Skip to main content

Statement on the Arrest in Tehran of Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a dual Iranian-American national, was arrested in Tehran on May 8 and incarcerated in the Evin Prison.The following is background on her unjustified arrest.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a dual Iranian-American national, was arrested in Tehran on May 8 and incarcerated in the Evin Prison. The background to this entirely unjustified arrest is as follows:

Dr. Esfandiari went to Tehran in late December to visit her 93-year old mother. On December 30, on her way to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington, the taxi in which Dr. Esfandiari was riding was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men., They took away her baggage and handbag, including her Iranian and American passports.

Four days later, when applying for replacement Iranian travel documents at the passport office, Dr. Esfandiari was invited to an ‘interview' by a man who, it turned out, represented Iran's Ministry of Intelligence. This began a series of interrogations that stretched out over the next six weeks. These interrogations took place at two different locations, sometimes continuing for as many as four days a week, sometimes stretching across seven and eight hours in a single day. Although Dr. Esfandiari went home every evening, the some 50 hours of questioning were unpleasant and not free from intimidation and threat.

The questioning focused almost entirely on the activities and programs of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. Dr. Esfandiari answered all questions fully; when she understandably could not remember details of programs stretching back five and even eight years, the staff at the Wilson Center provided her all the information requested. As a public organization, all Wilson Center activities are on the public record. In fact, the interrogators could have obtained virtually all the information they sought in a far less cumbersome way—by a few clicks on the Wilson Center website and through Wilson Center publications.

Repeatedly during the interrogation, she was pressured to make a false confession or to falsely implicate the Wilson Center in activities in which it had no part.

On February 20th, Lee Hamilton, president and director of the Wilson Center, wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about Dr. Esfandiari's case, in order to call to his attention the dire situation in which Dr. Esfandiari had been placed by elements of the government of which the president may not have been aware. He pointed out the obvious: that the Wilson Center's mission is to provide a forum for the exchange of views; that the Wilson Center does not take positions on issues; and that it does not try to influence or to determine specific policies or directions of the Iranian Government or any government in the Middle East. He pointed out that there is no "agenda" behind Wilson Center programs on the Middle East, including Iran; that he would not allow it; nor would Dr. Esfandiari. He asked President Ahmadinejad to use his good offices to help send Dr. Esfandiari home.

This letter was transmitted to Tehran by the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. The president has yet to acknowledge or reply to it. Attempts to resolve this issue through various channels and without publicity were also not successful.

The lengthy interrogations stopped on February 14. Except for one threatening phone call on February 17, she has heard nothing from her interrogators for ten weeks. A few days ago, she was telephoned again. She was again invited to "cooperate." In effect, she was being asked to make a confession. She refused to make the false statements apparently required of her. On Monday, May 7th, she was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence once again. When she arrived for her appointment on Tuesday morning, she was put into a car and taken to Evin prison. She was allowed only one phone call to her mother. Her family has not heard from her since.

This needless harassment and unwarranted action has placed great strain on Dr. Esfandiari's family. Her mother, at 93, is in frail health. She herself needs to see her doctors and has been prevented from doing so by the withholding of her passport and, much worse, incarceration in Evin prison.

Despite numerous quiet and diplomatic efforts by many countries, organizations, and individuals ever since she was robbed of her passports December 30, 2006 and prevented from leaving Iran, she has been unable to obtain permission to leave Iran and join her family here.

Those efforts to obtain her release will continue and will be redoubled. She will be in our thoughts and prayers every day.

Related Links

Related Program

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more