Ordeal in Iran: An Interview with Haleh Esfandiari
On December 30, 2006, Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, was stopped and robbed on her way to the Tehran airport.Trapped in Iran without a passport, she was interrogated by intelligence agents almost daily for six weeks and was then placed in solitary confinement.
WQ: How did you endure 105 days in solitary confinement?
Esfandiari: I either had to succumb to emotion or I had to completely shut my husband, my daughter, my grandchildren, and my mother out of my mind. That’s what I decided to do. You despair when you are in solitary confinement. You don’t know what’s going on in the outside world. You don’t know whether people are working to get you out. You don’t get to see your lawyer. I coped by concentrating on the monotonous regimen I had established to keep myself from falling apart.
WQ: Your survival techniques were exercise and composing a book in your mind?
Esfandiari: Once I was in prison, there was not much interrogation because the bulk of the questioning was done before I was taken into custody. I have macular degeneration, so I couldn’t read 10 hours a day. I would get up at a certain time in the morning, exercise on the floor, then go and shower, have breakfast, continue exercising, and start walking around my cell. I would count. I would time myself and walk maybe three hours a day. While walking, I would try to memorize what I had been asked during my last interrogation and what I had answered. I didn’t want to put anything down on paper. I also started drafting in my mind a biography of my paternal grandmother, with whom I was very close. If I was called, I would go for my interrogation, come back, and, if I wasn’t finished with my exercise, I would continue. I would shower again at six, read a book until 10, then read the newspaper. At 11, I would do another hour of exercise, and at midnight I would try to go to sleep.
WQ: Was your cell the typical bare room with a cot and a toilet in the corner?
Esfandiari: I had two cells with the wall removed between them and a metal sink with two faucets. The hot-water faucet did not work. There was a shared bathroom in the hallway, but I never saw anybody else there. The prisoners were responsible for keeping the bathroom clean, and I did the cleaning. Through my two large barred windows I had access to daylight from 4:30 in the morning until nine at night in the summer, plus the fluorescent light, which was on 24 hours a day. They told me this was a prison requirement. The women guards were very human. I suppose it was partly my age . If I asked them for something, they would provide it if they could.
WQ: Did you ever think about your first meal when you got out, or what you would wear when you could walk down the street?
Esfandiari: Oddly enough, one day I thought that when I got home the first thing I would do will be to make myself two sunny-side-up eggs. That same evening, I came back from my interrogation around eight o’clock. I don’t eat meat, so one of the women guards said, “Unfortunately, we have a meat dish for dinner; would you like me to make you two sunny-side eggs?”
WQ: Did you have to wear a head covering all the time?
Esfandiari: In Iran, I always wear the headscarf. In winter, I wear a raincoat, in the summer, a robe. In prison they gave me two chadors. When I was taken for interrogation, I wore the chador on top of the scarf and the robe and removed it when I got there. I mentioned being tired of my clothes once on the phone to my mother, and she said, “I absolutely refuse to let you bring anything that you wore in prison into the house.”
WQ: What did they ask in all those hours of interrogation?
Esfandiari: They asked why I, an Iranian American, was hired to run the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. Was there a sinister motive?
I tried to explain that the United States is a country where Henry Kissinger could come at the age of 14 and become secretary of state. I said this is a country where nobody asks you where you come from. It was very difficult to convince them. The mentality is different. Iran has a Shiite population and a Sunni population, but only Shiites can become president. So in a country where opportunity is open mostly to one sect, it’s hard to explain that employers never ask your religion or your background. It’s your merit that counts.
They are very suspicious of foundations, think tanks, scholarly programs, even university programs that deal with the Middle East or Iran. Conferences are not seen by them as a way to exchange academic knowledge. They think their purpose is to put together like-minded people who would work toward the goals of the United States government. For them, the Democrats and the Republicans were the same.
WQ: Did they try to trip you up?
Esfandiari: Sure. We would start Q&A orally. They would write the same questions, and I had to answer them in writing. I’m not a person of too many words, so my answers were brief and they were very annoyed. They wanted me to explain every single meeting held by the Middle East Program of the Wilson Center. For the life of me, I could not remember who said what six years ago. Sometimes we had 30 meetings a year. Before I was sent to prison, I would call my husband [Shaul Bakhash, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of history at George Mason University] and ask him to send me lists of the meetings. Then Shaul had to ask the Wilson Center staff to put the lists together and e-mail them to him. He would e-mail the list to me and—since I didn’t have a printer—I would copy the information by hand. It would take until two or three in the morning. I was hoping I would answer their questions so they would just let me go.
WQ: Did they threaten you with physical abuse or withhold food, make you go without sleep or pour water down your mouth?
Esfandiari: They never threatened me with physical abuse. The way they would threaten me is to say, “We are not satisfied with your answers, so your situation is going to worsen.” “Worsen” meant that eventually you’ll end up in prison and that’s what happened.
I think they must have Googled my name and gotten a copy of all the talks I’d given. They would take sentences out of context to incriminate me and would make me sit and translate. I would spend hours translating my own speeches.
