Interview: Haleh Esfandiari

Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari discusses her 105 days of solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison, and explains why the Obama administration shouldn't stop pressing the Islamic Republic on human rights.


Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American academic who heads the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, returned to Tehran in late 2006 to visit her then 93-year-old mother. As she was heading to the airport to leave Iran, her car was forced off the road by armed men who stole her belongings and her passport. As she attempted to obtain replacement travel documents, she was questioned by Iranian intelligence officials about her work at the Wilson Center. On May 8, 2007, she was formally arrested and transferred to the notorious Evin prison. She was kept in solitary confinement, often blindfolded and totally disconnected from the outside world.

After an international campaign calling for her release, the Iranian authorities freed Esfandiari after 105 days of imprisonment, on Aug. 21, 2007. She recently published My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran, detailing her experiences leading up to and during her imprisonment. Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner caught up with Esfandiari this week to discuss her book and to hear her thoughts on the Iranian regime’s continuing attempts to cope with the protests that swept the country following June’s presidential election.


Foreign Policy: The Iranian government held you in Iran for eight months and in solitary confinement for 105 days. In your book, you wrote that you were sometimes interrogated for six to eight hours at a time. What question did they ask more than any other question? What did they want to know?

Haleh Esfandiari: They were interested, basically, in the nature of my work at the Wilson Center. They would say: OK, who is financing the work of these centers? I would say look, just go on our Web site. And of course, we get funds from different organizations: from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Luce Foundation, and the Soros Foundation. They focused on the Soros Foundation. They said, aha! Soros was involved in promoting a soft revolution in what used to be the Soviet Union. And now they are focusing on Iran.

Don’t forget: I was arrested under the Bush administration, and they were very suspicious of the administration. There was this loose talk going on in Washington about regime change. And "rogue states," the "axis of evil" — all these things. Plus, Congress had allocated $75 million to promote democracy in Iran. So there is this sense of paranoia among the Intelligence Ministry and the government of President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.

FP: You mentioned the $75 million Congress allocated to democracy programs in Iran. Do you still believe, even after the June protests, that it is counterproductive for the United States to provide money to Iranian NGOs for democracy promotion programs?

HE: Every time we had a representative of NGOs speaking at the Wilson Center, they would say we are not going to touch this money because this would give the regime a reason to limit our activities or close our organization. So, my argument all along has been that [the U.S. government should] get in touch with the civil society people in Iran. If they want to accept it, they’ll take it. If they don’t want to accept it, don’t try and do it through back channels.

If an NGO thinks they can, hypothetically, take $1 million from the U.S. to set up educational workshops, not necessarily to promote democracy but to do vocational training for men and women, why not? Give it to them. The people on the ground always know best, better than the people who are just sitting [in Washington] and judging the situation from afar.

FP: Did your detention change your opinion about the Iranian government?

HE: Sure. I truly was very disappointed in them. I can understand their feeling of being under siege by the United States, but I cannot understand why such a powerful government, who looks at itself as the strongest power in the Persian Gulf, would worry about a soft revolution. … [A]t the end [of the imprisonment], I wasn’t sure why they arrested me. But now, two years later, I can understand. When, now, they have gone after their own people and brought the same accusations against them.

FP: Do you think the Iranian government will begin accusing members of the opposition movement of the same things which they accused you?

HE: They have accused them. They have accused former Vice President [Muhammad Ali] Abtahi. They have accused [Iranian reformer Saeed] Hajjarian. They have accused a number of cabinet ministers and former members of parliament for being part of this effort of bringing about change through soft means.

They look at the Green movement just as they looked at the Orange movement [in Ukraine] and the Rose movement [in Georgia]. Which is shocking to me, because Mr. Karroubi and Mr. Mousavi and the rest all have perfect revolutionary credentials. They didn’t want a revolution; they were basically talking about change, and that was that. They didn’t want to overthrow the regime.


FP: Reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi has charged that some of his supporters who were arrested after the June election protests were tortured and raped in prison. This week, Iranian state media reported that the government might prosecute Karroubi for his statements. You said you were not abused in Evin prison, but are you confident other people were treated humanely?

HE: No. I’m not at all confident. I believe what Mr. Karroubi says, and there are enough documents and there is a history of Evin pre- and post-revolution, where people were arrested, beaten, and tortured. You have the example of the Canadian journalist [Zahra Kazemi] [six] years ago. She was arrested outside Evin prison, taken in, and beaten to death. I was terribly frightened when they took me to jail because I thought that this could happen to me, too. I mean, when I say I was well-treated, I mean that I was not tortured and beaten, but I was in solitary confinement, blindfolded, and facing the wall in interrogations, not knowing whether it was day or night, not knowing the time, cut off from the rest of the world. I just had one visit in those three months.

They have gone after the opposition leaders … [but so far] they haven’t touched Karroubi, [presidential candidate Mir Hossein] Mousavi, and [former President Mohammad] Khatami. I don’t believe that they will go after them. Why turn them into martyrs? Karroubi is a cleric, and it seldom happens that you go after a cleric. There is a lot of talk that he should go in front of a clerical court and explain the allegations of rape and torture. But then on the other hand, something must have been going on in Kahrizak [prison], or else why did Mr. [Ali] Khamenei order the closure of Kahrizak?

FP: Do you see any sea change among Iranian-American intellectuals regarding engaging with Iran?

HE: I’ll talk about myself because each of us has a different opinion on this issue. I still believe in engagement. But in Geneva two weeks ago and next week in Vienna, when [the Western powers and Iran] sit and talk, the human rights issues must also be on the table. They should not just focus on the nuclear issue. That’s what the Iranians would love to do. But no, they should also talk about the human rights issue, because it’s very important.

Look, we have three American hikers sitting in jail somewhere in Iran. You have an Iranian-American, Kian Tajbakhsh, sitting in jail. You have Maziar Bahari, the Canadian-American who worked for Newsweek, sitting in jail. Plus, there are thousands of Iranian activists who are sitting in jail. Talk about them — talk about them all the time! What really helped me get out was this international pressure, day in and day out. …You have to bring pressure.

FP: Do you think the government effectively squashed the movement that arose during last June’s election, or will the protesters be back?

HE: Oh sure, they will still be around. This has been the story of the younger Iranian generation in the last 30 years. They come out into the street, they protest, they are sent home, the universities are attacked, they keep quiet for a year — and then they come out again. The people who were in the streets 30 years ago are now in the government; the people who were in the streets 20 years ago are also in there. You have one generation after another coming out in the streets and protesting.

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