Freed Scholar Recounts Time In Iranian Prison

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Seeing the sliver of a new moon from her cell became the marker of Haleh Esfandiari's solitary confinement, thousands of miles from home and facing an uncertain future.

"I was sitting in my cell and through the bars I saw it and I said, 'Oh, my God, there is the moon,' " said the Washington scholar, who was allowed to leave Iran early yesterday after being detained there for eight months by authorities who said she was a national security threat. "A month later I saw the moon again, and then I saw it a third time. It was quite tough. I was lonely and anxious."

In her first interview since leaving Iran, Esfandiari described her time in one of the Middle East's most notorious prisons and how she coped with her confinement. Esfandiari, director of Middle East programs at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, flew from Iran to Vienna, where she met her husband, Shaul Bakhash, and her sister. She said she would rest in Europe before returning soon to her home in Potomac.

Esfandiari, 67, said that she survived solitary confinement by sticking to a strict 10-hour exercise regimen to keep from thinking about the implications of the charges against her. Iranian officials said that she was engaged in "crimes against national security" and plotting a "velvet revolution" -- a reference to the nonviolent upheavals that ousted communism in Eastern Europe -- against the world's only modern theocracy.

The legal status of Esfandiari, a dual citizen of the United States and Iran, remains unclear. The longtime U.S. resident went to Iran last December to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother. She was robbed at knifepoint of her Iranian and U.S. passports on her way to the airport to return home, in what some U.S. officials think was an officially sanctioned crime. When she applied for a new passport, she was instead summoned for intense interrogations by the intelligence ministry that lasted for months and she was barred from leaving the country. On May 8, she was formally detained and taken to Evin Prison.

"Once they arrested me and I got over the shock, I decided either I survive or break down. To sit and think all the time was going to kill me, so I developed a schedule," she said in the telephone interview from Austria.

During her 105-day incarceration, Esfandiari worked out daily for an hour before breakfast on the floor of her cell. When she was not under interrogation, she did various exercises between 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. and again for an hour in the evening before going to sleep. Occasionally she was allowed to walk in a small prison courtyard, although always alone. She never saw anyone but her interrogators and female guards.

Between stress and exercise, she lost about 20 pounds, she said, and now weighs only 88 pounds.

Esfandiari said she kept her mind busy by writing -- in her head, not on paper -- a biography of her grandmother. Isolated in a sector reserved for political prisoners, she slept on a mattress she fashioned from six blankets and used two chadors, the enveloping black cloth that Muslim women use to cover themselves, as sheets. She eventually requested a desk and chair like those used in schools so she did not have to sit on the floor.

Iran has not provided any information about the fate of four other Americans imprisoned, detained or missing there. Esfandiari said she was unaware of the plight of the Americans except for Kian Tajbakhsh, a New York-based social scientist picked up three days after her arrest.

Families of prisoners in Iran can provide money for personal items once a week, which Esfandiari used to buy fruit and vegetables. She sent fruit to Tajbakhsh, and, through prison guards, he sent her books that she read at night.

State-controlled Iranian television ran two documentaries this summer that tried to link Esfandiari with the Bush administration's new $75 million project to promote democracy in Iran, and she said Iranian interrogators focused heavily on the Wilson Center's programs.

Esfandiari and the center have long denied receiving any U.S. funding for the lecture series she runs. "I didn't know about the money," she said. "I said I didn't approve of [allocating] money to overthrow the regime and that I'm against doing things to interfere with other countries. I told them I thought the two governments should talk to each other."

Esfandiari was released from prison on Aug. 21. The release followed a personal letter from Wilson Center President Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman and co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iraq Study Group had recommended that the United States reach out to Iran in an effort to stabilize Iraq. In an unusual move, Khamenei replied and pledged to resolve Esfandiari's case.

Esfandiari said she sensed that the government never intended to try her. "My gut feeling was that there would be a solution," she said. Hamilton's intervention, she said, played a pivotal role. "Had it not been for Lee, this thing might have lasted longer," she said. But Esfandiari's bail, which was the deed to her mother's home, is still in government hands.

Among the other Americans, Tajbakhsh and California businessman Ali Shakeri are still in solitary confinement at Evin, according to family members. Both were picked up in the same three-day period that Esfandiari was arrested.

Parnaz Azima, a correspondent for U.S.-funded Radio Farda, is out on bail also guaranteed by the deed to her mother's home. She, too, was visiting her ailing mother when her passport was confiscated and she was ordered not to leave Iran. All are dual nationals who have spent decades in the United States.

Former FBI agent Robert A. Levinson has been missing since he took a business trip to Iran's Kish Island, where visas are not required, in March. Unlike in the other cases, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies having any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company