WQ: The confirmation process for Attorney General Michael Mukasey nearly stalled over what kinds of prisoner interrogations are legal. What is your view of what interrogation methods should be allowed to get prisoners to tell the truth?
Esfandiari: Torture goes on in Iranian prisons. I was very lucky that I was neither harassed physically nor tortured. I wasn’t deprived of sleep. In prison, after two hours of interrogation, always very polite, they would say, “If you are tired, we’ll stop. You can go back to your room and then we’ll come back tomorrow.”
And I would say, “No, let’s finish,” because I was always hoping that it would be over.
But solitary confinement is a kind of torture. I could call my mother, but our conversation was very brief: “How are you, how is my husband, the children?”
She would say, “Everybody is fine. We are all doing all we can for you.”
I didn’t want to go any further lest they would stop me from calling her.
I’m horrified by “waterboarding”—that American leaders actually discuss whether it’s torture or it’s not torture. I was always very cautious not to complain to my interrogators because if I said something they would immediately come back and say, “What about Guantánamo? What about Abu Ghraib?” There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who went through Evin Prison and were beaten up or tortured or harassed. Torture is immoral.
WQ: Do you think your interrogators really believed that you were guilty of trying to foment revolution?
Esfandiari: I don’t know. The first time they used the expression “velvet revolution,” I said, “What is that?” They thought I was being clever. But then they found out that I truly didn’t know.
From their point of view, it makes sense. Their argument is that the United States is probably not going to attack Iran because it is bogged down in Afghanistan and in Iraq. But the United States would like to bring about a regime change in Iran. How would they go about it but through a soft revolution or a velvet revolution? How do you succeed in fomenting such a revolution? Through foundations, universities, and think tanks. By organizing conferences and workshops, and empowering women. By providing money for local NGOs, supporting civil society activities, and by looking for the best and the brightest among the intellectuals, bringing them together with colleagues in the United States and Europe and creating a network of like-minded people who then go back to Iran and discuss democratization, opening up the society, and then push for regime change.
According to my interrogators, the Ministry of Intelligence had a room full of charts proving this. They dismissed the notion that the Wilson Center is nonpartisan. The mission statement of the Center says it “aims to unite the world of ideas to the world of policy by supporting preeminent scholarship and linking that scholarship to issues of concern to officials in Washington.” They highlighted that sentence and said, “Here you are. Your mission is to link.”
And I said, “Yes, but to link means to bring together people of different backgrounds and different ways of thinking and expose them to each other.” They didn’t buy that. They said, “People would accept your invitation, would come to the Wilson Center, and through you would meet intelligence officers and members of the State Department.”
Iran has convinced itself that it is encircled by the United States. They see the U.S. in the Persian Gulf, in Central Asia, in Afghanistan; and NATO is in Turkey. They feel as if they are under siege. They don’t expect a military offensive, so what is left, they think, but to use NGOs and women’s groups and universities to bring change? They have convinced themselves this is true.
WQ: How did they treat you: as an American or an Iranian, as a grandmother or a scholar?
Esfandiari: They convinced themselves that I was misguided and was of no use. I think it was partly because I was an older person. I could have been either their mother or their grandmother. They were very much concerned that I was losing a lot of weight. Maybe they thought, “She is sick, and if we raise our voice or keep her for long hours she is going to fall apart.” Because I was an Iranian American, they thought there would be an outcry.
Maybe they thought, “She is sick, and if we raise our voice or keep her for long hours she is going to fall apart.” Because I was an Iranian American, they thought there would be an outcry.
WQ: When you went to Iran, did you realize the risk you were taking? One of your colleagues remembers saying to you before you left, “It’s so dangerous to go there. Aren’t you worried?” And your answer was, “Oh, they know me.”
Esfandiari: I have been going several times a year for almost 14 years, and of course, every time you go to the Middle East, you take your life in your hands. I thought I was secure. But my experience showed that despite being a student of Iran I was very naive. I should have known that eventually they would become suspicious as to why someone like me goes to Iran so often. The reason is that my 93-year-old mother lives there. I would go two or three times a year, and my sister would go once a year. Between us, we made sure that somebody was with her every three months to help her with her accounts, to look after her for a week to see what her needs are, and so on.
WQ: Has your mother ever considered leaving?
Esfandiari: No. Never. She married my father and came to Iran and has lived all her life there. She wants to die in Iran and be buried next to my father.
WQ: She’s not afraid?
Esfandiari: Of what?
WQ: Of the government.
Esfandiari: No, absolutely.
WQ: Is she worried about losing her apartment because she had to put it up for bail so you could be released?
Esfandiari: We just have to wait and see. I have not been charged, and they haven’t announced a court case. I have a lawyer in Iran, so if it comes to that, we’ll see what we can do.
WQ: At one point, Iranian television ran a “documentary” that some commentators called a “confession.”
Esfandiari: I haven’t seen it yet. Three other people were featured as well. I’m told they showed clips of Central Asian countries and focused on the idea of a velvet revolution.
