Iran Frees U.S. Scholar From Prison

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari was released yesterday after more than 100 days in Iran's notorious Evin Prison, but Tehran did not indicate whether the 67-year-old grandmother still faces a trial on charges of "crimes against national security" or will be allowed to leave the country.

In a statement relayed through her family, Esfandiari said she was "delighted" to be out of prison, "but I live in the United States and I'm eager to be able to travel and rejoin my family." She was released on bail in exchange for the deed to her 93-year-old mother's home, where she is staying now, family members said .

Esfandiari, director of Middle East programs at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was one of at least four Americans detained in Iran. A fifth, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has been missing since a trip there in March.

The turning point in Esfandiari's eight-month ordeal appears to have been a letter from Lee H. Hamilton, Wilson Center president and former congressman, to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. An answer Hamilton received on Aug. 7 presaged Esfandiari's release.

"I appealed to him on the basis of his religious views. It was a carefully drafted letter," Hamilton told reporters yesterday. "I assured him that we had seen Haleh devote tireless efforts to understanding the culture and traditions of Iran, and I asked on humanitarian grounds for his help in obtaining the release of Haleh." Hamilton also pledged to devote "considerable time to trying to further respect and understanding between the two cultures."

Hamilton co-wrote the Iraq Study Group report, which recommended diplomatic outreach by the Bush administration to Iran to get its help in stabilizing Iraq. His quiet outreach to the influential Khamenei on June 29 was channeled through Iran's U.N. mission.

Hamilton's letter was one of hundreds of behind-the-scenes efforts made on Esfandiari's behalf by her employer, friends and family since she was put under virtual house arrest in December while visiting her ailing mother. After weeks of interrogation, she was detained in Evin Prison on May 8.

The letter was a long shot. In February, Hamilton said, he wrote Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to request that Esfandiari to be allowed to leave the country. Ahmadinejad did not reply.

In May, Hamilton wrote parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, appealing for Esfandiari's freedom. He did not answer.

Hamilton then wrote former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to ask for his intervention. Once again, nothing.

Hamilton; Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash; and a team of friends also made overtures to others including former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Solana twice brought up Esfandiari's case with Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani when they met to discuss Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Diplomats from more than 20 governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East delivered strong messages to Iran's foreign ministry. More than 100 former officials from several countries used personal connections to Iranian officials, Hamilton said.

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