Husband of Scholar Held in Iran Seeks Her Release

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Shaul Bakhash, the husband of American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, is working through media and diplomatic channels to seek her release from Iran. Esfandiari is spending her 15th day in captivity there, accused of spying.

"We've had a great outpouring of international support for which we are very grateful," Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University, tells Steve Inskeep. "We do hope that this international focus will remain. It might move the Iranian government to finally release her and allow her to come home."

Bakhash says he was last in contact with his wife just before she was imprisoned in early May.

"She was always worried because [the Iranian] Intelligence Ministry is opaque," he says. "Already in interrogation they had been intimidating and issued threats."

Esfandiari is able to telephone her 93-year-old mother, whom she was visiting in Iran, about once a day, Bakhash says. But he says the calls are limited to 1 or 2 minutes each.

Esfandiari says, "'I'm OK,' [and] asks about her grandchildren," her husband says. "But that really is about it. Her lawyers have not been permitted access to her."

Bakhash says Esfandiari's detention appears to be part of a recent crackdown on scholars and other intellectuals in Iran.

"The Iranian government is basically criminalizing all scholarly activity and it does cause us great concern that they're intending to take her to trial," he says.

Iranian-American Scholar 'No Spy,' Hamilton Says

Haleh Esfandiari

Haleh Esfandiari is a native of Iran and the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East program in Washington, D.C. Courtesy Woodrow Wilson Center hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Woodrow Wilson Center
Esfandiari on Women and Iran's Revolution


Hear a 1997 NPR interview with Haleh Esfandiari, author of Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution, about the role of women in Iranian politics.

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An American scholar is spending her 15th day in one of Iran's most notorious prisons, and Iranian television says she will be charged with trying to undermine the Islamic state.

Haleh Esfandiari, a native of Iran and the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East program in Washington, D.C., had gone back to Iran to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother. According to the center, Esfandiari, 67, was on her way to the Tehran Airport on Dec. 30 when three masked men with knives threatened to kill her and took her baggage as well as her U.S. and Iranian passports.

Since then, she has been prevented from leaving Iran and was subject to a series of interrogations, the center said.

On Tuesday, Lee Hamilton, a former congressman who heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the Iranians have characterized Esfandiari's work at the center "as part of a U.S.-backed plot to foment soft revolution in Iran."

"There is of course not a shred, not a scintilla of truth to the allegations against her," Hamilton said at a news conference. "Iran is trying to turn a scholar into a spy. Haleh is a scholar. She has never been a spy."

Esfandiari traveled to Iran regularly. In 1997, she wrote a book about Iranian women — Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution. Back in 1997, Iran had elected a reformist-minded president, Mohammad Khatami, and there was hope for more openness.

In a 1997 interview with NPR, Esfandiari spoke about the role of women in Iran.

"Look, the clerical leadership is very sensitive to projecting an image — a progressive image of women's role in an Islamic society," she said. "They look at themselves as a role model for other Islamic [countries]. And therefore, they would like to show that the women are participating in all aspects of life. Therefore, I think the women can bring quite an influence and a moderating influence on the leadership when it comes to internal matters."

In an interview with NPR earlier this month, Karim Sadjadpour, who follows Iranian issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called Esfandiari's detention "very disconcerting."

"I think it's part of this broader antagonistic relationship between the U.S. and Iran," he told Robert Siegel. "I think the Iranians are trying to send a signal to Washington that if you want to embark on democracy promotion efforts in Iran, there's going to be serious repercussions.

"But I think, in characteristic fashion, the Iranians confuse short-term tactics with long-term vision. ... But, in fact, what they've done is they've eliminated the voice of moderation."

Gary Sick, a member of President Carter's National Security Council and an expert on Iran, said in an NPR interview last week that Esfandiari is a "victim of an internal struggle" in Iran between hardliners and "the people who would actually like to open up to the rest of the world."

"In the past, what has happened is these scholars have been taken ... and they're held for a while," Sick told Steve Inskeep. "The outrage in the West grows, and Iran eventually lets them go."



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