A New Iranian Hostage Crisis

(Family Photo)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Fanny Esfandiari, a 93-year-old great-grandmother with heart disease and bad eyesight, made a desperate trip to Iran's notorious Evin Prison earlier this month.

"I have to find my daughter," she told relatives reluctant to drive her. None thought it would be productive -- or worth the risks. A nephew finally agreed. He stayed in the car as Esfandiari slowly shuffled on her cane up to the hulking white stone compound in Tehran where Iran's kings and theocrats have incarcerated their most famous political prisoners as well as their toughest criminals.

Esfandiari asked to see her daughter, Haleh Esfandiari of Potomac, a scholar once described as the "gold standard" of Middle East analysts, who was detained by Iranian intelligence on May 8.

The elder Esfandiari was told to try the prison's high-security wing -- the infamous Ward 209. There, however, she was turned away, and slowly made her way back to her nephew's car.

So began a drama that is reviving the kind of anxious and angry passions last witnessed a quarter-century ago, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days in Tehran.

Over the past two weeks, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have demanded Haleh Esfandiari's release. The Senate and House are both preparing bipartisan resolutions calling for her freedom. The Senate's 16 female members jointly wrote U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asking for his "urgent" intervention with Iran.

Editorials in top American and European newspapers -- as well as publications ranging from the Daily Princetonian to Glamour -- have angrily condemned Iran's action. American academics have announced boycotts of Iran and called for demonstrations against Iranian missions around the world, while the 2,700-member Middle East Studies Association wrote Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warning of the "chilling impact" of Esfandiari's imprisonment on scholars worldwide. The Kuwait Economic Society, Egypt's pro-democracy Ibn Khaldun Center and the American Islamic Congress have joined forces to launch a Web site, http://www.freehaleh.org, which has so far generated 1,400 letters to the Ahmadinejad government.

After Iran's judiciary announced last week that Esfandiari was being investigated for "crimes against national security," 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi agreed to take her case.

Esfandiari is a most unlikely hostage.

A birdlike powerhouse of a woman, weighing in at barely 100 pounds, the 67-year-old academic has quietly run the Middle East program at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for almost a decade. Few American scholars have done more than Esfandiari, a Shiite Muslim, to advocate "open debate and dialogue" between two countries that have been at odds for almost three decades, according to Wilson Center director and former congressman Lee Hamilton.

"The U.S.-Iranian relationship suffers from more than a quarter-century of no dialogue and no talks. She wanted bridges, not walls. She wanted people to talk, not dictate. She wanted people to listen and learn, not filibuster and spin," says Hamilton, who also co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, which urged the Bush administration to engage with Iran to help stabilize Iraq.

Iran's leading hard-line newspaper, Kayhan, now a mouthpiece for Ahmadinejad's government, alleged last week that Esfandiari was fomenting a "velvet revolution" in Iran and spying for the United States and Israel. Kayhan was, ironically, the place were Esfandiari got her start as a young journalist and met her husband, Shaul Bakhash.

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