Who Is Haleh Esfandiari? Why Is Iran Claiming She's a Spy? - US-Iran Politics, Not Esfandiari, Have Incited Iran's Crackdown
by Patricia Vásquez
Managing Editor, The WIP
On Monday, Iranian state-run television played video clips of a tired, exhausted looking Haleh Esfandiari, the highly regarded Director of the Middle East Program at the Smithsonian Institute's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Shown in the same video, but clearly recorded separately, was another Iranian-American, the New York-based social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant for George Soros' Open Society Institute.
An incredible story broke worldwide on Tuesday, July 17, 2007:
Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh both spoke in Farsi and appeared to be in homes or offices. Esfandiari was sitting, wearing typical Islamic clothing - a black headscarf that completely covered her hair, and what appeared to be the traditional black cloak called a chador.
Both have been held in Tehran's Evin prison since being arrested separately in May on charges of endangering Iranian national security. Two other Iranian-Americans face similar charges: Ali Shakeri, of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine, is in prison, while Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for Radio Farda, an American-financed station based in Europe, is free but barred from leaving Iran.
Tajbakhsh was heard saying the role "of the Soros Center after the collapse of communism was to focus on the Islamic world." Ms. Esfandiari was heard saying “In the name of dialogue, in the name of women’s rights, in the name of democracy.” Only snatches of their voices can be heard.Shaul Bakash, Esfandiari’s husband, a former professor of history at Princeton now holds a chair at the George Mason University in Virginia, in the history of the modern Middle East with special interest in the history of Iran. He was outraged by the broadcast. He declared,
“This is a mockery of the fact that she’s been in solitary confinement for 70 days with no contact with us, with her lawyers or with the outside world. She is shown as saying that she or somebody was involved in the “velvet revolution” in Georgia, but clearly they’re splicing and cutting her remarks in a way that is patently dishonest.
"It is shameful that Iran's leaders allow such reprehensible practices by the security agencies to continue; they only discredit Iran, not my wife. Haleh is shown saying she brought speakers and Iranian academics to the Wilson Center. Only a paranoid would suggest this amounts to criminal activity.
“The implication that Esfandiari was associated in any way with Georgia's political upheaval is "ridiculous," because she has never been to Georgia or engaged in any way with the country.
"If that is all they can produce, it is pretty thin gruel," he added.
So who is Haleh (ha-lay) Esfandiari? It depends on who you ask. What is clear is that she represents the very best that the United States (and Iran) has to offer – she is an educated, accomplished, loving woman; an outstanding scholar; a model citizen; a good mother and daughter deeply involved with her family; and an immigrant who has succeeded and contributed to this country and the world far beyond any normal expectations.
What is also clear is that she is caught in an unthinkable nightmare, transmuted into a pawn in a deadly game between proud, stubborn, arrogant heads of states wrestling ferociously with each other, each equally determined to win in a battle over power and ideology.
Professionally, she is Dr. Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, who holds a Ph.D. from the prestigious University of Vienna. An exceptional scholar, she is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, given "to individuals …who show exceptional merit and promise of continued creative work." Without question, she is highly regarded by her peers. One scholar has described her as the "gold standard" of Middle East analysts.
Not just a scholar but also a writer, at Princeton University Dr. Esfandiari didn’t just teach her students Persian language and literature, she taught them to love it as she did. Former students say her passion for her homeland was contagious! She taught Farsi using Persian folk tales, poetry which she effortlessly recited by heart, and old black-and-white films. She even cooked them Persian food. Before coming to the States in 1979, she worked in Iran as a young journalist for the Farsi edition of Iran's leading newspaper, Kayhan. She met her husband there, who worked for the English edition.Bakhash smiles when describing "this energetic journalist with those lovely green eyes." Before leaving for Britain in 1978 with her then 12 year old daughter, she served as an official of the Women's Organization of Iran as well as of a foundation and cultural center in Tehran. Her articles on Iranian women have appeared in numerous publications.
Former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton is the Director of Wilson Center. He knows her well. Also co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, together with former Secretary of State James Baker, he is no stranger to the state of affairs in the Middle East. In his perspective, few American scholars have done more than Esfandiari, a Shiite Muslim, to advocate "open debate and dialogue" between two countries that have been at odds for almost three decades.
He notes, "The U.S.-Iranian relationship suffers from more than a quarter-century of no dialogue and no talks. She wanted bridges, not walls. She wanted people to talk, not dictate. She wanted people to listen and learn, not filibuster and spin."
Her record bears this out. Unlike so many foreign-policy analysts, Esfandiari rarely spoke out in public, especially on Iran issues. She felt strongly that her position as an objective scholar was to maintain balance. She has always actively avoided the talk show circuit and media interviews. Esfandiari made a particular point of never appearing on the Voice of America, a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government since so many abroad view it simply as a mouthpiece for the government.