During my first week in prison, they said they wanted to interview me on camera. I said that “whatever I have been telling you and writing to you I’m more than happy to say on camera.” I didn’t want to start bargaining, because I had nothing to hide.
One day they announced that we were going to do the taping on Thursday. I talked for an hour; it was as if I was lecturing. I gave my age. I said I was raised in Iran, went to school in Iran, went to university in Austria, came back, worked as a journalist, and then joined a women’s organization. My last work in Iran before the revolution was running a group of museums and cultural centers. They still exist and are quite active. There was nothing political.
WQ: There’s one place in the TV program where you’re talking about foundations, and then all of a sudden you’re quoted as saying, “The objective is to bring about change in Iranian decision-making institutions.” In what context did that come up?
Esfandiari: What I was saying was that the erroneous perception in Iran is that if you take part in conferences, if you arrange workshops, if you talk to like-minded people, it’s with one aim only and that is to bring about change. My husband and my daughter said my sentences sometimes didn’t hang together and a lot of cutting and pasting had taken place.
WQ: Going back to December 30, 2006, when your ordeal began, you were going to the airport in a taxi at about 1 am. Is robbery a problem in Iran?
Esfandiari: Tehran used to be very secure, but no longer. Four men blocked the car, jumped out with knives, and told the driver to open the trunk. One took my suitcase, the other pulled my carryon bag from the front seat, and a third took my purse. “At least give me my ticket and my passport,” I asked, but they took everything. They could easily have kidnapped me, which also takes place in Tehran. As days passed, more and more friends and acquaintances said this is not your ordinary robbery. This must have had a political motive.
WQ: Those of us around for the Iranian hostage-taking in 1979 remember that when the hostages were eventually released, they tried to sue the Iranian government. Have you thought of suing?
Esfandiari: No, absolutely not. I’m an Iranian. How would I sue my own government?
WQ: How is Iran different from other countries in the Middle East?
Esfandiari: Iran is a real country, not one carved up or put together in the last century. It has a 2,500-year history. Persian is an Indo-European language. Iranians are not Arabs, they are Aryans. They are highly educated people, highly nationalistic, and very much aware of their culture and tradition. Although it’s an Islamic country, the majority of the people are Shiite, not Sunni. What is important and is Iranian and not Islamic is the Persian New Year, which starts on the 21st of March, a tradition that goes back to pre-Islamic days. That really sets them apart from the rest of the region.
WQ: Given its legacy, do you think it’s ironic that Iran is now regarded as the bad guy in the Middle East?
Esfandiari: Political development has nothing to do with the culture and history of a country. The United States and Iran have been at odds since the Islamic Revolution. It started with the hostage crisis and went gradually from bad to worse. The Iranians on a number of occasions have tried to show goodwill, but every time the Iranians tried to reach out, the United States either didn’t welcome it or understand it, or something came up. So now such bad feelings—that’s putting it very mildly—exist between the two governments that unless they sit and talk to each other, there is no way to settle their differences. They have to sit face to face and talk. Diplomacy, exchanges among NGOs, conferences, are all wonderful. But at the end, it’s the governments who have to make the ultimate decisions. And so far these two governments, the United States and Iran, have not really talked to one another. As long as they don’t, relations will probably get worse. There are many problems on the table: the nuclear issue (on which I am not well versed), Iran’s involvement in Iraq, Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Iran’s support of Hamas. It’s the question of terrorism, although the Iranians were not at all involved in the 9/11 incident in the United States.
WQ: Do you think the United States can accept a nuclear Iran?
Esfandiari: I think the United States probably will not have much choice; it will have to accept a highly developed peaceful nuclear program there. The United States has accepted and is living with a nuclear Pakistan. Pakistan is a much more volatile country than Iran. Iran’s foreign policy, although often problematic, has also been measured and pragmatic. The Iranian population supports a peaceful nuclear program. It’s not a whim of the government. It started under the shah and it has continued. Taking out these nuclear facilities or bombing them would alienate the population against the United States and only delay the nuclear program for another 10, 15 years, but that’s it.
Iranians are the only people in the region who like the United States. Average Iranians are very fond of America and would like to send their children to study there and visit and so on, but there are visa restrictions.
WQ: Do you think Iran sponsors terrorism in Iraq?
Esfandiari: I can’t say. I think they have a presence in Iraq. Sure. The majority of the population is Shiite in Iraq, and there is a close relationship between the two holy places of Najaf on the Iraq side and Qom in Iran. The head of the judiciary in Iran has roots in Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani, the leader of the Shiite community in Iraq, is an Iranian. The Revolutionary Guards are probably there; they don’t deny it. But whether they are the reason for the mess in Iraq, I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.
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As part of an international effort by intellectuals, NGOs, and her colleagues, Lee H. Hamilton, director of the Wilson Center, appealed to the Iranian president, vice president, speaker of the parliament, and eventually to Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Iran’s spiritual leader. Two months later, Khameni wrote back. The issue would be addressed, he said. Esfandiari was released on August 21. She returned to work at the Wilson Center within days. She was interviewed by Wilson Quarterly senior editor Judith Havemann.
Cover photo courtesy of Flickr/Gabriel White