Wilson Center Welcomes Home Haleh Esfandiari

Cover story, Centerpoint, October 2007

Sep 25, 2007

The Wilson Center celebrates the return of Middle East Program Director Haleh Esfandiari after her terrible eight-month ordeal in Iran. After spending four months stranded in Iran, enduring long hours of interrogation, followed by nearly four months in prison on erroneous charges of conspiring against the Iranian regime, Esfandiari has returned to her family, friends, and work.

"Getting back to work is the best therapy," Esfandiari told Centerpoint. "For eight months, I'd been dreaming of my first staff meeting [after returning] and saying ‘I'm back!'" But she was unable to sneak back to the office. The entire Wilson Center staff, scholars, and some Board and Council members assembled to rejoice in her freedom and marvel at her exuberance and determination.

"The media identified her as a grandmother but she is no ordinary grandmother, for no ordinary grandmother could emerge from these tribulations with such vigor and strength," said Wilson Center President and Director Lee H. Hamilton, who was integral to her release. At the Center's welcome home reception in her honor, he said, "Haleh may be slight of frame, but she has a spirit and a spine of steel."

Robbed of her Freedom
During the last week of December, Esfandiari spent a week in Tehran visiting her 93-year-old mother, as she does every year. She had visited without incident twice the year before. This time, however, on December 30, a green car cut off Esfandiari's taxi en route to the airport and three men emerged wielding knives. They took her suitcase and purse, including her Iranian and American passports.

"In Iran, a man is not supposed to touch [an unfamiliar] woman but the man who took my bags searched the pockets of my winter coat and he was quite rude," Esfandiari recounted. She immediately reported the robbery to the police. But when she applied for a new passport and was denied, she realized this was no random robbery.

Unable to leave the country, Esfandiari stayed with her mother and was called into the Ministry of Intelligence repeatedly, often for eight hours per day, to talk about her work. Esfandiari insisted that the Center's work was transparent, that she had nothing to hide, and that they could confirm this simply by looking at the Wilson Center's website.

"Our meetings are open to the public," she told them. "We are free to host any meeting on any topic and anybody can attend them." Shortly thereafter, the Center faxed dozens of pages of materials on the Center's activities, which Esfandiari had to translate into Farsi for her interrogators.

"I was surprised by my interrogator's misunderstanding and misperception of the work we do at the Wilson Center," she said. "I spent a long time trying to convince them that I deal with the whole Middle East, not just Iran. They seemed to think I was busy with Iran morning, noon, and night."

Her interrogator questioned the participation of Iranian scholars in Wilson Center meetings. "They thought that by inviting Iranian scholars to conferences, I had some hidden motive, that I was creating a network of academics to introduce to policymakers and the press." The interrogator also probed about U.S. think tanks. "Iran has active think tanks. This isn't a foreign concept to them," she said, "but Iran can control the ones there."

Throughout her career, Esfandiari has strived to promote dialogue and understanding between Iranians and Americans, including a multitude of viewpoints, yet she and the interrogator seemed to talk in circles. The government then arrested Esfandiari, charging her with trying to foment a ‘velvet revolution' akin to those in recent years in Georgia and Ukraine.

Her incarceration, and the detainment of several other Iranian-American scholars, begs the broader question of what it means for the future of scholarly research and debate if such efforts might land academics in jail. "Authoritarian and repressive governments are suspicious of dialogue, of people brought together in a situation they cannot control," said Wilson Center Deputy Director Michael Van Dusen. "We're an institution dedicated to getting the right people in a room to discuss public policy issues. I worry we have a problem in Iran and perhaps elsewhere" if such dialogue is misconstrued as destructive.

Determined to Survive
On May 8, Esfandiari was arrested and brought to Evin Prison, where she spent 105 days in solitary confinement. She maintains that she was never physically or emotionally mistreated; she and the interrogator maintained a polite rapport and the guards were kind. But she did not have any visitors or contact with her lawyer and was only permitted to make brief phone calls to her mother once or twice a week.

Esfandiari survived by committing herself to a rigorous exercise routine, walking and floor exercises, often six to eight hours each day. She stayed disciplined and strong, never shedding a tear.

"I found strength in the hope that people were working to get me out. My mother, who is deeply religious, said she prayed for me. Then my interrogator said my boss Lee Hamilton had written a letter and I had a glimmer of hope."

Through the interrogator, Esfandiari borrowed books from another jailed scholar, Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American professor and Open Society Institute consultant who has since been released. "My favorites were the Russian novels and the French mystery," she said. Allowed to receive fruits and vegetables each week because she'd lost so much weight, Esfandiari sent Tajbakhsh some fruit through the guards. "Then on the day I was released, a whole bag of fruit arrived and I asked the guards to give it to Kian," she said. "I thought if he got a whole bag, he would realize I got out."

Bringing Her Home
Esfandiari was unaware of the unrelenting efforts around the world calling for her release. "You sit in solitary, cut off from the world, and you don't know who is doing what," she said. When feeling despair, she reminded herself that her family and colleagues would not forget her. Two months into her incarceration, she gained access to Iranian newspapers, just when her story was no longer being reported in them.

Unbeknownst to her, organizations, politicians, family, former students, colleagues, friends, and concerned individuals wrote letters and articles, signed petitions, and spoke out on her behalf. Now home and learning about these efforts, she said, "I am so touched and humbled by the outpouring of friendship and love, the messages, the flowers and candy, even from strangers."

Perhaps the defining moment in securing Esfandiari's freedom came when Center Director Lee Hamilton sent a carefully crafted letter to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Ayatollah Khamenei, pleading to him on humanitarian grounds. Previous letters Hamilton had written to Iran's president, vice president, and head of parliament all went without response but Ayatollah Khamenei wrote back to Hamilton. The letter was delivered via the United Nations, and was reportedly the first time the Ayatollah has ever written to an American.

Freed on August 21st after her mother put up the deed to her apartment as bail, Esfandiari soon received a new Iranian passport. On September 3, she flew to Vienna, Austria where she burst into tears of joy upon seeing her sister, two close friends, and her husband, Shaul Bakhash, who flew from America to reunite with her. Also waiting in Vienna was her replacement U.S. passport. On September 6, she arrived home in Washington.

A Lifelong Scholar
Born and raised in Tehran, Esfandiari worked there as a journalist, taught at the Institute of Mass Communication, and served as deputy secretary general of the Women's Organization of Iran. She immigrated to America with her husband Shaul and daughter Haleh in 1980 but she never stopped appreciating and teaching Persian language and culture and dedicated herself to helping Americans understand it.

For 14 years, Esfandiari taught Persian language and literature at Princeton University and then arrived in Washington, D.C. where she was a guest scholar, then a fellow, at the Wilson Center from 1995-1996. Here she wrote the book Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution, which was published by Woodrow Wilson Center Press. At the time, the Wilson Center did not yet have a Middle East Program and asked Esfandiari to organize a few meetings on the Middle East. The initiative continued to grow, always with Esfandiari at the helm, evolving into the vibrant program it is today.

Esfandiari continues to espouse dialogue between governments and between Iranians and Americans but acknowledges, "Iranian scholars who never feared ramifications may think twice about coming to conferences for a while." Van Dusen said, "If we're going to have any relations with Iranians, we've got to start somewhere and getting intellectuals together is a role we can and should play."

Taking it one day at a time, Esfandiari said, "The past is the past. I'm living in the present and will look to the future and hope for the best."

by Dana Steinberg, Outreach & Communications

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