers on a continuous basis. If Wilson Center fellows distanced themselves from policy makers, there would be no point in the taxpayer maintaining them in Washington. The Center’s fellows and staff could be dispersed to the universities, where they could talk to one another and to Abrahamian–on someone else’s tab.

So the Esfandiari affair is really about this: her right, and the right of all scholars, to enjoy open and private contacts with U.S. policy makers and U.S. public officials. This too is an element of academic freedom, and it’s precisely this element that’s under assault by Iran in Esfandiari’s case. This is why I’m pleased to see the likes of the Middle East Studies Association rising to Esfandiari’s defense: inadvertently, no doubt, they’re defending the mission of the Wilson Center, and the right of every scholar to enter and inhabit that space between academe and government, without being accused, Iran-style, of espionage, collusion, or complicity.

One spin on the Esfandiari case actually undermines that right. Robin Wright of the Washington Post, who can be relied upon to get everything wrong, described the arrest of Esfandiari and other “soft hostages” as “an Iranian reaction to the Bush administration’s $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran.” The Wilson Center even felt compelled to note that it doesn’t receive funding from that pot. Come on. For nearly thirty years, Iran’s leaders have lived in the certainty that Washington is running a massive covert operation to subvert them, one that makes $75 million look like chump change. If they’ve decided you’re a part of the plot, one more proof against you is that you don’t get a share of the overt money. So repeat after me: It’s not Bush’s fault. If you split the responsibility for Esfandiari’s fate, you’re helping to seal it, and undercutting everyone else’s academic freedom.

So what is to be done by the rest of us, beyond signing petitions? (I signed this one.) I don’t support the idea of an academic boycott of Iranian scholars, but Iran’s official representatives are another matter. For example, there’s Iran’s smooth-talking ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who’s finishing his stint in New York. He did the rounds of universities and think tanks this spring, even as Iran barred Esfandiari from leaving his country. Zarif spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations (March 27), the Nixon Center (March 29), and Columbia University’s Middle East Seminar (May 2), and I saw him perform via video link at Harvard University’s Belfer Center (May 8–the day Esfandiari was thrown into prison). No academic institution or think tank should agree to host him, his successor, or any other Iranian official until Esfandiari is freed. Collegial solidarity demands no less, and allows no exceptions.

Beyond that, I recommend doing what I’ve just done: make a gift to the Wilson Center, from the sidebar here. You don’t have to agree with everything it’s sponsored over the last few years to cherish what it legitimizes: scholarship in the nation’s service.

Finally, as someone who’s appreciated the transformation Lee Hamilton has wrought at the Wilson Center, I’d like him to reassure the American people, as well as Ahmadinejad, that the Wilson Center won’t depart from the course he set for it. Indeed, even as Esfandiari languishes in prison, it’s incumbent on the Wilson Center to sponsor discussion and analysis of what her arrest tells us about the situation in Iran (nothing good, I believe), and convey that to officials in Congress and the Executive Branch.

May Haleh soon be among us again.

Update, May 29: A spokesman for Iran’s judiciary made this announcement today: “Esfandiari has been formally charged with endangering national security through propaganda against the system and espionage for foreigners. She has been informed of the charges against her.”