Freed Iranian-American Leaves Iran

The Associated Press
Monday, September 3, 2007; 2:42 PM

TEHRAN, Iran -- An Iranian-American academic who was held in a notoriously harsh Tehran prison before being released and allowed to leave Iran said Monday she was "elated" to be heading home after eight months of detention.

Haleh Esfandiari flew to Austria late Sunday to reunite with her family one day after Iranian authorities returned her passport. Family and colleagues said they felt great relief at the end of a crisis that caused sharp new tensions between Iran and the United States.

"After a long and difficult ordeal, I am elated to be on my way back to my home and my family. These last eight months, that included 105 days in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, have not been easy," Esfandiari said in a statement issued by her employer, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"But I wish to put this episode behind me and to look to the future, not to the past," she said.

Esfandiari, 67, who was released on bail earlier in August, picked up her passport and flew from Iran to Austria, where her sister lives, said her daughter, Haleh Bakhash. She was reunited with her husband and plans to spend about a week there before heading home to the United States, Bakhash said.

"She had some indication that she would get her passport back but she didn't know when. It was a complete surprise to all of us, and a relief," Bakhash told The Associated Press from her home in Washington.

The unexpected development came after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week that his government was not opposed to Esfandiari's departure, but the Iranian judiciary would have to sort out the issue.

The Iranian Intelligence Ministry has accused her and her Washington-based foundation of trying to set up networks of Iranians with the ultimate goal of creating a "soft revolution" in Iran. Esfandiari's family and the Wilson Center, where she is head of the Middle East program, have denied the allegations against her.

"I am elated to get the news that Haleh can now leave Iran and is returning to the United States," said Lee Hamilton, head of the Wilson Center and a former congressman.

Esfandiari was one of a handful of Iranian-Americans detained or facing security-related charges here. There was no new information regarding the three detained other dual nationals, but their arrests have sharply added to escalating tensions between the United States and Iran.

Washington accuses Iran of arming Shiite Muslim militants in Iraq and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies those claims, and blames the U.S. for Iraq's instability.

Iranian judiciary officials have not provided answers on Esfandiari's legal status since her release. It is unclear if she still has to stand trial or return to Iran to appear in court.

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