- By Christine Y. ChenChristine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
As noted in yesterday’s Morning Brief, esteemed scholar Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was imprisoned in Tehran this week. Back in December, Dr. Esfandiari was literally on her way to the airport to fly back to her home in Washington when her taxi was stopped by three men with knives. They seized all her belongings, including her Iranian and her American passports. Esfandiari, a dual Iranian-American citizen, went to seek a replacement passport but was denied. Since then, she had been under virtual house arrest at her 93-year-old mother’s home, allowed to leave only to visit Iran’s intelligence ministry, where she was questioned for hours and hours upon end. That is, until Tuesday, when she was arrested and thrown into Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.
This is the most prominent detention of an U.S. citizen in Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis. There were a couple new developments yesterday. The State Department condemned Esfandiari’s imprisonment, as well as the detention of Parnaz Azima, a correspondent for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, whose passport was confiscated in January. Esfandiari’s mother attempted to visit her in prison, but was turned away. And a hard-line Iranian news agency charged that Esfandiari heads up the Iran section for AIPAC, an absolutely ludicrous accusation. Esfandiari is known for hosting wide-ranging discussions on Iranian affairs, taking all viewpoints into account.
Sadly, Esfandiari was likely not very surprised about her detention. In late 2005, the journalist-turned-academic wrote an article for FP called “Iranian Women, Please Stand Up.” In the article, she profiled a women’s glossy magazine called Zanan, and described how writers for the magazine had been imprisoned at various times on trumped-up charges. While writing the piece, Esfandiari visited Iran to see family members and did a little research on the side. She certainly was aware of the dangers, telling me that she was reluctant to communicate over e-mail from Tehran, and that she would file her story only once she was safely out of the country. Esfandiari is smart, objective, a terrific scholar and an excellent writer. Unfortunately, instead of writing about people who’ve been imprisoned, she’s become a prisoner herself. Our thoughts are with her and her family, and we hope she is released soon.