What Iranian hard-liners have in common with the White House

They fear George Soros, as well as women's rights advocates. Behind the troubling arrest of Haleh Esfandiari and other Iranian reformers.

Published May 31, 2007 9:39PM (EDT)

One day after the Bush administration met with Iranian officials Monday, dusting off the unused machinery of diplomacy they've kept locked in a suburban Virginia storage facility since 2000, Iranian hard-liners flouted the U.S. by formally charging three Americans with espionage against the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The three are Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Kian Tajbakhsh of the Open Society Institute, and Parnaz Azima of Radio Farda.

Iran insists they were part of a growing spy network, but amazingly -- in yet another example of how much Iranian extremists have in common with their right-wing American counterparts -- part of the case against them is that, according to Ahmadinejad's government, they work for organizations funded by none other than George Soros. According to the BBC, Iranian officials claim the globally renowned Middle East scholar Esfandiari confessed to being part of a Soros-funded network "with the potential of future broader expansion, whose main objective is overthrowing the system."

But Esfandiari's lawyer, 2003 Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, denies her client is part of an anti-government Soros network. In an Op-Ed in the International Herald Tribune, Ebadi noted that the real problem is not Soros-funded organizations but a semi-secret $75 million Bush administration program to "import" democracy to Iran. The effort funds Azima's employer Radio Farda, and has channeled money to exiled Iranian groups and opposition figures inside the country. As Ebadi wrote in the Op-Ed she co-authored with Muhammed Sahimi, "Washington's policy of 'helping' the cause of democracy in Iran has backfired. It has made it more difficult for the more moderate factions within Iran's power hierarchy to argue for an accommodation with the West."

I saw Ebadi speak about a year ago at a convening of the Global Women's Action Network for Children sponsored by Jordan's Queen Rania. I met hundreds of women like Ebadi and Esfandiari working for the civil rights, education and economic empowerment of women and children all over the world, including in Muslim countries we are supposed to believe "hate our freedom." It was inspiring to see women spreading reform all over the world; it's dispiriting to think our government, in the name of spreading freedom, is contributing to Iran's cracking down on such reformers. It's probably just another unintended consequence of the Bush administration's ignorance about the world. Although it's also hard not to notice another thing Iranian and American right-wing fundamentalists have in common: They don't like George Soros, and they don't like women's rights advocates, either.

By Joan Walsh

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