WASHINGTON - Haleh Esfandiari has suffered vicious anti-Semitic attacks in the Iranian media, together with charges that she has been working for Zionists.
But the fact that these libels have not been repeated in official statements about the scholar's detention in Teheran gives her family hope that the Iranian-American's case won't be further complicated, her husband told a press conference Thursday, by the fact that she is married to a Jew.
Like his wife, Shaul Bakhash is Iranian-American. He said the issue of his religion wasn't considered before Esfandiari left to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother in Iran in December. As Esfandiari was preparing to return, Iranian authorities held her for weeks of interrogation, then jailed her on May 8 at the notorious Evin prison. This week they charged her with espionage and endangering national security.
"Let her go," Bakhash appealed before members of the media gathered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, whose Middle East Program is headed by Esfandiari. "These charges are totally unfounded."
Bakhash was accompanied by Woodrow Wilson Center President Lee Hamilton, a former US congressman from Indiana. He said the center and Esfandiari's work received no money from the US government's democratization funds.
The Wilson Center and Esfandiari have been accused by Teheran's Intelligence Ministry of trying to set up networks of Iranians with the ultimate goal of creating a "soft revolution" in Iran, along the lines of the revolutions that ended communist rule in Eastern Europe.
Three other Iranian-Americans are also being held by Iran, and another American has been missing there since March.
Hamilton, a former Congressman who helped author the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommendations on how the Bush administration should proceed in Iraq, has pushed for greater engagement with Teheran, a view long held by Esfandiari and echoed by her husband on Thursday.
"Obviously there are risks for the engagers, but it still seems to me that engagement is better for the long-term," he said.
He added that he understood the United State's "exercise of judgment" to not raise the issue of Esfandiari's fate in its historic meeting with Iran on Monday - the first formal, high-level contact between the two sides in nearly three decades.
But both Bakhash and Hamilton urged the US and other governments to include appeals for Esfandiari's release in any meetings with Iranian officials.
"Our level of concern and anxiety is very hard," Bakhash said of his entire family, which has had no contact with Esfandiari since her imprisonment aside from phone calls to her mother of approximately one minute, several times a week. "All the Iranian-Americans who are being detained should be freed."
Meanwhile, Bakhash and his wife's accounts were briefly frozen by Citibank this week on grounds that Esfandiari had become a "resident" of Iran, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
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.
The US Treasury Department said Wednesday that there was 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 was 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."
AP contributed to this report.