Shaul Bakhash told himself the ordeal was almost over. In calls and e-mails, the George Mason University professor's wife, Haleh Esfandiari, 67, said she hoped to be home in Maryland soon, free at last after more than four months under virtual house arrest in Tehran. The Iranian-born woman, a naturalized American who heads the Middle East program at Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, had flown to Iran in December for a week's visit with her 93-year-old mother—a trip Esfandiari had often made since moving to America in 1980. But this time armed thugs stole her U.S. and Iranian passports just as her stay was ending. Then Iranian intelligence agents summoned her for interrogations of up to eight hours a day. When the questionings stopped in February, Esfandiari told her husband she would fly home as soon as the Iranians issued her a new passport. But last week, Bakhash got a 2 a.m. phone call. It was his wife's sister, saying Esfandiari had just been hauled away to Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Bakhash fought against despair. "We're hoping it's just a colossal mistake by some overzealous security officials," he told NEWSWEEK late last week.
But the arrest was anything but an isolated incident. In the name of national security and what they call "public order," Iran's hard-liners are frantically lashing out at anyone they imagine might somehow pose a challenge to their increasingly unpopular rule. The Revolutionary Guards have been staging sweeps against "immodestly dressed" young people, while the Intelligence Ministry has been rounding up women's rights activists, labor organizers and Iranian-American visitors like Esfandiari. She's one of three women with dual citizenship currently listed by the State Department as detained in Iran. One Iranian intelligence source, asking not to be named discussing the ministry's affairs, says Esfandiari was targeted simply because the Wilson Center has issued more invitations to Iranian scholars than any other American institution. The fact that she's married to Bakhash, an outspoken critic of the regime, doesn't help her case either. Still, the source says, she'll probably be released eventually—after the ministry finishes trying to squeeze a "confession" out of her. "They just want to scare her," the intelligence source says.
The hard-liners are feeling pretty nervous themselves lately. The Iranian economy is wobbling, the Western press keeps alluding to covert plans for military strikes on their nuclear facilities and the White House makes no secret of its desire for regime change in Tehran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began talking publicly more than a year ago about a $75 million program to promote Iranian democracy, and now the hard-liners are imagining enemies everywhere. They're especially fearful of feminists, trade unionists and the like. "The government knows well that if they allow civil-rights activists to have a public gathering, it can easily become a social movement that can soon get out of hand," says Abbas Abdi, who led the storming of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and now is one of the country's most outspoken reformists. The big fear is a repetition of the people-power uprisings that toppled antidemocratic regimes a few years ago in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine.
But the spreading crackdown is dividing the hard-liners. Since mid-April, the Revolutionary Guards' morality cops—with the tacit support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei—have declared all-out war against young women wearing pushed-back headscarves and tight jeans and their male counterparts with spiky hair and stylishly plucked eyebrows. The cops don't bother filing formal charges; they just take names and rough up anyone who talks back. The Intelligence Ministry argues that enforcing the dress code is counterproductive and will only stir up dissent among otherwise apolitical kids. The kids agree, as does President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a source close to him tells NEWSWEEK, asking not to be named on such a loaded topic. Rather than proving the strength of the regime, the twin crackdowns are yet another sign of the splits among Iran's leadership.
In February the Wilson Center's president, Lee Hamilton, wrote to Ahmadinejad saying Esfandiari was not engaged in any subversive activity and pleading for her freedom. "It was a simple letter setting out the facts," Hamilton says. "We just want Haleh back." So far there has been no reply.