"They Tried to Break My Spirit"
Middle East Program Director Haleh Esfandiari chronicles her 2007 incarceration in Iran in her new book, My Prison, My Home.
In 2007, Middle East Program Director Haleh Esfandiari was detained in Iran for eight months, undergoing lengthy government interrogations and spending 105 days in solitary confinement at Evin Prison, erroneously accused of trying to foment a velvet revolution. Her new book, My Prison, My Home, chronicles her interrogation and incarceration, set against the backdrop of fond memories of her Iranian upbringing, with insights into the current troubled political climate.
Haleh was raised in what she called "a gentler, simpler Iran of the 1940s and 50s," and would become part of a new generation of professional women, pursuing a career while pushing for greater legal rights for women. She left Iran shortly before the 1979 revolution. After the revolution, Iran's security services began to expand and U.S.-Iranian relations underwent a tremendous change. In recent years, under President Ahmadinejad, she said the Intelligence Ministry grew exponentially in power and influence.
When Haleh headed to Tehran, Iran in December 2006, she intended to spend a week visiting her ailing 93-year-old mother. On her way to the airport heading back to the U.S., knife-wielding men prevented her from leaving the country. Then after four months of interrogations conducted by the Intelligence Ministry, while staying at her mother's apartment, she was arrested on May 8. Haleh described the booking process at Evin Prison. She said being led around blindfolded was "disorienting and humiliating. You worry you will crack your head on a low beam or break your legs falling down unseen stairs."
Her prison cell contained a broken iron sink, a blanket, and a copy of the Qur'an. Fluorescent lights were on all the time. She knew how many months were going by each time she saw another full moon through the small, barred window of her cell.
In solitary confinement for 105 days, Haleh spent her days exercising and writing two books in her head. Denied her eye medicine and with the lights always on, she rationed her reading. She was cut off from the outside world, from any news, unaware if outside efforts were being made on her behalf. Her only contacts with people were female prison guards, her interrogators, and a quick, occasional, monitored phone call to her mother.
Haleh endured many hours of interrogation, sometimes eight hours at a time. She said interrogators tried to wear her down and catch her in a discrepancy. "They tried to break my spirit," Haleh said. But she stayed focused and strong. "Early in my incarceration, I decided I had to avoid giving in to despair," she said. Every night, she reviewed her answers, devising strategies while preparing for the next day's questioning. "It kept me quite busy," she said with an ironic smile.
Haleh recalled the interrogator's tone was menacing and intimidating. He grew frustrated and kept pressing her, accusing her of conspiracy, trying to implicate the Wilson Center in the groundless conspiracy plot. "I didn't unravel for them a hidden agenda for regime change in Iran," she said. "Up to that moment, it had never occurred to me that a 67-year-old grandmother, barely 5 feet tall, weighing 105 pounds, could be a threat to the security of the most powerful country in the region."
At the prison, Haleh got a fuller understanding of the paranoia of the Intelligence Ministry about America's intentions toward Iran. Haleh explained their belief that Iranian academics, intellectuals, and journalists were plotting to start a "velvet revolution" like the ones that overthrew regimes in Ukraine and Georgia. Arresting her and other scholars, she said, would expose the plot to a skeptical Iranian public. Her case, she said, illustrates what can happen when innocent people get caught between inter-state conflict. Both Iran and the United States "are conducting a silent war. I and many like me were caught in the crossfire."
Today, she said, "the same twisted and dangerous mindset is being played out on the national stage." Hardliners have turned against reformist colleagues, as seen in the trials of many who protested results of the June 12 presidential election.
One of her worst moments at Evin Prison, she recalled, was a forced taped television appearance. "I felt soiled, somehow dirtied by the experience," she said. Even though she did not make a false confession or implicate anyone, she did not know how they might manipulate the footage.
Toward the end of her incarceration, she became frail, weighing just 85 pounds. She never showed weakness but said, "Despite my best effort, despair, which lurked in every corner of my prison cell, sometimes overcame me...The loneliness was overwhelming; the idea of a trial and long sentence was unbearable."
But then one day, her interrogator told of a letter Wilson Center Director Lee Hamilton wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei and that his reply was at the Iranian mission in New York. When, soon after, she was informed of her freedom, she at first thought it was just a cruel joke. But then, within two weeks after her release, she was allowed to fly home to Washington.
"When the airplane door clicked shut, it signaled not confinement but my return to my family, friends, and freedom," she said. "As I looked out the window, I said, ‘So long Iran, but not goodbye.'"