My friend and colleague is in jail. Unjustly.
Her name is Haleh Esfandiari, and she is a grandmother. In early May, she was thrust into solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin Prison with a single blanket. She hasn’t been allowed to meet with her friends, family, or lawyers since then. This picture shows Evin Prison nestled within the leafy northern suburbs of Tehran at the foot of snowcapped mountains, but the prison has none of the bucolic qualities that the image suggests. “Notorious” is the ubiquitous descriptor.
Haleh’s “crime” is doing what we do every day here at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.: provide a safe space where scholars, policy-makers, and ordinary men and women can learn from one another through open, nonpartisan dialogue on today’s most pressing issues. Or at least we thought it was safe.
Haleh’s job is to foster discussion of the many political and social issues at stake in the Middle East, often with a special focus on Iran, one of the two countries she calls home. Haleh is a world-renowned expert on Iran’s rich language, culture, history, and politics. Yet the Iranian Intelligence Ministry has charged her and a handful of other Iranian-Americans with attempting to foment a velvet revolution to overthrow the theocratic regime.
“Nonsense,” says Lee Hamilton, the former congressman who is my and Haleh’s boss at the Wilson Center. As other commentators have pointed out, Haleh is more likely than most in Washington to give those sympathetic to the Ahmadinejad government an opportunity to make their case. She assiduously avoids having financial supporters for her Middle East Program who might compromise her neutrality. She even refuses to go on Voice of America for fear it would associate her with the Bush administration’s strategy of trying to oust regimes rather than change regime behavior.
I serve as a program director at the Wilson Center, just as Haleh does. While her area of expertise is U.S.-Iranian relations, mine is finding ways to use the environment to build trust and confidence between adversaries. Haleh and I have routinely collaborated on environmental and health issues. For instance, in 1999 Haleh and I hosted ten Iranians who headed environmental nongovernmental organizations or were professors of environmental studies. They came to the United States as guests of Search for Common Ground in order to develop new allies in battling environmental challenges in Iran and gain a deeper understanding of Iran’s environmental issues. In both Tehran and Los Angeles, for instance, tall mountains trap pollution over the city, causing poor air quality.
Search also hoped that the Iranian delegation would build civil society links between Iran and the U.S. that could serve as a baby step in a long path to reconciliation between the two countries’ peoples and governments. In this way, environmental dialogue may serve as a “lifeline” when a relationship is otherwise stormy. Some of us have called this and similar efforts “environmental peacemaking.”
In May 2005, it was my turn to go to Iran. Whereas Haleh routinely visits Iran because her ailing mother still resides there, it was my first venture. My previous attempts to reciprocate the Iranian delegation’s visit had fallen through because I had been denied a visa. But this time, the Iranian government was doing the inviting. Under the government of President Khatami, “dialogue among civilizations” was a key foreign policy initiative. Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president for environment, partnered with the UN Environment Programme to organize a large international conference entitled “Environment, Peace, and the Dialogue of Civilizations.”
The country’s first female vice president, Madame Ebtekar gained revolutionary street cred as “Mary,” the student spokesperson during the 1979 embassy takeover and hostage crisis. In organizing the conference, she was using environmental issues to engage governments (six ministers of environment attended the conference), UN leaders, and civil society representatives from all over the world. When President Khatami addressed the attendees, it was clear that even the highest levels of the Iranian government supported Ebtekar’s initiative.
Progress made those days in Tehran was hard to measure. For me, the most encouraging signs came not at the conference but on the wide boulevards and tree-lined riverside pathways of Isfahan, where a Norwegian colleague and I ventured as tourists. Looking distinctly non-Iranian, the two of us were repeatedly approached by men, women, and children, who were uniformly welcoming. The short version of each conversation: Don’t you think our country is beautiful? Our governments have their differences, but you shouldn’t mistake those disagreements for Iranian hatred of the American people.
It is this sympathetic view toward Iran that I am sure Haleh wants us to bear in mind as our outrage at her ludicrous detention intensifies. No one has been allowed any in-person contact with her since her May 8 arrest. Monitored minute-long calls to her 93-year-old mother are the only source of information on Haleh’s condition. Naturally, she assures her mother that she is fine, but we have no way of knowing whether or not that is true. And no one is “fine” after being falsely charged with capital crimes and spending more than two months in solitary confinement.
The generous view of Iranians that I gained on my one short trip there is harder and harder to keep in mind. The government changed hands just after I visited in the summer of 2005, and the dramatically more hostile Ahmadinejad regime has jettisoned any efforts toward regular dialogue on even less-contentious issues than nuclear proliferation. President Khatami, Madame Ebtekar, and other government officials seeking dialogue with the West have been sidelined. I am afraid to even email the Iranian colleagues I met during my visit for fear that they would come under suspicion for such an exchange.
Imprisoning Haleh has not done Iran’s government any favors. All the Intelligence Ministry has accomplished by detaining her is silencing one of the most thoughtful, evenhanded voices currently speaking about Iran and the Middle East. Iran’s imprisonment of Haleh is damaging its global image and reducing the international community’s sympathy for its goals. We demand Haleh’s immediate release. It will be to her benefit and to Iran’s.