Haleh Esfandiari, Woodrow Wilson Center. Photograph: WWC

Haleh Esfandiari

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari spoke to The Iranist about the upcoming Iranian presidential election, imprisonment of dual nationals, and words of wisdom for the next generation.


The Iranist: Hardliner former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s run in the upcoming May 19 presidential election surprised many. Although the Guardian Council disqualified him, what do you think Ahmadinejad’s motivation was to run in the first place?
Haleh Esfandiari: I think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believed that the Guardian Council would not disqualify a former president. He dared to ignore the advice of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who told him not to run because he is a polarizing figure. This was a big mistake. Ahmadinejad is a populist, so he was probably banking on the remnants of his popularity in the provinces. Maybe after this experience he will adopt a low profile and bid farewell to Iranian politics. The regime can easily silence Ahmadinejad by banning the press from covering him—as they did in the case of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

The Iranist: Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi tossed his turban into the ring, which was unexpected. Why is he suddenly interested in running for president?
Haleh Esfandiari: Ebrahim Raisi is close to the supreme leader and has been mentioned as a potential successor. What he lacks is name recognition around the country. Running in the presidential elections as well as traveling and speaking around the country will make him a familiar face. I don’t think he will defeat President Hassan Rouhani and the general consensus is that he didn’t exactly shine in the first televised presidential debate among the six candidates. However, Raisi may well become the president four years from now, in the 2021 elections. This would serve as the stepping stone for succeeding Ayatollah Khamenei as supreme leader.

Esfandiari delivering the commencement address at the Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2016. Photograph: ECS

The Iranist: Several controversial statements have been made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and even Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani about meddling in the upcoming elections. Is that something to worry about?
Haleh Esfandiari: This is a familiar discourse every time there are presidential and parliamentary elections. If there is any meddling it will be organized by elements of the opposition to President Rouhani—those who want to deny him a second term. The hardliners control all the institutions that manage and run the elections: The Interior Ministry, the election supervisory committees, the Guardian Council, and the ballot counting. Ever since the engineered 2009 elections, Iranians are suspicious regarding election tampering. We will just have to wait and see.

The Iranist: Who do you think will win the presidential election and why?
Haleh Esfandiari: As I mentioned earlier, I think among the six candidates vetted and approved by the Guardians Council, Rouhani has the best chance. People may not think he has delivered on all his promises, especially in improving the economy, stopping the violation of human rights and curtailing the excesses of the judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), but the 2015 nuclear deal and its negotiating team have made an impression on the Iranian people. They feel Iran for the first time fielded a group of professionals on par with their foreign counterparts. In addition, Rouhani’s team—which includes Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—is the best Tehran can offer in future negotiations with the outside world. Iranians don’t want confrontation.

The Iranist: Can you see the United States and Iran coming to terms during Donald Trump’s presidency, or will relations take a turn for the worse?
Haleh Esfandiari: I hope relations will not take a turn for the worse. True, the rhetoric on Iran coming out of Washington is harsh, but I am certain the Rouhani government—which is aware of President Donald Trump’s inclinations—will not give his administration any excuse for an attack on Iran. The question is whether President Rouhani and his team can control the other decision-making centers, especially the IRGC, who are in charge of Iran’s policies in Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. For example, IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani, who runs Iran’s operations in these countries, reports directly to the supreme leader, not to the president. Rouhani may wish for better relations, even rapprochement with the United States, but the IRGC and the supreme leader do not. They don’t trust the U.S. and are wary of any possibility of increasing U.S. influence, let alone presence, in Iran.

Haleh Esfandiari’s memoir

The Iranist: The Iranian government imprisoned you for almost four months in 2007 on bogus charges. Now we have a number of dual nationals in prison. Why have there been a large number of arrests over the past two years?
Haleh Esfandiari: Two reasons come to mind. First, there are domestic rivalries. The judiciary and the intelligence unit of the IRGC are trying to undermine President Rouhani and his administration. Arresting dual nationals is one way of showing he is weak and also undermining his outreach to the U.S. and the outside world. Second, for the security agencies and the IRGC, these arrests might be aimed at securing the release of regime-connected Iranians imprisoned in the U.S., U.K. and other countries in a prisoner swap, or securing the lifting of sanctions and obtaining financial compensation for prisoner release.

The Iranist: Some say the arrests are a tug-of-war between Rouhani’s Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC. Is that an accurate assessment?
Haleh Esfandiari: President Rouhani, like most of his predecessors, doesn’t really control the Intelligence Ministry. That in itself is a problem. It is also the case that the Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC are often at odds with one another.

The Iranist: Do you think western governments are doing enough to help their imprisoned nationals?
Haleh Esfandiari: For the families of the detainees, whatever governments do is not enough. You want your loved ones out and you expect your government to do everything possible to bring them home. I think any government whose nationals are unjustly imprisoned in other countries should devote a lot of time and energy to get their people back. Governments should make it a practice to react and respond immediately when their nationals are arrested and to denounce unfair trials and judgments openly.

The Iranist: What can ordinary citizens do to help those imprisoned?
Haleh Esfandiari: Civil society organizations and ordinary citizens can do a lot. They have to use every opportunity to speak about those who are in prison. They can write to their representatives and to United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. They can help launch campaigns in the press. The important thing is that the prisoners are not forgotten. I remember when I was in Evin prison, I once received a letter of support from a female judge in California. I was moved and delighted that a total stranger would send me such a letter. It provided a ray of hope in the hopelessness of Evin prison.

The Iranist: You are an inspiration to Iranian-Americans. What is your advice to the next generation seeking careers in foreign affairs?
Haleh Esfandiari: Thank you for your compliment. I think young people should reach for the sky and strive to get there, be it in the field of foreign affairs or domestic issues. If you can represent the best of your country, don’t hesitate. Go for it, be ambitious, and remember to help others along the way.


Purchase Haleh Esfandiari’s memoir, My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.