The bank accounts of an American scholar charged by Iran with espionage were briefly frozen by Citibank this week on grounds that Haleh Esfandiari had become a "resident" of Iran.
Her husband, Shaul Bakhash, also learned that his Citibank accounts had been closed, even though he has not visited Iran since 1980.
In a letter that arrived Wednesday at the couple's Maryland home, Citibank said the accounts had been frozen "in accordance with US Sanctions regulations," which stipulate that US banks are prohibited from servicing accounts for residents of Iran.
Esfandiari, an Iranian-American who holds dual citizenship, has maintained her Iranian passport to visit family in Teheran. She has been trapped in Iran since December, when her passport and possessions were stolen in Teheran as she went to the airport to return home.
Esfandiari was subsequently barred from leaving the country, and was jailed May 8 in Teheran's Evin Prison. Iran charged her and two other Iranian-Americans this week with espionage and endangering national security, a move that was widely condemned by the US and others.
The Treasury Department said Wednesday that there is no law stipulating that bank accounts of dual US-Iranian citizens must be closed if they go to Iran, unless they have been specifically designated by the US government for sanctions.
After a stressful day of inquiries and appeals for help, Bakhash was informed by a senior Citibank official late Wednesday that the bank would again do business with him and his wife.
"We deeply regret our mistake in blocking certain accounts," said Shannon Bell, Citibank's deputy director of public relations in New York. "We are requesting that the Treasury Department expedite our request to reactivate other accounts that are subject to Treasury restrictions regarding individuals in Iran. We are in contact with the family and have apologized for the stress this inconvenience has caused."
Bakhash described Citibank's decision to freeze the accounts as "ridiculous" and "arbitrary."
He said Esfandiari's paycheck from the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she is director of Middle East programs, is deposited directly into her Citibank account. Because she is not in the country, she could not change the payment arrangements.
"Clearly someone at the bank recognized my wife's name from the newspaper accounts and took action without contacting me. We did not even receive a phone call before the letter," he told The Washington Post. "We have had money there for 10 years, and I didn't expect to be treated so shabbily after such a long time."