Iranian-American Scholar 'No Spy,' Hamilton Says An Iranian-American scholar is being held in an Iranian prison, reportedly accused of trying to undermine the Islamic state. Haleh Esfandiari "has never been a spy," says former congressman Lee Hamilton, the head of the Woodrow Wilson Center, where she works.
NPR logo Iranian-American Scholar 'No Spy,' Hamilton Says

Iranian-American Scholar 'No Spy,' Hamilton Says

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.

1997 Interview

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

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."