Fanny Esfandiari, a 93-year-old great-grandmother with heart disease and bad eyesight, made a desperate trip to Iran's notorious Evin Prison earlier this month.
"I have to find my daughter," she told relatives reluctant to drive her. None thought it would be productive -- or worth the risks. A nephew finally agreed. He stayed in the car as Esfandiari slowly shuffled on her cane up to the hulking white stone compound in Tehran where Iran's kings and theocrats have incarcerated their most famous political prisoners as well as their toughest criminals.
The elder Esfandiari was told to try the prison's high-security wing -- the infamous Ward 209. There, however, she was turned away, and slowly made her way back to her nephew's car.
So began a drama that is reviving the kind of anxious and angry passions last witnessed a quarter-century ago, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days in Tehran.
Over the past two weeks, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have demanded Haleh Esfandiari's release. The Senate and House are both preparing bipartisan resolutions calling for her freedom. The Senate's 16 female members jointly wrote U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asking for his "urgent" intervention with Iran.
Editorials in top American and European newspapers -- as well as publications ranging from the Daily Princetonian to Glamour -- have angrily condemned Iran's action. American academics have announced boycotts of Iran and called for demonstrations against Iranian missions around the world, while the 2,700-member Middle East Studies Association wrote Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warning of the "chilling impact" of Esfandiari's imprisonment on scholars worldwide. The Kuwait Economic Society, Egypt's pro-democracy Ibn Khaldun Center and the American Islamic Congress have joined forces to launch a Web site, http://www.freehaleh.org, which has so far generated 1,400 letters to the Ahmadinejad government.
After Iran's judiciary announced last week that Esfandiari was being investigated for "crimes against national security," 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi agreed to take her case.
Esfandiari is a most unlikely hostage.
A birdlike powerhouse of a woman, weighing in at barely 100 pounds, the 67-year-old academic has quietly run the Middle East program at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for almost a decade. Few American scholars have done more than Esfandiari, a Shiite Muslim, to advocate "open debate and dialogue" between two countries that have been at odds for almost three decades, according to Wilson Center director and former congressman Lee Hamilton.
"The U.S.-Iranian relationship suffers from more than a quarter-century of no dialogue and no talks. She wanted bridges, not walls. She wanted people to talk, not dictate. She wanted people to listen and learn, not filibuster and spin," says Hamilton, who also co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, which urged the Bush administration to engage with Iran to help stabilize Iraq.
Iran's leading hard-line newspaper, Kayhan, now a mouthpiece for Ahmadinejad's government, alleged last week that Esfandiari was fomenting a "velvet revolution" in Iran and spying for the United States and Israel. Kayhan was, ironically, the place were Esfandiari got her start as a young journalist and met her husband, Shaul Bakhash.
Before Iran's 1979 revolution, Bakhash worked for the English-language version of the paper, she for the Farsi edition. More than 40 years later, Bakhash still remembers their joint interview with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. "Here was this energetic journalist with those lovely green eyes," Bakhash says. He also remembers how she blithely ignored royal protocol by turning her back on the emperor, rather than leaving the room while still facing him.
Esfandiari left Iran in 1978 to take her 12-year-old daughter, also named Haleh, to safety in Britain after a year of pre-revolutionary turmoil in Iran. Nine months after the revolution, her husband accepted a visiting professorship at Princeton, where they spent the next five years. Esfandiari became a lecturer there in Persian literature and language.
They moved to Washington in 1985 when Bakhash took a job at George Mason University, with Esfandiari commuting to Princeton for the next six years.
Although Esfandiari has lived in the United States for nearly three decades, former students recall her passion about her homeland. At Princeton, she taught Farsi through Persian folk tales, poetry, old black-and-white films and even food.
"I remember listening to audiotapes she recorded for the students so we could hear the musical tone of modern spoken Persian," recalls Cherrie Daniels, a 1991 Princeton grad. "That was over 16 years ago and I still remember the beauty of her voice reading that tale."
In contrast to many foreign-policy analysts, Esfandiari avoided the talk show circuit and media interviews. "Haleh was always very careful. She never accepted Voice of America interviews and advised me to avoid VOA and Persian media as well," says Afshin Molavi, an Iranian-born fellow at the New America Foundation. "Even when the reform movement was in high gear, she was very cautious and rarely spoke out in public on Iran issues. To suggest that she was involved in some sort of velvet-revolution plot would be farcical were it not so outrageous."
At the Wilson Center, Esfandiari's seminars covered the entire Middle East. Last year the center presented 53 programs with 128 speakers from 24 countries, according to spokeswoman Sharon McCarter. Esfandiari's personal passion was women's rights. She had lately been conducting workshops in the Middle East to educate female activists on how to run for office, get involved in the economy and change laws that restrict the rights of women.
"She was so instrumental in engaging women to take part in public life," says Rola Dashti, one of the first women to run for Kuwait's parliament last year, who attended two of Esfandiari's workshops for women parliamentarians and activists in Jordan.
Her workshops were pivotal in helping Iraqi women participate in the country's three elections in 2005. "She helped a lot of Iraqi women running for parliament," says Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress. "These women still talk about her. When we sent the petition [to free Esfandiari] around to be signed, they all wanted to be part of it."
According to accounts of her six weeks of interrogation while under house arrest, the main issue in Esfandiari's imprisonment appears to be the same as it was when American hostages were seized in 1979 -- anger over U.S. attempts to influence Iran. Tehran's theocrats have been increasingly suspicious about a $75 million program unveiled last year by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to promote democracy in Iran. Over half the money goes to broadcasting into Iran. The Wilson Center receives no funding from that program, according to Deputy Director Mike Van Dusen.
The hard-liners' broader goal, say analysts, is to reverse a trend during the previous two presidencies -- of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami -- to gradually open up to the outside world. Ahmadinejad is undermining Rafsanjani's decision to allow people with dual citizenship who fled after the revolution to return home, as well as Khatami's attempt to improve relations between East and West, says Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"There is a bigger agenda here. Ahmadinejad is trying to destroy the bridges built by his predecessors, who had gradually reached out to Iranian Americans and then Americans," says Nasr, who has known Esfandiari since he was a toddler in Iran.
Esfandiari first returned to Iran in 1992, after a 14-year absence, to take care of her widowed mother. "Iran was unfamiliar, as if a master craftsman had split apart the tiny tiles of an intricate Iranian mosaic and laid them down again in a new, complex set of patterns," she wrote in her 1997 book "Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution."
Now Esfandiari sits in a small cell with no furniture, according to others who have been imprisoned in the solitary confinement of Ward 209. Detainees are given blankets to sleep on the floor. They must knock on the door to go to a common toilet down the hall. They are blindfolded whenever taken out of their cells or interrogated. Interrogations are usually at night, all night.
Ebadi, the Nobel laureate who has taken Esfandiari's case, wrote in 2000 about her own stint in Evin Prison: "They took away all my belongings, even my spectacles, although there was nothing to read. Loneliness and silence could drive one crazy."
Iran has refused to give Ebadi's legal firm access to Esfandiari. Her mother and a cousin have been repeatedly turned back at the prison, according to her husband. The only word from her has come in occasional evening telephone calls to her mother in Tehran. They usually last a few seconds, on a good night about a minute.
Except for the one time she asked for a lawyer, Bakhash said, the message is always the same: "I'm okay. How are the grandchildren?"