Haleh Esfandiari is perhaps best known for spending 105 days in solitary confinement in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison in 2007, but it was her highly respected work as director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center in D.C. that put her behind bars.
Not that the Iran-born professor, author and think tank scholar did anything wrong. Quite the contrary, she had simply spent a lifetime studying, dissecting and challenging Middle Eastern politics, culture and policy. The Iranian government, however, saw her as part of a subversive U.S. plot to overthrow the clerical regime.
On the night of Dec. 30, 2006, Esfandiari, who had been visiting her elderly mother in Iran, was on her way to the Tehran airport for a flight back to the U.S. when she was confronted by three men who robbed her at knifepoint and stole her passport and belongings. Unable to leave the country, Esfandiari was forced to visit the Iranian police, who refused to allow her to board an airplane. She ended up incarcerated at Evin Prison under charges of espionage and endangering national security.
Iranian intelligence spent months interrogating Esfandiari on the inner workings of the Wilson Center and her connections to opposition activists inside Iran. Back home, the scholar’s friends and family mobilized a high-profile campaign to get her released.
Esfandiari, a former journalist in Iran who founded the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program in 1997, was eventually released and wrote a book about her experience titled “My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.” The book was published in 2009 and Esfandiari went back to the Wilson Center to resume her leadership of the Middle East Program.
The daughter of an Iranian botanist and Austrian mother, Esfandiari wrote for Iran’s largest daily newspaper in the 1970s but increasingly chafed under the repressive rule of the Western-backed Shah. She then worked as deputy secretary-general of the Women’s Organization of Iran and deputy director of a cultural foundation until the start of the Iranian Revolution. With a young daughter in tow, she and her husband fled the upheaval and settled in the United States, where Esfandiari taught Persian language and literature at Princeton until 1994.
A year later, she joined the Wilson Center. She has since stepped down as director of its Middle East Program but remains on staff there and frequently pens op-eds on subjects ranging from the Islamic State to the Iran nuclear deal.
The Washington Diplomat recently sat down with Esfandiari in her tidy Wilson Center office for a wide-ranging interview about her life, the state of the Middle East, imprisoned American journalist Jason Rezaian and more.
The Washington Diplomat: Why did the Iranian government incarcerate you? What did they want to know?
Haleh Esfandiari: I paid very dearly for running the Middle East Program and being at the Wilson Center because I was put in jail because of my activities here…. The Intelligence Ministry was obsessed with proving that the U.S. government was plotting regime change in Iran and was attempting to do so through the influence of intellectuals, academics, foundations and think tanks. They pretended to believe that I was part of this conspiracy as director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center in Washington. They hoped by incarcerating and interrogating me they would obtain the ‘proof’ for their theory. For several months they questioned me intensely about my activities at the Wilson Center.
TWD: Why were you in Iran?
Esfandiari: I started going back to Iran in 1994 for personal reasons. My parents were aging and they could no longer travel so I decided to go back and it was under President [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and things were opening up. I used to go two to three times a year. I never thought this would happen to me.
TWD: How, exactly, did this happen to you?
Esfandiari: It was just amazing. They [masked assailants] stopped the car and they took everything and I became a paperless person. I had to go the next day to the police and it took literally 48 hours for me to find out this was not your regular robbery; it was something pre-planned by the intelligence minister to stop me from leaving the country. Within three days, the interrogation started. I was eight months under country arrest and I spent 105 days in solitary confinement at the infamous Evin Prison.
TWD: Does it deserve its infamy?
Esfandiari: Oh yes. I’m a student of Iran so when they told me they are taking me to Evin it was as if the whole sky collapsed because I knew that once I’m in there nobody can do anything for me. I had heard and read stories about torture, mental and physical harassment — all these things. At least I was spared torture and physical harassment. They thought if they took me to prison I would confess to anything they wanted me to. But I was 67 years old and I had had a good life. If they kidnapped or killed me, so what? I said, ‘Look, whatever I told you outside the prison I’m going to repeat inside the prison, in public, on TV, whatever.’ I didn’t hide anything because I didn’t have anything to hide.
TWD: What were the conditions like inside the prison?
Esfandiari: Sleeping on the floor, no pillow, just a blanket — blindfolded when I was taken for interrogation eight or nine hours a day. The same questions over and over again to make sure that at some stage they can catch me in a discrepancy if you don’t repeat the same thing.
When I would come back to my cell I would pace and repeat the whole interrogation to myself. I decided I wasn’t going to show any weakness or sadness in front of them. I tried to be very strong. If I wanted to cry I would cry under the shower or when I was lying on the floor. They had their own ways of constantly repeating that no one is thinking of you outside and if you cooperate we will let you go, and so on. Eventually, they let me go.
TWD: What advice do you have for the family of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was arrested by Iranian authorities in July 2014 on espionage charges and convicted this year?
Esfandiari: Just go public. I don’t know him at all and he doesn’t know me, but I would say just go public and put pressure on the government. These days the situation is very bad in Iran. If he is lucky, I think you can say he will get time served. If the Iranians decide to do some face saving, if he’s been there for 18 months, they’ll give him a sentence of 20 months with all but two of it time served. But if he is unlucky, he might get five to 10 years. They are going after dual citizens. They are going after journalists, women activists, reformists — and this has become worse since the [Iranian nuclear] deal.
TWD: Why is that?
Esfandiari: The Revolutionary Guards and the more conservative elements within the regime are not happy with the deal. They worry that the consequence of the deal will be relations with the United States. The Supreme Leader has said categorically ‘no relations with the U.S., no cultural or economic exchange with the U.S.’ Nevertheless, they think it’s going to happen so they are trying to prevent that. But it is going to happen.
