Interview: Haleh Esfandiari

Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari discusses her 105 days of solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison, and explains why the Obama administration shouldn't stop pressing the Islamic Republic on human rights.

Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American academic who heads the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, returned to Tehran in late 2006 to visit her then 93-year-old mother. As she was heading to the airport to leave Iran, her car was forced off the road by armed men who stole her belongings and her passport. As she attempted to obtain replacement travel documents, she was questioned by Iranian intelligence officials about her work at the Wilson Center. On May 8, 2007, she was formally arrested and transferred to the notorious Evin prison. She was kept in solitary confinement, often blindfolded and totally disconnected from the outside world.

After an international campaign calling for her release, the Iranian authorities freed Esfandiari after 105 days of imprisonment, on Aug. 21, 2007. She recently published My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran, detailing her experiences leading up to and during her imprisonment. Foreign Policy's David Kenner caught up with Esfandiari this week to discuss her book and to hear her thoughts on the Iranian regime's continuing attempts to cope with the protests that swept the country following June's presidential election.


Foreign Policy: The Iranian government held you in Iran for eight months and in solitary confinement for 105 days. In your book, you wrote that you were sometimes interrogated for six to eight hours at a time. What question did they ask more than any other question? What did they want to know?

Haleh Esfandiari: They were interested, basically, in the nature of my work at the Wilson Center. They would say: OK, who is financing the work of these centers? I would say look, just go on our Web site. And of course, we get funds from different organizations: from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Luce Foundation, and the Soros Foundation. They focused on the Soros Foundation. They said, aha! Soros was involved in promoting a soft revolution in what used to be the Soviet Union. And now they are focusing on Iran.


Don't forget: I was arrested under the Bush administration, and they were very suspicious of the administration. There was this loose talk going on in Washington about regime change. And "rogue states," the "axis of evil" -- all these things. Plus, Congress had allocated $75 million to promote democracy in Iran. So there is this sense of paranoia among the Intelligence Ministry and the government of President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.

FP: You mentioned the $75 million Congress allocated to democracy programs in Iran. Do you still believe, even after the June protests, that it is counterproductive for the United States to provide money to Iranian NGOs for democracy promotion programs?

HE: Every time we had a representative of NGOs speaking at the Wilson Center, they would say we are not going to touch this money because this would give the regime a reason to limit our activities or close our organization. So, my argument all along has been that [the U.S. government should] get in touch with the civil society people in Iran. If they want to accept it, they'll take it. If they don't want to accept it, don't try and do it through back channels.

If an NGO thinks they can, hypothetically, take $1 million from the U.S. to set up educational workshops, not necessarily to promote democracy but to do vocational training for men and women, why not? Give it to them. The people on the ground always know best, better than the people who are just sitting [in Washington] and judging the situation from afar.

FP: Did your detention change your opinion about the Iranian government?

HE: Sure. I truly was very disappointed in them. I can understand their feeling of being under siege by the United States, but I cannot understand why such a powerful government, who looks at itself as the strongest power in the Persian Gulf, would worry about a soft revolution. ... [A]t the end [of the imprisonment], I wasn't sure why they arrested me. But now, two years later, I can understand. When, now, they have gone after their own people and brought the same accusations against them.

FP: Do you think the Iranian government will begin accusing members of the opposition movement of the same things which they accused you?

HE: They have accused them. They have accused former Vice President [Muhammad Ali] Abtahi. They have accused [Iranian reformer Saeed] Hajjarian. They have accused a number of cabinet ministers and former members of parliament for being part of this effort of bringing about change through soft means.

They look at the Green movement just as they looked at the Orange movement [in Ukraine] and the Rose movement [in Georgia]. Which is shocking to me, because Mr. Karroubi and Mr. Mousavi and the rest all have perfect revolutionary credentials. They didn't want a revolution; they were basically talking about change, and that was that. They didn't want to overthrow the regime.


FP: Reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi has charged that some of his supporters who were arrested after the June election protests were tortured and raped in prison. This week, Iranian state media reported that the government might prosecute Karroubi for his statements. You said you were not abused in Evin prison, but are you confident other people were treated humanely?

HE: No. I'm not at all confident. I believe what Mr. Karroubi says, and there are enough documents and there is a history of Evin pre- and post-revolution, where people were arrested, beaten, and tortured. You have the example of the Canadian journalist [Zahra Kazemi] [six] years ago. She was arrested outside Evin prison, taken in, and beaten to death. I was terribly frightened when they took me to jail because I thought that this could happen to me, too. I mean, when I say I was well-treated, I mean that I was not tortured and beaten, but I was in solitary confinement, blindfolded, and facing the wall in interrogations, not knowing whether it was day or night, not knowing the time, cut off from the rest of the world. I just had one visit in those three months.

They have gone after the opposition leaders ... [but so far] they haven't touched Karroubi, [presidential candidate Mir Hossein] Mousavi, and [former President Mohammad] Khatami. I don't believe that they will go after them. Why turn them into martyrs? Karroubi is a cleric, and it seldom happens that you go after a cleric. There is a lot of talk that he should go in front of a clerical court and explain the allegations of rape and torture. But then on the other hand, something must have been going on in Kahrizak [prison], or else why did Mr. [Ali] Khamenei order the closure of Kahrizak?

FP: Do you see any sea change among Iranian-American intellectuals regarding engaging with Iran?

HE: I'll talk about myself because each of us has a different opinion on this issue. I still believe in engagement. But in Geneva two weeks ago and next week in Vienna, when [the Western powers and Iran] sit and talk, the human rights issues must also be on the table. They should not just focus on the nuclear issue. That's what the Iranians would love to do. But no, they should also talk about the human rights issue, because it's very important.

Look, we have three American hikers sitting in jail somewhere in Iran. You have an Iranian-American, Kian Tajbakhsh, sitting in jail. You have Maziar Bahari, the Canadian-American who worked for Newsweek, sitting in jail. Plus, there are thousands of Iranian activists who are sitting in jail. Talk about them -- talk about them all the time! What really helped me get out was this international pressure, day in and day out. ...You have to bring pressure.

FP: Do you think the government effectively squashed the movement that arose during last June's election, or will the protesters be back?

HE: Oh sure, they will still be around. This has been the story of the younger Iranian generation in the last 30 years. They come out into the street, they protest, they are sent home, the universities are attacked, they keep quiet for a year -- and then they come out again. The people who were in the streets 30 years ago are now in the government; the people who were in the streets 20 years ago are also in there. You have one generation after another coming out in the streets and protesting.


Seven Questions: Rafiq Husseini

Rafiq Husseini, one of President Mahmoud Abbas's closest advisors, discusses the recent tensions in Jerusalem -- and what it says about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

On Sept. 27, Palestinians hurled rocks at a group of visitors at the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem; they thought the visitors were Jewish fundamentalists and wanted to ward them away from the holy site. Clashes escalated over the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and Israel barred all male worshipers under 50 from entering the mosque. As happened during the first and second intifadas, violence spread throughout East Jerusalem, with Israeli police arresting dozens of Palestinian protesters. The paralysis over the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and continuing tension over Jewish settlement expansion in East Jerusalem added fuel to the flames.

As this tense situation unfolded, Foreign Policy interviewed Rafiq H. Husseini, chief of staff for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. They discussed how the conflict started -- and where it might lead.

Foreign Policy: Could you describe the series of events that have resulted in the recent tensions in Jerusalem and how the situation has gotten as bad as it is today?

Rafiq Husseini: The tensions did not start last week. The tensions have been ongoing since this new Israeli government [took] over, with its aim to fulfill its objective of ensuring that East Jerusalem is never returned to Palestinian sovereignty. An active program of putting Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem has been progressing, including evictions of Palestinians.

But the tensions have now increased. ... [N]ow groups of fundamentalists want to go inside the al-Aqsa mosque and the al-Haram al-Sharif, which is an Islamic holy shrine. Every day we fear that Israeli fundamentalist groups [will] declare that this area is the Temple Mount and that they want to build the third temple on the ruins of the existing Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

FP: Last week, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said, "[T]he battle is underway for sovereignty of Jerusalem and particularly over the Temple Mount." Do you see this as part of a struggle for Jerusalem between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

RH: Well, [the al-Aqsa mosque] is a Palestinian holy shrine. Why should there be a battle for it, or its sovereignty? This is a Palestinian, Arab, Islamic holy shrine that has been there for almost 1,500 years. Therefore, the battle is unfortunately not between the Palestinians and the Israelis over sovereignty. It is a battle by extremist Israeli groups backed by a government of extremists to try to re-create 2,000 years of history.

This is not acceptable. The issue has been turned by this Israeli government into a religious battle ... not only a clash of nationalistic viewpoints.

FP: Can you describe the difference, from your perspective, between the current Benjamin Netanyahu government and the Kadima government which preceded it?

RH: First of all, I think the Kadima government ... accepted that they want to put all the issues for discussion between us on the table, including Jerusalem. They also understood the sensitivity of the subject. Although they involved themselves in some settlement plans in East Jerusalem, they were much more receptive and understood the tensions and what these issues can bring -- how they can damage both peoples.

Also, there were channels of communication between the two leaderships, so when an issue like what is happening in Jerusalem was about to take place, these issues were talked about and solved, most of the time. Today, these channels are completely blocked and closed.


FP: President Mahmoud Abbas called for a general strike to occur last Friday. What does the strike hope to accomplish?

RH: Well, it hopes to ensure that the message is heard by the world. Because [this tension] is now bringing us back to square one. It is bringing us away from a supposedly negotiated settlement over issues that are related to the two peoples, two nations. ... Therefore, what we need to do is try to make sure that the world understands and the world then stops Israel from doing what it's doing.

Because Israel, as you know, is the power on the ground. It is the one with the guns, the police, and the soldiers. It is the one that is allowing settlers and fundamentalist Jewish groups to claim East Jerusalem and especially the Muslim holy shrines of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. [They] continue to say that there is no al-Aqsa mosque and that there is no Dome of the Rock, that there is only Solomon's Temple. Unfortunately, this is what the Israeli municipality is saying officially in all its publications.

FP: Do you see a risk of this clashing getting much worse in the coming days?

RH: Well, I am not sure how bad [the situation will get]. We do not want these clashes to get any worse. All the intifadas in the later years have started with a clash around the mosque and around al-Haram al-Sharif. And we don't want this to happen.

[W]e are asking the Israelis to restrain these people, to keep them away, so that we do not go into another cycle of violence and then there is the total collapse of the peace process. Today, the peace process is in intensive care, and it is struggling.

FP: Do you accuse the Netanyahu government of wanting the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque, like you accuse some of these "fundamentalist groups" of trying to do?

RH: The Netanyahu government is a weak government based, unfortunately, on fundamentalist groups. And therefore, they are taking the counsel of these groups, and this is why these groups can do anything they like and not fear any restrictions by the weak and incapable Israeli government of today.

FP: Is there any difference between the position of Hamas and the position of the PLO on the al-Aqsa issue?

RH: Well, I don't know if there is any difference on the al-Aqsa issue. But I can tell you that there is a big difference between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on all the political and social issues concerning the Palestinian-Israeli question. And therefore, whereas there could be similar positions [on this issue], that does not mean that we agree on how to resolve the difference. We want peace, we want coexistence, and we want a two-state solution. We want Jerusalem to be the capital of two states and three religions. This is what we want. And we are advocating diversity and tolerance. I am not sure that Hamas is advocating the same thing.

Rafiq H. Husseini is chief of staff of the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

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