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September 24, 09

NEWS / Iranian Scholar Sees Her Arrest Based on Fear of Revolution

Haleh Esfandiari details confinement and interrogation in new book

By Howard Cincotta
Special Correspondent

Washington — When Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari was robbed at knifepoint on the way to Tehran’s airport in December 2006, she assumed it was a frightening but isolated incident, especially since she had been traveling to Iran for years to visit her aged mother.

She was wrong. Instead, her ordeal was only beginning, an ordeal that would stretch over many months. It culminated in 105 days of solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and relentless interrogations by two men she calls her “constant and unwanted companions.”

Esfandiari, founding director of Middle East programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, tells the dramatic tale of her ordeal, and her life, in a new book, My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.


What was the motive for arresting a 67-year-old grandmother whose chief occupation was organizing conferences and academic exchanges dealing with Middle Eastern affairs? Esfandiari remains unsure, but says that, over time, she grew to understand the mindset of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.

“They are obsessed with the idea that the United States is planning regime change in Iran,” she said in a September 16 book talk at the World Affairs Council in Washington.

They don’t believe the United States will attack them militarily, according to Esfandiari. “But they see research centers, think tanks and even universities as facades for advancing the aims of the U.S. government by means of a ‘velvet revolution’ like Georgia and Ukraine.”

Through interrogations that could stretch for eight hours or longer, Esfandiari was unable to convince them that the work of the Wilson Center and similar institutions was all open and public, and that she was the unlikeliest of individuals to have been chosen to conduct a secret program of fomenting anything like a revolution, velvet or otherwise.

In fact, she found the Persian term for “velvet revolution” so unfamiliar that at first she didn’t understand what her questioners were asking.

“We know about the obvious stuff,” she quotes one of her interrogators as saying in her book. “Now write down the hidden agenda. … Tell us about the hidden layers.”

Before her imprisonment, she spent hours trying to prove there were no such “hidden layers” by telephoning Washington to arrange for printouts of Web pages and other public materials from the Wilson Center.

In Esfandiari’s view, this conspiracy scenario is exactly the one that Iranian prosecutors are now using in the mass arrests and trials of demonstrators following the disputed presidential election in June. She contends that, to the contrary, the political opposition had no interest in revolution, only in modest change and “opening the civil space” in Iran.

“They poured into the streets not for revolution, but with signs saying ‘Where Is My Vote?’” she said.

Esfandiari believes the hardliners in the government simply panicked and manipulated the election results because they long have feared mass public demonstrations such as those that launched the Islamic Revolution in 1979.


Despite being detained and questioned in Tehran for months, Esfandiari was deeply shocked when she was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, with its notorious reputation in the past as a place of prisoner abuse and arbitrary executions.

Although she always was treated with respect by her male interrogators and female guards, Esfandiari continued to be blindfolded and subjected to prolonged questioning and intimidation designed to elicit a confession of secretly plotting against the government.

Once in prison, Esfandiari vowed to fight despair by not thinking of her family, even turning down the offer of a dish called adas pollo — rice, lentils and raisins — that was a favorite of her two granddaughters.

Instead, she established a rigorous program of exercise and constant walking during the day. As she paced back and forth, she wrote two books in her head, even editing paragraphs and moving chapters. “I didn’t want to write anything down that they could take away,” she said.

One book was a biography of her paternal grandmother, Khanum Jan, who was a powerful influence on her when she was growing up in Iran. The other was a children’s story for her granddaughters.

Initially, she had only the Quran to read, but later the guards provided her with books in Persian and English. The guards also brought her English-language novels that she shared with another Iranian American, Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant with the nongovernmental organization Open Society Institute, who was also being held in solitary confinement.

The last book she read in prison was a spy story about an imaginary military build-up in Cuba called Our Man in Havana. Unlike Esfandiari’s situation, however, the 1958 novel by British writer Graham Greene was a comedy.

Esfandiari repeatedly told herself that she was 67 years old and had lived a wonderful life. “They can’t take that away from me,” she said in an interview on National Public Radio. “They can take away my freedom but they can’t take away my past — and that gives me a lot of courage.”


Esfandiari gradually became aware that her family and the Wilson Center were conducting a broad international campaign to secure her release.

The turning point came when a personal letter from Lee Hamilton, head of the Wilson Center, to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei received a positive response from his office. Esfandiari’s mother handed over the deed to her Tehran apartment as bail for her daughter’s release.

Esfandiari remains devoted to her homeland and to the need for dialogue and mutual respect among nations.

“I continue to believe that the governments of Iran and the United States should sit at the same table and talk to each other,” she writes. “Thirty years of estrangement have yielded nothing of value, and I believe that change is more likely to come to an Iran that is engaged with the rest of the world rather than isolated from it.”


Tags: personal letter,


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