What's it like being held in an Iranian prison? She knows.

The World
Haleh Esfandiari

The director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Haleh Esfandiari, gestures during a news conference in Washington in September 2007. Esfandiari was freed on bail in August 2007, after three months detention in Iran on spying charges. 

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

For anyone who's seen the inside of Iran's Evin prison, the ordeal isn't easily forgotten.

The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian was held there 545 days.

Washington-based Iranian academic Haleh Esfandiari was held in the Tehran prison, too, in solidary confinement, for 105 days back in 2007.

“I was elated,” says Esfandiai when asked how she felt when she heard the news of the latest prisoner release. “I have been waiting for this news from the first day they arrested Jason and of course the other Iranian Americans.  I think it’s the best thing that could have happened.”

When Esfandiai was released from Evin prisons, she remembers feeling confused by the guards.

“At first I didn't believe it, because they promised to release me earlier but they never kept their word, so when they told me I could go home, I thought it was one of their cruel jokes until lo and behold I was freed.

"But as I was leaving the prison, I was told that they would never let me leave the country. So that was a shock to me because my family was in the US, so I thought, 'OK, this is a first step, they are going to keep me in Iran. They always play these really cruel jokes in the last minutes.'”

Prisoner experiences vary from one another in terms of degrees of deprivation, harsh interrogation and solitary confinement, says Esfandiari.

“To be very frank with you, Evin is a horrible place because you never know what will happen to you, and you usually don’t have any access to family visits … they constantly hammer into your head that ‘nobody cares about you outside the prison. If you only cooperate, if you only confess, then we will help you to get out.’ And they never help you to get out.”

As for those who criticize President Obama for the prisoner swap, Esfandiari says: “They don’t have a notion what it means to be cooped-in in a cell, day in, and day out, in Jason’s case almost 18 months, where you don’t have an idea what day it is, or what time it is.

"The first time I saw the moon, I noticed that it had been three months that I was kept in Evin. So it’s easy to sit here and criticize the swap, but I’m all for it, I think the administration worked a whole year and longer to get this deal.”

In her Wall Street Journal blog post called “Deciphering Iran’s Prisoner Swap and Broader Communication,” Esfandiari says the prisoner exchange appears to be another sign that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani’s more moderate approach to foreign policy is meeting with some success. 

But she emphasizes that the challenge for Rouhani now “is to secure the Iranian supreme leader’s backing for more moderate policies at home, particularly the release of the many writers, artists, female activists, and intellectuals unfairly festering in Iranian prisons.”