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Scholar Recalls Captivity in Iranian Prison

Stephanie Kuykendal
Getty Images
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, speaks during a news conference, Sept. 10, 2007, in Washington, D.C.

Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari was held for more than 100 days at Tehran's Evin Prison. On one of those days, she walked onto a terrace outside her prison cell.

"I saw a white butterfly and I thought to myself, 'OK, I'm stuck here. What are you doing here?'" she recalled Monday.

Esfandiari was released from prison Aug. 21, and returned to her home in Maryland last week. For more than three months, sometimes eight hours a day, interrogators grilled Esfandiari, asking about conferences she sponsored. But on Monday, she told reporters she was neither mentally nor physically mistreated.


In an interview with Steve Inskeep in her office at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, she said she was "disappointed in Iran, [but] I'm not angry at it."

"I'm angry because I wasted eight months of my life. And when you are 67 years old, eight months is a long time. I was very much disappointed that they misunderstood what I did at the Wilson Center. That bothered me."

"They thought by organizing conferences abroad, or by arranging workshops for [women's organizations] especially, the United States and other governments wanted to empower these groups and thus create a regime change," Esfandiari said.

She said she was "absolutely not" organizing a revolution in Iran, but she wondered whether the Iranian government was so fragile that it couldn't tolerate an open debate.

"That was my question to them ... ," Esfandiari said. "I said, 'You are a strong government. You are a government with so much power and authority in the region. Why can't you tolerate workshops for women? Why can't you accept an exchange of scholars? Or why can't your university professors go abroad and take part in a conference?'"


Esfandiari said the Iranian authorities would counter by saying, "Well, that's how it started in the Soviet Union and that's how [the velvet revolution] started in Georgia, that's how it started in the Ukraine and so on."

At the Iranian prison, Esfandiari was held in a room the size of her Washington office. She was provided a folding table that served as a desk, where she could sit and read, write and eat. She was given six blankets. She slept on them at night and used them as a step to exercise during the day.

To pass the time, she wrote a book, a biography of her Iranian grandmother.

She memorized it rather than writing it down because she thought she'd have to show it to her interrogators.

Writing the book was a way to get her mind off her captivity.

"I didn't want to think about my husband," she said. "I didn't want to think about my daughter, my grandchildren because that would lead me to despair. So I decided, I'm going to think about someone who is no longer with me but was very dear to me, and that was my grandmother."

Iranian authorities now hold the deed to her 93-year-old mother's apartment in Tehran as bail. But Esfandiari said she does not expect to face formal charges.

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