In Hilton Head speech, author recalls imprisonment in Iran

  • Four years ago Sunday, Haleh Esfandiari was thrown into solitary confinement in an Iranian prison.
  • She stayed there for 105 days.

    The Iranian-American author and scholar revisits her ordeal at times when a door locks behind her -- being blindfolded, robbed and interrogated for hours, then weeks."The click of the lock (to the cell door) boomeranged around in my head," Esfandiari told the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head on Friday.

    Hundreds packed the pews inside First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head to listen to the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program recount her harrowing incarceration inside Tehran's notorious Evin prison in 2007, which she documented in her 2009 memoir, "My Prison, My Home."

    The international incident sparked protests from American officials, not unlike those occurring now. She reminded the audience of three American hikers arrested on the Iraqi border in 2009 and accused of espionage -- two of whom are still detained in Iran. Their trial resumes Wednesday.

    "Please don't forget them, because what contributed to my release was the international and U.S. pressure," Esfandiari said. "So please think of them and do whatever you can to help with their release."

    Esfandiari left her homeland with her husband and daughter during the 1979 Iranian revolution. She traveled back to Tehran in December 2006 to spend the holidays with her elderly mother. With little warning, the then-67-year-old grandmother became the focus of the Iranian government's suspicion -- officials believed she was part of an American conspiracy for regime change in the country.

    Her arrest and imprisonment began with a staged robbery on her way to the airport. Three men, armed with knives, threatened her and stole her belongings, including travel documents. She was thwarted when applying for new travel documents and interrogated over six weeks by authorities from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. They also searched her mother's home and tapped her phone calls, forcing her to speak in code, before finally detaining her.

    "For the past many years, the regime in Iran has been obsessed with the possibility that Iran would experience the same kind of 'soft revolution' that led to the overthrow of communist regimes in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine," Esfandiari said. "I kept telling them, even if the U.S. has a plan, they would not share it with someone like me, who's not even part of the U.S. government."

    The mistrust lay with her involvement with the Wilson Center, thinking it was part of a U.S. conspiracy, she said.

    Her release apparently was the result of a letter sent by then-director of the Wilson Center, Lee Hamilton, to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khameini.

    Before being released, Esfandiari gave an interview that was later cut, spliced and broadcast inside the country that portrayed her confessing to the false charges.

    She spent 10 days in Iran before being allowed to fly home. She said those she ran into on Iranian streets had two reactions:

    "The first was ... 'We are very proud of you.'

    "Second was, 'There's nothing wrong with a 'velvet revolution.' "

    That let her know people were not afraid.

    "The Iranian government wanted to create a sense of fear among the people that they would be put in jail for a velvet revolution," she said. "... It had the opposite effect."

    Esfandiari doubted the upheaval in the Arab world, including successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, would have any lasting effects in Iran. She noted that street protests after the disputed 2009 re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed to achieve reform.

    But she said she believes the Iranian people will eventually achieve democratic change.

    Hilton Head Plantation resident Carmen Cunningham said she was impressed by Esfandiari's courage and praised her work.

    "Time has to take care of all of these problems and the U.S. trying to make some form of intervention or sanction against them has very little effect that's positive," she said.