As head of the Middle East Program, she consciously brought people of diverse backgrounds and political views to speak at the Wilson Center. In the last year, the center presented 53 programs with 128 speakers from 24 countries. Her insistence on allowing speakers who represented Iran’s views to have a forum even caused some in the exile community to criticize her as a spokesperson for the government in Iran. Esfandiari's own seminars covered the entire Middle East.
However, Esfandiari's personal passion is and has always been women's rights. To suggest that she was fomenting a“velvet-revolution” falls somewhere between the absurd and the outrageous.
Esfandiari holds dual American and Iranian passports, something the Iranian government does not recognize. In Iran, once an Iranian, always and only an Iranian. That is how she got into the trouble she is now in. Her personal story is unusual and interesting: her father was a Shiite Muslim, her mother an Austrian Catholic who came to love Iran. Even after Fanny Esfandiari was widowed, she chose to stay in Iran; her choice necessitated that her daughter travel back and forth from the US to see her as she aged. That was how she was ensnared.
But Haleh is not just a dry academic: Robin Wright speaks often on Sunday morning talk shows and is herself a noted Middle East analyst who writes for the Washington Post. She described her colleague, Haleh Esfandiari, as “a birdlike powerhouse of a woman, weighing in at barely 100 pounds.” Friends and family say Haleh is not only attractive and lively, but a warm, welcoming and gracious hostess, who, at 67, delights in her grandchildren, two little girls of 4 and 6 years of age.
How a brilliant, beloved academic ended up in Tehran’s worst jail
Haleh went to Iran in late December to visit her mother, by now 93 years old, as she had done almost twice each year for a decade or more. However, on Dec. 30, on her way to the airport to fly back to Washington, she was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men. They seized all her belongings, including her Iranian and U.S. passports.
Without any passport, Haleh had to return to her mother's apartment. Over the next six weeks, Haleh was subjected to over 50 hours of interrogation. Then, for 10 weeks, she heard nothing. On May 8th, when summoned back to the Intelligence Ministry, she was taken immediately to Evin prison, Tehran's Alcatraz.
Her appalled family then retained the legal services of the extraordinary Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian attorney who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize; she was once incarcerated in Evin prison herself. They chose her partly because she, like Haleh, is a "conscious Muslim," as the Nobel committee remarked in its citation - that she sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights. It is important to her, the committee said, that the dialogue between the different cultures and religions of the world should take as its point of departure their shared values.Ebadi represents not only her own views but Esfandiari’s when she says, "We need an interpretation of Islam that leaves much more space for women to take action. We need an Islam that is compatible with democracy and one that's respectful of individual rights."
As Ebadi describes it, the cells in Evin prison are very small. Prisoners in the security ward where Esfandiari has been held have only a blanket to sleep on, not a mattress. Interrogations, often conducted at midnight or later, routinely involve intimidation and threats, as well as wild fabrications designed to alarm detainees, in hopes of coercing false confessions.
Esfandiari has been denied any contact with her lawyer. In June 2007, in Foreign Policy, before the airing of yesterday’s broadcast on Iranian TV, Bakash summarized his wife’s situation this way:
Shirin Ebadi went to the Revolutionary Court, which is handling Haleh's case, two days after a judiciary spokesperson said that she could represent her. But she was not given a meeting with the prosecutor handling the case, or even allowed into the building. The interrogator refused to accept the power of attorney that Ms. Ebadi had, and therefore refused to allow her to look at the file.
Ebadi tried twice more to secure a meeting with the interrogator handling the case, but did not succeed. The interrogator even said, "Haleh Esfandiari does not need a lawyer."
As Ebadi wrote the court, “The politically accused are denied the rights enshrined in law for ordinary defendants... I hope your positive order will put an end to this treatment and my defendants are freed soon and [can] return home.”
Bakash was already terribly worried about his wife’s health, and even more so after seeing how thin and pale she looked on TV. He says,
Haleh is 67 years old. She has a serious eye problem, macular degeneration, which requires constant monitoring, and she hasn't been able to see her eye doctor since she was stopped from leaving Iran. She also has a bone condition which needs monitoring, and we're not sure whether she has the medications she needs in Evin prison. On one occasion, when her mother tried to deliver some pills that she needs, they refused to accept delivery at the prison gate.
One time she did ask for a lawyer, but otherwise, Bakhash says, her concern when they were able to speak was always the same: "I'm okay. How are the grandchildren?"
How could a woman like this be a spy?
Patricia is covering Haleh's fight for freedom on The WIP as the story continues to unfold. Later in the week, be sure to read her second installation in this series, "The Factors That Landed Haleh Esfandiari in Jail" - Ed.