Prisoner of Tehran

SHAUL BAKHASH teaches Middle Eastern history at George Mason University in Virginia.

ON MAY 8, the walls of Tehran’s Evin prison closed around my wife, Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar, grandmother and dual citizen of Iran and the United States.

Haleh, director of the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, went to Iran in late December to visit her 93-year-old mother, a trip she has made almost twice each year for a decade or more. On Dec. 30, on her way to the airport to fly back to Washington, she was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men who took all her belongings, including her Iranian and U.S. passports. In retrospect, it was clearly an inside job; Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence fielding “highwaymen” against Iran’s own citizens.

Without a passport, Haleh was forced to return to her mother’s apartment. When she tried to apply for a new one, a member of the Ministry of Intelligence took her aside. Over the next six weeks, Haleh was subjected to 50 hours of interrogation.


At first, she told me by e-mail and phone, her inquisitors asked about her work, who spoke at what conference, where and when -- things they could easily find with the click of a mouse on the Wilson Center’s website. But Haleh told them what she remembered about the lectures, exchanges, panels and classes she had arranged. To help with the details, I e-mailed piles of downloaded documents at night.

If the questions seemed almost laughable, the interrogations were not. They were accompanied by threats, accusations and intimidation -- and always the implication that Haleh was involved in something nefarious. She also was pressured to provide information she did not have, to identify alleged “networks” of whose existence she was unaware, to admit that she was holding things back. She refused.

Then, on Feb. 14, the interrogations ended. Except for two unpleasant phone calls from her interrogators inviting her to “cooperate” and warning her that worse things were to come if she did not, there was silence -- for 10 weeks. But on May 7, Haleh was called to the Ministry of Intelligence. The next day, when she arrived for her appointment, she was arrested. The unofficial charge, we would later find out, was working for an organization that was conspiring to foment a “velvet” revolution in Iran.

Since her incarceration 17 days ago, Haleh has been allowed only one- or two-minute phone calls with her mother. She speaks as if a minder is present. No visits are allowed, no legal representation. With so little contact, I have every reason to assume the worst: that she is subject to blindfolding, solitary confinement and harsh, even brutal interrogation calculated to extract a false confession.

Some suggest that hard-liners wanted Haleh in custody to block next week’s U.S.-Tehran talks. Others say the government wants to trade her for Iranians held in Iraq. This is mere speculation. The only explanation I’ve been given came in a statement issued Monday by the Ministry of Intelligence, a fantastical accusation that reveals the imaginary web Tehran wants to weave to entrap my wife and others.

It goes like this: American think tanks such as the Wilson Center are advancing a U.S. government plan for a “soft toppling” of Iran, creating “links” between Iranian intellectuals and U.S. institutions and forming “informal communication networks” that can then be used “against the sovereignty of the country.” In effect, in the eyes of the Iranian government, any exchange among scholars is tantamount to treasonous conspiracy.

Should you wake up one day to find your wife or child or parent in the hands of the secret police in a country that routinely violates the rule of law, you will likely choose quiet probing over publicity. You have no recourse to law or courts. You fear publicity may make things worse. You believe, almost always wrongly, that if you work quietly, use the contacts you have and wait reasonably, the nightmare will be over.

When Haleh was initially prevented from leaving Iran and the interrogations began, it was principally at my insistence that we did not “go public.” Repeatedly I was told by those who supposedly understand the inner workings of Iran: “Don’t worry; it’s only an interrogation; once they have finished with their questions, they will let her go.”

Once Haleh was arrested, however, silence was no longer an option. It is preposterous that she is accused of conspiring to overthrow the Iranian government by organizing conferences and encouraging dialogue between Iranians and Americans. The Wilson Center issued a fact sheet; Lee Hamilton, its president and director, held a news conference; and I began to speak openly about Haleh’s frightening predicament.

The extraordinary media attention, as well as the support for Haleh from presidential candidates and political leaders, from scholars and academic associations, from the students at Princeton University who she taught to love the Persian language, from women’s groups, human rights organizations and people everywhere have astonished and gratified her family and friends.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of a state’s overweening power -- especially a state that arrests, incarcerates and accuses its citizens at will. But the events of the last few weeks -- the universal condemnation Iran has earned by imprisoning Haleh and others -- have taught me that people also have power when they condemn injustice and stand up for wronged individuals. Is the Iranian government listening?