Freed by Iran, Scholar Reunites With Her Family

Haleh Esfandiari opens gifts from granddaughters Karenna, 4, and Ariana Warden, 6, at her home in Potomac.
Haleh Esfandiari opens gifts from granddaughters Karenna, 4, and Ariana Warden, 6, at her home in Potomac. "I was afraid I'd never see them again," Esfandiari said. Her ordeal in Iran began in December, when she was robbed of her passports and detained for questioning. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007

For Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, the saga is finally over. Esfandiari arrived in the United States yesterday, more than eight months after she was detained in Tehran, interrogated and later jailed in Iran's most notorious prison.

Esfandiari and her husband, Shaul Bakhash, a George Mason University historian, returned quietly to their home in Potomac after reuniting in Austria on Monday. Esfandiari, who is director of Middle East programs at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, had a joyful reunion with her daughter, Washington lawyer Haleh Bakhash, and her 4-year-old and 6-year-old granddaughters, who were never told of Esfandiari's jailing.

"They hadn't forgotten me," Esfandiari said. "There were moments before I was put in jail, and in jail, too, that I was afraid I'd never see them again. But it was as if I'd seen them yesterday, only they're taller. Just seeing the grandchildren made my day."

Karenna Warden, 4, and Ariana Warden, 6, presented their grandmother with flowers, a book of stickers and a toy ring.

"She's lost considerable weight. She's skin and bones," Haleh Bakhash said. "This is a day I didn't dare hope for until she was on a plane to the U.S. Now we're savoring every minute."

During Esfandiari's last attempt to come home, in December, her U.S. and Iranian passports were stolen at knifepoint at a phony checkpoint en route to Tehran's international airport. She had been visiting her ailing 93-year-old mother. When Esfandiari went to get a new passport, she instead found herself interrogated for weeks by Iranian intelligence officials.

She was imprisoned on May 8 and later charged with "crimes against national security," including plotting a "velvet revolution" against Iran, the world's only modern theocracy.

This time, the only delay en route home was caused by bad weather in Austria.

Esfandiari's bail, which was the deed for her mother's home in Tehran, is still in the hands of the Iranian government.

Iran returned the passport of American journalist Parnaz Azima this week, but three other Americans are still imprisoned or missing in the country. California businessman Ali Shakeri and New York-based social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh remain in Evin Prison, where Esfandiari was held in solitary confinement until Aug. 21. The whereabouts of former FBI agent Robert A. Levinson, who disappeared during a visit to Kish Island in March, are unknown.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company