Iranian TV Airs Video of Jailed American Scholar

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Shaul Bakhash, his daughter at his side, waited in front of the television screen yesterday for a glimpse of his wife, Haleh Esfandiari -- the first time he would see her in the seven months since the local scholar traveled to Tehran to visit her 93-year-old mother and ended up facing house arrest, intense interrogations and now solitary confinement in Iran's most notorious prison.

The satellite feed -- which Bakhash and his daughter watched from the BBC's Washington office -- began with the Iranian evening news before switching to a 50-minute documentary alleging U.S. plots to foment revolution in Iran. The program showed scenes from Ukraine's Orange Revolution, then flashed images of President Bush pledging to spread freedom worldwide.

It finally switched to Esfandiari, clad in a black robe and head scarf, discussing the speakers and meetings she had long organized for the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

"I consulted Iran experts in Washington or at American universities. Sometimes when I came to Iran, I contacted that person," she said calmly. "My other role was to chair meetings that lasted 35 minutes, then there were questions and answers."

But that seemed enough to implicate her in both the Orange Revolution and U.S. efforts to promote democracy. Esfandiari, the documentary implied, was a U.S. operative in Iran -- recruiting spies and agents.

"The goal of the Iran program," she recounted, "was that, whenever a speaker comes from Iran and talks at an important place like the Wilson Center, some people come and listen. Who are these people? They are policymakers . . . people who are active in the U.S. government institutions, people who work in Congress, people who are in the intelligence agencies, people who are in the media, people who are in foundations, who are in universities, and people who are in research organizations."

Bakhash, scribbling on a yellow legal pad to capture his wife's words, was incredulous. "There's absolutely no connection with what she has said and these revolutions."

The documentary took liberties with quotes, picking up snippets and often fading them out, as Esfandiari was still talking, as it proceeded to scenes of other "soft revolutions" in the former Soviet republics. Then, in a jumbled montage, it flashed back to Esfandiari or to Kian Tajbakhsh, the New York-based social scientist also imprisoned in Tehran in early May, or Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Iranian Canadian scholar who was imprisoned on similar charges of "crimes against national security" for four months last year.

Between footage of U.S. aid programs in Kyrgyzstan, the documentary showed Esfandiari recounting a conference she attended at UCLA in which both U.S. and Israeli officials were present. "Some of them were former intelligence officers," she said.

Esfandiari and the others were "clearly scripted," said Bakhash, a George Mason University historian and former Iranian journalist. "She was using language that mimics, mirrors language by Iran's ministry of intelligence to describe this case and to confirm the intelligence ministry's claim that holding conferences and talks creates networks in Iran which will form the basis for subversive activity."

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James F. Jeffrey yesterday called the television documentary a "Stalinesque charade."

For the video, Esfandiari was seated on a couch in an unidentified room -- not the barren cell where she has been held since May 8. The date of the interview was also unclear. Esfandiari, a 67-year-old grandmother, normally colors her hair, and the hair under her scarf still appeared dark; family members doubted that she had been allowed either a dye or a hairdresser in Evin Prison.

For Esfandiari's daughter Haleh Bakhash, a Washington lawyer and mother of Esfandiari's two granddaughters, watching the documentary was intensely emotional. "It was hard. She looks older and stressed. We have no idea when they filmed this, whether in the last couple of weeks or some time ago," she said.

And the agony was not over when the documentary ended. Iranian television reported that a second part will be aired tonight. Then the TV channel returned to normal programming.

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