TWD: Do you think relations between Iran and the U.S. can actually normalize?
Esfandiari: In the long term maybe, but in the short term no.
TWD: And what is your assessment of the deal that China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany (P5+1), made with Iran to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to ensure that Iran is not pursuing or building a nuclear weapon?
Esfandiari: I think it is a good deal. Iran has made a lot of concessions. The Iranians know they have made a lot of concessions and that is why there is that [conservative] opposition in the country to the deal. Given the current situation, it was the best deal the P5+1 could get.
TWD: As you know, most Republicans on Capitol Hill were opposed to the deal. A common refrain was that Iran couldn’t be trusted under any circumstances. What is your reaction to the notion that the world simply can’t trust Iran not to secretly pursue nuclear weapons?
Esfandiari: I can agree with them but — and there is a big but — there is the fact that the IAEA is there to verify every article of that deal. That is very important because the IAEA is on the ground. They have found that the Iranians have started to dismantle the centrifuges. The IAEA is going to report in December. I think for the next 15 years you definitely can trust Iran because the economic situation in the country is so bad.
Iran is in need of the $150 billion [that has been frozen under international sanctions]. That is its own money — you just have to release it. Iran is in need to improve its economy by trading with the outside world, especially Western countries, and the West is very eager to sell stuff to Iran and trade with Iran. When it comes to respecting the deal, I think Iran is going to behave. Look, the reason why [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani was able to convince the Supreme Leader [to accept this deal] was that the economic situation was so bad. That was the only reason why the Supreme Leader went along; otherwise he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the United States because he believes this will lead to an infiltration of American culture — of American art and an American presence — and he doesn’t want it. He talks about it openly and says it.
TWD: National Public Radio recently did a segment after the nuclear deal was finalized in which it asked five experts on Iran to provide their forecast for the isolated but critically important country’s future. Yours was among the most optimistic? Why?
Esfandiari: Iran has the potential to join the family of nations but Iran has to decide what kind of foreign policy it wants. You can’t on the one hand flex your muscle in the region and on the other hand try and have good relations with your neighbors and with the rest of the world. You have to decide; either you have good relations with your neighbors and this will include Saudi Arabia, too, and you go along with whatever they agree on Syria … or it will continue the same way it is now. Iran has reached the stage where you can no longer separate the economy from its foreign policy in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza. It will reach a point where Iran has to do some soul searching when it comes to its role in the region but it cannot give up Iraq. Iraq is its neighbor and given the presence of ISIS [the Islamic State] there, it has an important role in trying to get rid of them. So far ISIS has not penetrated into Iran but what is to stop them?
TWD: Many foreign policy analysts, looking for a glimmer of hope in the U.S.-Iran relationship, have suggested that eradicating the Islamic State — or at least defeating it — could be a point of cooperation between the two countries.
Esfandiari: Anything that is as public as cooperation with the U.S. will have a backlash with the conservatives and the Supreme Leader. Rouhani would have cooperated with the U.S. I would say in Syria, Iraq and even in Yemen. But foreign policy is decided by the Supreme Leader. He is the ultimate decision maker when it comes to foreign policy, so when he says ‘no cooperation,’ it means no cooperation. And if you want to have cooperation, you don’t go around and talk about it. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whenever they meet, I’m sure they talk about this issue and the implementation of the plan of action that is discussed between the representatives of the United States and the P5+1.
TWD: You have been outspoken in recent months about the sexual abuse and enslavement of young girls by members of the Islamic State. What do you think is their motivation for committing such heinous acts?
Esfandiari: It’s a combination of three things. It’s a strategy to frighten people. That’s number one. Number two is religious belief very much so, and number three I think is a belief in a pure Islamic state. It’s their own version of Islam, in which either you convert to their version of Islam or you end up like the Yazidi women. There is no respect whatsoever for women. What is astonishing to me are the foreign fighters. What kind of upbringing have these European fighters had in the West to go along with this and enter a village, separate women from men, then separate young girls from older women, set up makeshift slave markets and take the younger women and sell them and start raping young girls as young as 9? It’s more than horrendous. It’s a crime against humanity. They believe in a version of Islam that truly does not exist.
TWD: You recently took the world’s Islamic leadership to task in a Wall Street Journal article about Islamic State sexual slavery. What is your problem here?
Esfandiari: My problem was when they [the Islamic State] started, the center of religious learning waited too long to speak out. But now you see a lot of condemnation coming from high-level clerics. This is a good thing because if you really believe [in Islam], you will think twice having heard what these people in the center of Islamic learning are saying. But this [condemnation] has to come on a daily basis. The condemnation has to come from the Islamic world from Indonesia to Malaysia to Nigeria, which has Boko Haram. It has to come on a daily basis and they have to excommunicate them. No one has said yet, ‘We are going to excommunicate every single ISIS member.’ They have to do that.
TWD: What is your assessment of the Obama’s administration’s response to the Islamic State?
Esfandiari: At first I think they probably didn’t take it seriously. I, myself, thought at first these are a bunch of ragtag people — why can’t you get rid of them? But by the time the U.S. got involved, ISIS had established itself in Iraq. It is not the job of the U.S. to get rid of ISIS. It is the responsibility of the Islamic world and especially the Middle Eastern countries. They should have gotten together immediately and started fighting them and bombing them because it is in their backyard.
TWD: And they haven’t done that because they want the U.S. to do the heavy lifting here?
Esfandiari: Of course, the answer is yes. You always expect that the West would step in and help you with these things. But then there are those who argue it was the U.S. who went into Iraq and destabilized Iraq and Libya and the whole region. It is not the job of the U.S. to get rid of ISIS.
About the Author
Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat