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.