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Freed Iranian-American Describes Detention in Tehran

September 12, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari celebrated her return home to Washington this week after spending 105 days in solitary confinement at Iran’s Evin prison. The Middle East scholar was first detained last December as she attempted to return to the United States after a nine-day visit to her mother in Iran.

Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was subsequently jailed from May until August. She was released after international intervention and with her mother’s home put up for bail. She was never charged with a crime.

Haleh Esfandiari joins us now.

Welcome, and welcome home.

HALEH ESFANDIARI, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be back.

GWEN IFILL: To the extent that you can, describe your time in prison.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I decided, after the initial shock, that in order to survive, I have to have a routine. And I’m a very disciplined person. So how do you fill in the long hours of solitary confinement was my question.

So I decided I’m going to exercise; I’m going to walk; and I’m going to write a book, a biography of my paternal grandmother and my Iranian grandmother. But I didn’t want to put anything on paper. So I wrote the book in my mind, and I would edit it, rewrite chapters, rewrite passages while walking.

GWEN IFILL: All in your mind?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: All in my mind. I didn’t put a single word on paper, but I kept on repeating it. If you repeat a book to yourself for three months, it will stay with you until then, at some stage, I’m going to put it on paper. And I wrote the book in Persian, because I want an Iranian audience to read it.

And I would stop exercising at 6:00 and shower and change and start reading. I would read books between 6:00 and 10:00. And from 10:00 to 11:00, I would read newspaper. At 11:00, I would do an hour of floor exercise, and at midnight I would go to bed.

Reasons for arrest

Haleh Esfandiari
Woodrow Wilson International Center
Either I couldn't convince them, you know, or I think they wanted to send a message to Iranian academics, to Iranian NGO activists, to women's organizations that were dealing with other countries that, you know, be careful. We are watching you.

GWEN IFILL: Wow. Why were you arrested? Did you ever discover why?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: To this day, I really don't know why I was arrested. But having talked to these -- having been interrogated for almost eight months by people from the ministry of intelligence, I can explain what they believe in.

They believe that the United States is now entangled in Iraq and elsewhere. Therefore, it will not contemplate a military attack on Iran, but it is planning a Velvet Revolution. And the instruments for this Velvet Revolution, like the Ukraine or Georgia, are American and European foundations and think-tanks. And I think they thought that the Wilson Center was also involved in this program.

GWEN IFILL: That should have been fairly easy to clear up. They interrogated you for months, and held you, kept your passport, before they imprisoned you.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: That's right.

GWEN IFILL: Why was that -- do you have any idea why that wasn't cleared up?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Either I couldn't convince them, you know, or I think they wanted to send a message to Iranian academics, to Iranian NGO activists, to women's organizations that were dealing with other countries that, you know, be careful. We are watching you.

Treatment in prison

Haleh Esfandiari
Woodrow Wilson International Center
I was treated in prison with utmost respect. And I think the reason was that I always kept a barrier between myself and the interrogator. And I was always very polite to them. And they were, as a result, very polite to me.

GWEN IFILL: How were your quarters? And how were you treated?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I was treated in prison with utmost respect. And I think the reason was that I always kept a barrier between myself and the interrogator. And I was always very polite to them. And they were, as a result, very polite to me.

So they never interrogated me in prison more than three hours. And they would always say, "Any time you are tired, please let us know." And these were the same people who interrogated me outside prison. "Please, go and rest in your room, and we'll come back the next day or three days later."

I believe there wasn't much to discuss anymore, you know? They had asked me so many questions before going to prison that there was not much to talk about. As far as my room was concerned, it was a -- well, it was a large room, you know? It wasn't a cell.

And they offered a bed or a cot. I refused, because I thought I'll hurt my back if I get one of those folding beds. So they gave me eight blankets. I would use six to sleep on. And one I rolled and turned it into a bookshelf, and the other one I rolled and folded my clothes and put them in. But the blankets that were at night my bed used to be my steps in the morning, during the day, when I would do my exercise.

GWEN IFILL: Your exercise.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: That's right.

Other Iranian-American prisoners

Haleh Esfandiari
Woodrow Wilson International Center
At night, one of the female guards -- because, in the women's ward or quarter, we had female guards -- she brought me two books, and this was the beginning of borrowing books from Mr. Tajbakhsh.

GWEN IFILL: But you spent much of this time by yourself. You were not exposed -- for instance, there were other prisoners held there, Iranian-Americans. You never saw them?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: The women's quarter and the men's quarter are separated. So I even didn't know about Mr. Shakeri until I left prison.

GWEN IFILL: One of the other prisoners?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Yes, one of the other Iranians. I knew that Mr. Tajbakhsh, who is still -- both are still in prison -- was there, because one day the interrogator was carrying five, six English books. And as my eyes lit up, and I said, "Oh, English books." I said, "Who's are they?" And he said, "These belong to Mr. Tajbakhsh." And I said, "Could you ask him whether I can borrow some from him?"

So then, at night, one of the female guards -- because, in the women's ward or quarter, we had female guards -- she brought me two books, and this was the beginning of borrowing books from Mr. Tajbakhsh. And on one occasion, I sent him some fruit with the permission of the prison authorities.

GWEN IFILL: But you never really got to interact with anyone else, other than your guards?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Except my guards, no, and the interrogators, of course, you know.

Help from the Wilson Center

Haleh Esfandiari
Woodrow Wilson International Center
I think my release came mainly because the president of the Wilson Center, Lee Hamilton, wrote a letter to the leader. And I have not seen the text of the letter because it was confidential.

GWEN IFILL: After all of this time, after this documentary came out, which was cut and edited to make it seem as if you were admitting to some sort of complicity in overthrowing the government, after all of this, you were released. And do you know why?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I think my release came mainly because the president of the Wilson Center, Lee Hamilton, wrote a letter to the leader. And I have not seen the text of the letter because it was confidential. And the leader reacted to the letter positively and probably ordered my release.

GWEN IFILL: This is Ayatollah Khamenei?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Yes, Ayatollah Khamenei, and I really owe a lot to Mr. Hamilton, who never gave up for all this period.

GWEN IFILL: It should be said your husband, also, never gave up and was on this program talking about it.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Oh, sure. Yes, my family, really, my husband, my daughter, and my sister in Austria, and my mother, my 93-year-old mother in Iran, with whom I would talk almost every other day. I could call her.

GWEN IFILL: Will you be able to see her again, do you think? She's 93 years old; she's still in Iran. Do you ever plan to return?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: You know, I've just been back from Iran, and I don't want to think about that. But I think I would be heartbroken if I never see her again.

GWEN IFILL: Haleh Esfandiari, thank you so much for joining us.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Thank you for having me.