TOPICS > Politics

Iranian-American Scholar Sent to Tehran Prison

May 11, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: A scholar in an Iran jail. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Haleh Esfandiari is a prominent Iranian-American scholar whose private visit to Iran has turned into a nightmare.

The 67-year-old director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington went to Tehran last December to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother. On December 30th, en route to the airport to return home, her taxi was stopped by three masked men wielding knives. They confiscated both her Iranian and U.S. passports.

Esfandiari returned to a family residence in Tehran. And for the next six weeks, authorities brought her in repeatedly to interrogate her about Wilson Center activities.

Then, on Tuesday, she was arrested and jailed in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, run by Iran’s intelligence services. No charges have been announced.

Esfandiari is married to Shaul Bakhash, a Middle East historian at George Mason University in Virginia. He told the Los Angeles Times today, “It’s all very frightening.”

For more, we’re joined by former Congressman Lee Hamilton, president of the Wilson Center, and Karim Sadjadpour, associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He’s a dual Iranian and U.S. citizen.

Welcome to you both.

Lee Hamilton, what is the latest on her condition and the circumstances of her confinement?

LEE HAMILTON, President, The Wilson Center: The latest word we have is that her mother tried to visit her on two occasions at the prison. She was turned away. Then she went a third time, and she was able to talk with her daughter, Haleh, but not see her.

The second time that she talked to her daughter, she said that Haleh’s voice seemed a little stronger. We’re mildly encouraged by that. But we are, of course, deeply distressed by her detention.

Accusations of subversive activity

MARGARET WARNER: Now, according to your Web site, during the six-week interrogation phase, the first one, she was in touch with your staff frequently. What did you learn about what the Iranians were after during that interrogation?

LEE HAMILTON: The Iranians thought she had been engaged in subversive activities to undermine the Iranian state. They thought she was part of a plot to do that.

We sent all kinds of materials to the Iranian government. Haleh is a genuine scholar, and a very distinguished one. She has not had any role of any kind against the Iranian government.

She stands for openness of dialogue, advanced research. Her great interest has been the status of women, not only in Iran, but in the region. And we were just terribly perplexed and frustrated that Haleh was detained, interrogated for 50 or 60 hours, intimidated, harassed, and that kept going on day after day.

Then it stopped. We were hopeful that she would be released, but they took her to prison.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you surprised this would happen, Karim Sadjadpour?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: We were all very surprised. I think there were certain red lines we all thought the Iranian regime wouldn't be cross, that someone with a U.S. passport wouldn't be imprisoned, a 80-year-old grandmother, a woman wouldn't be imprisoned.

But I think, during the Ahmadinejad era, a lot of the progress that we thought had been made during the Khatami era -- Khatami, the reformist president -- has since been reversed. So it's a great cause for concern for all of us.

MARGARET WARNER: And now this theme that Lee Hamilton says came through during the interrogation, that somehow she's part of a guard to try to undermine the regime, this is not an uncommon refrain, is it?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: And especially these days in the broader context of the antagonistic relationship between the U.S. and Iran. And I think Tehran feels right now, by doing this, maybe it's sending a stern message to Washington that, if you want to embark on democracy promotion efforts in Iran, there's going to be repercussions.

But I think this is a typical, characteristic Iranian behavior of undermining themselves, because Haleh, as Congressman Hamilton said, was really a bridge between the two countries, a voice of dialogue and reform. And by eliminating voices like Haleh's, you simply amplify voices in Washington who are calling for a more hard-line approach to Tehran.

Sending a message

MARGARET WARNER: But now, when you talk about democracy promotion, you're referring to the Bush administration's project?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Absolutely. I mean, Haleh herself was not someone who -- she's not an activist. She's very much an analyst, a scholar. But I think the government in Tehran is trying to send a message to the Bush administration that -- lay off his democracy promotion efforts, because there's going to be repercussions.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there was this article published, Lee Hamilton, in a hard-line -- there have been no public charges. There was an article in a hard-line Iranian newspaper. And the headline was, "Zionist Agent Arrested in Iran." Tell us about those charges and what that's about?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, first of all, it's important to note we do not know what the government charges are. They've not been revealed.

Secondly, it's my understanding that this is kind of a, as you described it, a hard-line fundamentalist newspaper. And they said that Haleh was a Zionist, that she was engaged in subversive activities, that the government was seeking from her a confession.

All of this, of course, from our standpoint is just simply outrageous. Haleh is not in any way involved in any of those things. And we want her out. That's our position; it's a very simple one.

Immediately what we want is to get someone in there who can tell us that she's being treated decently, that she has the medicines and the clothing that she needs, during this very, very difficult period of confinement.

A crackdown on intellectuals?

MARGARET WARNER: How intense is this crackdown that's going on right now on intellectuals, both those who come into the country and those in the country?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It's fairly intense right now, for all of us who work on these issues of U.S.-Iran relations or domestic Iranian politics. And, again, in the past, there was a certain comfort level that people had that, if you're a dual national, you wouldn't be targeted, or if you were someone who had written about having dialogue or rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran...

MARGARET WARNER: Which she has.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: ... which she has, your work would be appreciated and you wouldn't be targeted. But in this current government in Tehran, with President Ahmadinejad at the helm, it's just utter chaos at the moment.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what are you all -- what is the Wilson Center doing, what is the U.S. government doing to try to secure her release? The State Department did make a statement calling for her release, but what are you doing behind the scenes?

LEE HAMILTON: We're contacting everybody we know to contact. We're asking several governments to use their good offices to contact the Iranian government and let her out. I wrote to the president some weeks ago.

Problems with Iranian relations

MARGARET WARNER: President Ahmadinejad?

LEE HAMILTON: I did. I've had no reply. I will sign a letter very soon to the speaker of the Iranian parliament.

I have literally been on the phone with scores of people asking them to do whatever they can do. The problem here is, you don't know what lever to pull. You don't know who has the authority. We have no relations with Iran. We have to work through the Swiss government. They've been very helpful and cooperative, but you don't really know what will work here.

So I tell everybody just do what you think you can. Let's elevate this. Let's put the public pressure on Iran and let the Iranian government know that they have made here a huge mistake that will hurt them for many, many weeks and months to come.

MARGARET WARNER: So Karim Sadjadpour, what does the track record in such cases tell us about what actually works, if anything?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, there was one incident last year of a prominent Iranian intellectual who was imprisoned, Ramin Jahanbegloo. And when he was first imprisoned, the regime warned his family, "Don't go public with this, because it's only going to exacerbate his case."

But what we saw was that, after six weeks of remaining silent, there was no progress and, in fact, the regime really did respond to the public criticism and the public campaign. So I think, in Haleh's case, likewise, for four or five months, everyone tried to take a very calm, subtle approach. It didn't bear fruit, and I think now is the time to really make clear to the regime in Tehran that this is utterly unacceptable.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the meantime, would your advice be to any dual-national Iranian-American, Iranian-Canadian, that if you're at all involved in public affairs, even in the most benign way, you shouldn't go to Iran?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think so. And I think it's very unfortunate that people like Haleh, who in the past had played a great role as a bridge between the two countries, who are trying to bring about dialogue instead of confrontation, the Iranian government, instead of trying to cover these people or sing their praises, are intimidating, alienating and imprisoning them.

MARGARET WARNER: Karim Sadjadpour, Lee Hamilton, thank you both.