Imprisoned Iranian-American scholar is back in the saddle

Stephanie Kuykendal/Getty Images News

Her long nightmare is over and already she's back at the office! Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Wilson Center's Middle East Program and a past FP contributor, spent 4 months under house arrest in Tehran, followed by another 4 months of solitary confinement in Evin Prison. She was released from jail on August 21, was allowed to leave Iran after a couple weeks, and finally arrived back in the United States last Thursday. After spending the weekend with relatives and friends, she arrived at the Wilson Center Monday morning for a press conference.

Esfandiari is a small woman, and had lost significant weight during her prison stay, but her smile during the press conference was bigger than the entire room. During the Q&A, she displayed courage, resilience, and a remarkable sense of good humor. 

I had blocked, you know, thinking about my husband, my daughter, my grandchildren, the house; I blocked all that out because that would have led me to despair. So, for eight months, or for the four months in prison, I didn't think about it.

I dreamt of my first staff meeting at the Wilson Center. (Laughter.) I seriously did. I really did that, I said, OK, I would [not] tell anybody I'm in town ... I would open the door Monday morning at 9:00, walk in to the staff meeting and everybody [would say], "She's here!"

To survive her stay in prison, she imposed a strict schedule on herself, rising early each day for exercise in her cell, with a regimen of reading every evening. Her only contact was with her interrogators, who repeatedly asked her about whether or not the Wilson Center was engaged in efforts to topple Iran. But they were always polite and respectful.

As for her thoughts on her ordeal, Esfandiari harbors no bitterness towards Tehran. She still believes that the U.S. and Iranian governments should hold talks. And she expects to dive right back into her work for peace throughout the Middle East. To learn about details of her imprisonment, as well as her thoughts on U.S.-Iranian relations, I strongly urge you to read the entire transcript of her press conference here.  She's a remarkable woman who's been through a remarkable ordeal.


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