IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Freed Iranian prisoner still unsure why she was held

Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar and grandmother who languished in an Iranian prison for four long months, fought off despair by exercising, reading and writing.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar and grandmother, languished in an Iranian prison for four long months without ever knowing why. Finally freed, she told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Tuesday that she fought off despair by exercising, reading and writing.“I just didn’t want them to wear me down, to break my spirit,” Esfandiari told Vieira.To pass the time, she devised ways to avoid thinking about the seeming hopelessness of her condition. “What would stop me from thinking would be exercising, because then I have to count constantly. Then reading, [and] I wrote a book, a biography about my grandmother,” she recalled.Although unable to speak with anyone beyond an occasional phone call with her mother, Esfandiari, who appeared on the program with her daughter, Haleh Bakhash, said she was not otherwise mistreated.“I was never physically harmed. Absolutely not,” she told Vieira.As the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., Esfandiari’s work is dedicated to resolving conflict, not causing it.She had gone to Iran last December to visit her mother. At first, she was prevented from leaving the country for five months. For the past four months, she was held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.She was never told why, but the Associated Press reported at the time that Iranian TV said that “‘she and the Wilson Center were conspiring together to topple the government by setting up a network against the sovereignty of the country’” — charges the Center vehemently denies.Esfandiari said that the Center is completely transparent about all of its programs, and guessed that is why she was never asked by her captors to admit to any wrongdoing.“I was not aware of the espionage charge,” she said. “They never discussed that charge with me. They did not force me into giving a confession.”

Annual journeyEsfandiari had gone to Iran last December for an annual visit to her elderly mother. When she tried to leave at the end of the month, her passport was confiscated and she was told she had to remain in Iran. For five months she continued to stay with her mother. During that time, she had to report nearly every day for a morning interrogation session, but then had the rest of the day to herself.In early May, she was arrested and confined to Evin Prison, where even her lawyers were not allowed to talk to her. “Sometimes I would think, my God, probably the whole world has forgotten me,” she said.While she fought to keep her mind off her plight, an international campaign was mounted to win her freedom. The U.S. State Department called for her release, as did Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, who is now the president of the Wilson Center, initially appealed to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to release Esfandiari. He didn’t reply. More recently, Hamilton wrote directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.Bakhash said that Hamilton’s letter on behalf of her mother was written with respect, and that “he received a very respectful reply to that letter.” Late last month, she was released on $300,000 bail, which her mother raised by putting up the deed to her home. She finally returned to the United States and her Maryland home last week and was back at her job at the Wilson Center on Monday.Vieira asked what she knew about the effort to win her freedom.“Absolutely nothing,” she said. “I just really didn’t know what was going on in the outside world. My mother would tell me on the phone, ‘Don’t despair, we are all working for you.’ It took me by surprise to see the support I got from people in this country, from the United States and all over the world.”