- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A daily regimen of doing Pilates and other exercises, dressing for dinner and dreaming of staff meetings back home helped make a four-month detention in a grim Tehran prison endurable, newly freed U.S.-Iranian scholar Haleh Esfandiari said yesterday.

On her first day back to work as head of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Mrs. Esfandiari showed flashes of humor about her arrest on suspicion of “endangering Iranian national security” but also admitted that the ordeal left her “severely disappointed” at the hostility and distrust shown by her captors.

Noting that she devoted much of her career to improving understanding and contacts between Iran and the United States, “you feel all your efforts are not appreciated or understood.”

The arrest of Mrs. Esfandiari and several other U.S.-Iranian citizens this year prompted international outcry. Mrs. Esfandiari was released on bail Aug. 21 after a major lobbying campaign led Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to intervene in the case, and she was allowed to leave Iran only last week.

In interrogation sessions that lasted up to eight hours a day, Iranian intelligence officers asked repeatedly about suspected links between the U.S. government and private think tanks such as the Wilson Center to foment a “soft revolution” against the Islamic regime, Mrs. Esfandiari said.

“It became clear that there were elements in the intelligence ministry who believed what they were saying publicly — that there was a U.S. aim to create a ‘velvet revolution” in Iran like there was in Georgia and Ukraine, and that the instrument they were using were think tanks and foundations,” Mrs. Esfandiari said.

In Tehran to visit her frail 93-year-old mother, Mrs. Esfandiari was blocked from leaving Iran when she applied to replace a stolen passport in January. In May, she was transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Her only contacts with the outside world for months were brief, monitored calls to her mother a couple of times a week.

Mrs. Esfandiari said she devised a strict personal regimen to survive the bleak, lonely days, including doing a morning Pilates session, pacing in her prison room and in the prison yard and reading books or composing articles in her head until falling asleep at midnight.

She recalled a friend who attended a British boarding school where students dressed for dinner every night.

“So, I said, OK, I will do that, too,” she said.

Mrs. Esfandiari said she was treated with the “utmost respect” by her jailers, although she quickly added that she did not know how other inmates at Evin were treated. Her captors addressed her by the more formal Persian version of the word “you,” and only once did one of her interrogators raise his voice in the questioning sessions.

“To lose eight months of your life at any age is not easy,” she said, but added, “I was determined not to succumb to despair.”

She said it was too painful to think about her husband, George Mason professor Shaul Bakhash, her children and grandchildren while in jail, but she did find herself dreaming of her first staff meeting on her return to the Wilson Center.

She said she agreed to film an hourlong interview on her Wilson Center work early in her confinement, saying she had nothing to hide. A heavily edited version of her remarks, talking vaguely of the center’s international efforts, was shown on Iranian state television.

She joked yesterday that the interview got her into trouble with her old Iranian schoolmates when she described herself as a “67-year-old grandmother.”

“They said, ‘Now everyone will know how old we are, too.” ”

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